Monday, January 17, 2011

The Art of Bullfighting

 If you're going to talk about bullfighting and art, I suppose you'd better start with Hemingway, right? All that Death in the Afternoon stuff equating writing with bullfighting. "All stories, if continued far enough, end in death," he said. More to the point: "Bullfighting is the only art in which the artist is in danger of death and in which the degree of brilliance in the performance is left to the fighter's honor."

Now that we've have that out of the way, we can go on to James Hill's pictures of bullfighting, which were highlighted last week on the New York Times's Lens blog. I met James several years ago at a photography workshop, and really liked him right off the bat. He did a brilliant job covering the American invasion and takeover of Iraq in 2003 for the Times, and since has become the newspaper's contract photographer for Europe, based at one time and another in Moscow and Rome. Last year he made a series of images of bullfighting, and, like Hemingway, he addresses the sport of ritualized death as an artistic endeavor.

 Unlike Hemingway, Hill also approaches the subject with an honest degree of humor: "Bullfighting is very obviously from another era," he says to writer James Estrin. "If someone said to you today, 'Why don’t we start a contest where we put a bull and a man in a ring, and we give the man some colored capes and a sword, and maybe some other men on horses can come and help him, and the man should be dressed up in pink tights and a funny sort of colored suit with gold bits on?'—you would think the idea was mad."

 You have the sense in his pictures that he himself is working through an internal debate over the moral complexities represented by bullfighting. His pictures seem to flit through different thoughts--the colors, the pageantry, and the blood—as a photographic experiment. His pictures, like most pictures, invite a moral debate, with a clear understanding that morality is, like bullfighting, a risky business. Or as Hemingway put it: "Decadence is a difficult word to use since it has become little more than a term of abuse applied by critics to anything they do not yet understand or which seems to differ from their moral concepts."

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