The Bullfighting Images

In 1927, three years after Robert was born, Ernest Hemingway wrote the novel The Sun Also Rises. Although I am fairly certain Robert never read the book, its dark themes very much appealed to him when he saw the movie version in 1957. Tyrone Power and Ava Gardner locked in a weirdly thwarted love affair set against the violent background of bullfighting in Spain. (Bullfighting as metaphor for war, of course.)

The movie inspired Robert to travel to Spain in 1960 to shoot a series of bullfighting photographs. His images capture the drama, violence, and tragedy of the “sport.” It is odd to think of bullfighting as a sport. True, the human participants are trained athletes. The matador - the eventual killer of the bull, and the star of the show - is assisted adeptly by two talented mounted  picadores with spears, and three armed bandilleros on foot.

Not only do the bulls inevitably die in the contest no matter how good they are.  Often the horses ridden by the picadores die as well, impaled by a frenzied, charging animal.  The ongoing practice of the stylized fighting of bulls remains justified in many circles by reference to history and the ancient cultural affinities of southern Europe. Despite, or perhaps because of, the sacrifice of the animals involved.

Needless to say, bullfighting has come under considerable criticism in contemporary Europe and Mexico. The contests are often banned (or bans are attempted, only to run up against fierce cultural resistance). Controversial regulations have been put in place, in attempts to allow the spectacle to proceed absent actual animal death.

Ethical issues have risen to challenge other contests (sports?)  involving non-human animal participants as well. Thoroughbred horse racing, for instance, where the beauty and athleticism of the horse is put on display for the entertainment of human audiences, even if the horse’s life is put at risk. Like bull-fighting, there is a deep cultural history behind the racing of magnificent horses. The strength and speed, the beauty,  of the animals overwhelm us at a primal level.

Is it however right (I use that word deliberately) to call these things sport? 

Horse-racing professionals - particularly the human trainers and grooms who know their horses best - often speak of how the horses love to race. How the contest is bred in them, and how they live to run. 

Assuming the humans are correct, the horses still don’t have much of a choice about it.  True, many sports put human athletes at risk on a regular basis. But those athletes hypothetically choose the competition. The bulls in bullfighting - animals bred by humans specifically to be sacrificed in the arena by a dramatic series of mostly male performances with swords and spears and capes - certainly don’t have a choice. 

Nevertheless, their beauty is on exceptional display in the last dramatic fight for their lives. 

What I wrestle with - how to display Robert’s brilliant bull-fighting images? As something akin to horse racing (with its own problems), or something more like war photography? My heart breaks when I look at these photographs. Nevertheless, beyond their inherent beauty, the images honor the athleticism of incredible animals engaged albeit involuntarily in something we human beings call sport.

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