Monday, January 19, 2009

Q&A: Brian Howell on Wrestling, East Van, Mickey Rourke & More

I still haven't seen The Wrestler, Mickey Rourke's surprise comeback movie. But I have seen some of Brian Howell's wrestling pics, and they've almost convinced me to go--especially after hearing him talk about them in a phone chat last week. The National Post published a condensed version today. Click here for the goods or read on after the jump. And there's more pics of Howell's work here at Vancouver's Winsor Gallery, which is hosting a show to February 8.
Image of Brian Howell's Asian Tiger from Winsor Gallery

A welcome mat inside the ring
Vancouver photographer Brian Howell's series on wrestlers illustrates the inclusive, sensitive side of those men in tights
National Post
Published: Monday, January 19, 2009

Mickey Rourke surprised many people -- not the least himself -- when he won a Golden Globe last week for his starring role in The Wrestler. But the fact is that very few actual wrestlers will ever get a comparable Champagne-tinged tribute. They do, however, get an homage in B. C. photographer Brian Howell's artwork, which had its opening at Vancouver's Winsor Gallery last Thursday. Here, Howell tells Leah Sandals about the blood and the blues that captivate him ringside.

Q You're a journalist as well as an artist. What distinguishes a newsy photo from an artistic one?

A Well, I'ma work-for-hire photographer. A magazine or newspaper will want a certain story covered, and I'll want to make a good picture for my client, but the topic might not be something I'm interested in. So I tend to take on personal projects where I get my own way, and have control of the story. Those projects turn into exhibitions and books.

Q One of your major projects has been on amateur wrestling. Why?

A It works on two levels. Initially, I was taken aback by what I saw at these matches: real blood, fighting that went into the streets, cops, costumes. There was no shortage of stuff to photograph!

But then I realized there's a community involved, both fans and wrestlers. I liken it to punk rock in that it's a forum for discussion and it's without pretense. People who may not be comfortable in mainstream society can go in and do anything they want. You could show up in a clown suit, no problem, and I thought that was quite beautiful in a modern context -- very inclusive.

Q What do you think of the movie The Wrestler? Do you think it's accurate?

A One of the wrestlers I know is convinced it's incredibly accurate, right down to the way they talk in the dressing room. The movie shows a real brotherhood, a real camaraderie working together --much like a theatre troupe would. It was completely authentic, like watching a documentary.

I think there's a sadness in the movie that also exists in wrestling itself, in that it's not for everyone; it draws a certain type of person. Some people are just happy to be out engaging in any way they can.

Q Did you ever wrestle?

A I did. A guy was trying to show me a move where I was to run through the ring and fall back when he stuck out his arm. Instead, I ran into his arm hard and hurt my neck. And once a show needed a ring announcer, so I did that. Also, when my book came out in 2002, I was hit over the head with a chair, which wasn't supposed to injure, but the guy really smoked me and I got a concussion.

Q You've also done a book on celebrity impersonators. How much of amateur wrestling is imitating celebrity?

A In both cases people are dressing up as someone else, assuming a character that isn't their own. I was interested in that transformation and trying to photograph subjects between those two places of character and non-character. In both cases, people always want to pose, and as soon as you ask them not to pose the pictures take on this whole different quality; it's more a look at the person behind the costume.

Q It seems with your newer photos of wrecked homes in Surrey, B. C., that you're again looking at a grittier side of life. Do you see a connection?

A Both the wrestlers and the Surrey homes series are about people. There are a lot of pictures from the abandoned houses series of holes in the wall where copper pipe and wire has been stripped out by people who need money to survive. And these abandoned houses also show what people leave behind. An old yellow fridge, for example, was painted silver to look like a stainless steel fridge. To me it's a very sad picture about status and money and wealth.

Q What are you working on next?

A I'm working on a project about the transition of East Vancouver from working class to affluent. I've been shooting a colour, this industrial turquoise colour you can only find on garages or alleys or homes on the East Side. Now this colour's vanishing with everybody renovating their homes. I don't know what I'm going to do with it, but it's a fun project right now. - Brian Howell's photographs run to Feb. 8 at Vancouver's Winsor Gallery (

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