Monday, October 25, 2010

The Photography of William Blake Arledge: Exclusive Interview

Some time back, I asked wrestling photographer William Blake Arledge if he would mind picking out a dozen of his action photos which, he feels, uniquely characterize his style, technique, and interest in pro wrestling.  The idea was that I could post them along with his commentary on the circumstances under which he captured the images--a sort of blog-based self-curated showing.  I also wanted to interview the man about the particular challenges of documenting pro wrestling action.  He generously accepted both invitations.  

Arledge got up-close access to the world of pro-wrestling when his cousin Adam Jaxon partnered up with their mutual friend Ken Magnum to form a tag team, The UnderGround.  Since then Arledge has "been welcomed into the families, locker rooms, promotions and personal lives of the great talent that is professional wrestling today."  Close access to events led to gigs as photographer.  Self-taught in photography, Arledge learned quickly how to time his shots and eventually upgraded his photographic equipment to capture clearer pictures of the action and negotiate his way around and between the bright and dark spots at professional wrestling events.  He "retired" from wrestling photography at the beginning of this year, but there's reason to hope (I hope) he may soon return to ringside with his eye to the viewfinder.

These photos span six years of wrestling photography, in the Carolinas, Georgia, and Florida.  All the comments immediately below the pictures are by Arledge, and I have chosen to leave the images in the order he sent them, rather than rearrange them in chronological order.

2/12/05--American Pro Wrestling in Spartanburg, South Carolina.  "Loaded Gunz" Ken Magnum with bloody nose.  I had had my new Nikon D70 for about two months.  I knew right away this was a great shot.  A look of a fighter with his spoils draped over him.

3/11/06--NWA Anarchy, Cornelia, Georgia.  "The Human Action Figure" Patrick Bentley, pose down during the show.  I probably got more comments from people about this picture than any action shot.

3/25/05--NWA Wildside, Cornelia, Georgia.  Rick Michaels' fireball.  Possibly at the top of my favorite pics, this was my first show outside of my home area (upstate South Carolina/Western North Carolina).   Thanks to “Hot Shot” Shane Austin and Michaels, I traveled to Georgia to the “Church of Southern Wrestling.”  In the next month, NWA Wildside became NWA Anarchy, under new ownership, where I continued to shoot.

5/7/05--Carolina Championship Wrestling, Gaffney, South Carolina.  Dusty Rhodes versus Terry Funk--one of the first times I got to shoot legends (to me) of wrestling.

5/10/07--Champions With Attitude, Columbia, South Carolina.   TJ Mack on top of Derek Ryze.  I like this one because I think it's a great shot of TJ's rubbery face.  Plus it has a sort of "bird of prey" look to it.   TJ was getting ready to fall back into a Mexican Surfboard to set up for his and his brother's "Death From Above" finish.

5/30/09--NWA Charlotte, North Carolina.  Andy Douglas over Josh Magnum,  Both guys were sporting new looks here.  NWA Charlotte was a great promotion, and it died before its time.

6/16/07--NWA Anarchy.  Caleb Konley punched by Brodie Ray Chase.  I like the darkness of this shot and the look on Caleb's face.  It expresses pain and regret and draws empathy from the viewer.

7/13/07--Peterson Memorial Cup, Night 1, Orlando, Florida.  Nooie Lee slung with great ease by Erick Stevens.

8/9/08--Charlotte, North Carolina.  Ricky Steamboat and son, Richie, at Richie's "debut" in the Queen City.  I think a great shot of the past and the future.

12/29/07--NWA Anarchy, "Season's Beatings."   Slim J on top of Patrick Bentley.  This was the final match in a series between these two.  It took place in a cage and got pretty bloody.  I was amazed when I got good shots for cage matches--it takes skill!   I never got to be inside the cage, always outside that awful chicken wire type stuff.  This also shows off Slim J's physique fairly well too.

12/30/06--NWA Anarchy, Helen, Georgia.  AJ Styles versus Jeremy Vain.  My favorite shot of Styles that I've taken.  A great pose by Styles too.

10/13/04--American Pro Wrestling, Spartanburg Fair, Spartanburg, South Carolina.  AJ Frost (blue singlet) and Nick Fury cross body in air.  These guys were two of the best at APW.  They just never broke out.  It took me a couple of months, but I finally got my timing down with my first camera--a Sony Mavica.  Seeing this I knew I needed a better camera, and by the end of the year I had the Nikon D70.

Joe:  Thank you, Blake.  These photos are awesome by the way.  So tell me, how, if at all, does knowing a wrestler personally, as you do Ken Magnum, for instance, affect the way you see him as the subject of a photograph?

Blake:  It never really put any pressure on me if I knew them personally.  There were only a few that I did get to know beyond the casual show friendship.  For them, I always tried to make the best of their matches.  Sometimes I would be told to look out for a certain hold or listen for a certain cue and try to be in a spot to get something special.  Those that I had a personal bond with would always listen when I expressed what I thought made better pictures too.  I think it certainly helped the relationship between myself and the wrestler.  The wrestlers that were very aware of my presence made my job easy.  They would apply certain holds in my direction--mug for the camera--talk to me during matches.

Joe:  What’s your personal checklist of traits that make for a perfect body in wrestling?

Blake:  I don't think there is a perfect body for wrestling.  Wrestling is full of so many personalities, gimmicks, men, women, midgets ....  It's obvious when a wrestler thinks about their look.  Of course, many fans want to see the perfect, chiseled, tanned gym body on a man, or the blonde-haired, tall, buxom female.  On the opposite [end of the scale], some folks want to see what looks like a fighter, a scrapper, a man who cares less about his appearance and more on just beating the crap out of his opponent--or the women, who, while dressed appropriately, don't fit the bill of a "diva"--and rip phone books in half.  Fans have, in their heads, what the "perfect body" is--and there is a wrestler out there somewhere who fits that [image].  Also, not to pick on anyone in particular, but, as ... advice for any wrestlers who read this, the camera can highlight any unique aspects of your body, so be prepared for that to be seen--if you forget to shave, that will be picked up ... pimples, stretch marks, claw marks, whatever, will be noticeable.

Joe:  What’s your biggest challenge as a photographer of wrestling action?  Lighting? Speed of the action?  Objects and people blocking the view?  

Blake:  Every show I did presented some type of difficulty.  Insufficient lighting was very prominent.  Matches with more people always present a problem, because you have so much going on.  Technical difficulties, at times--battery runs out, flash won't work.  Refs who seem to follow me around the ring, just to stand in my way ... or was I following them?  Remembering to keep moving around the ring--if you stand for too long, you are blocking someone's view, and I always tried to remember that [since] those folks paid for their seats, they deserve to see the show.

Joe:  To what extent do wrestlers’ characters—their ring personalities—mirror their attitudes and manner of speaking in ordinary life outside the ring?  Do you find the differences, if any, intriguing, and do you ever try to capture wrestlers’ true (non-kayfabe) personalities on camera?

Blake:  I have found, with a few exceptions, that wrestlers are usually the complete opposite of what we see in the ring.  There's a great Oscar Wilde quote that I think fits pro wrestling:  "Man is least himself when he talks in his own person.  Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth."  For my photos I usually [focused on] the characters.  I do have a gallery on my site of photos away from the ring, but for the most part it was all "professional."  I still think there should be an element of mystery involved in a lot of it.  There are some wrestlers who were "on" all the time--and while that was fun in a lot of situations, it could be very trying in others--because you have this "character" to deal with.

Joe:  [Laughs.]  Given the rapid turns of events in a typical match, is it even possible to “compose” a shot? Or is the art of wrestling photography mainly a matter of shooting wildly and then sifting through the shots to find the ones that “look” interestingly composed?
    Blake:  I've said that a good wrestling photographer can compose a match.  I try to tell the story of the match through the photos.  Shooting wildly and then panning for that nugget of gold pays off sometimes, but there is no art to that.  I firmly believe you have to be a wrestling fan to be a good wrestling photographer.  You have to become part of the action in your mind, so that you are foreseeing what is next.  If Mr X gets thrown into a corner, and you see Mr Y backing to one side, you should know where you need to be to get either (A) Mr X's reaction or (B) Mr Y launching a signature move.  I was always exhausted after shooting full shows, namely because I'm out of shape, but also because I would move so much and stand at awkward positions to keep my eyes on the wrestlers, the ref, the fans, the floor, the curtain.  Also, something that surprised a lot of folks was I don't really get to "watch" the match.  I have the best seat in the house, but when you are thinking in shots, you are working.  You're not sitting in a weak, plastic armory chair with a soda and a hot dog with your friends.  I have been told, "Oh, well, they tell you every move they're going to do, so you know where to be."  That is true in some instances, but not all the time.  Because I am a fan of wrestling, I can follow the pacing and psychology of matches.  When you understand that, you just naturally know where to go.

    Joe:  How important are “looks” and “styling” to the success of pro wrestlers—as compared to skills and showmanship?  I’m talking about gear, of course, but also how they wear their hair, whether they sport tattoos, their photogenicity, too?

    Blake:  I think every bit counts towards successfully "selling" a character.  In my opinion, though, if you don't have the basic, fundamental aspects of professional wrestling, then all the glitz, glamour, and ink in the world won't help you.  Does that mean I think you have to be a great wrestling technician?  Not exactly.  There are plenty of famous wrestlers who can't wrestle at all--but they understand how to hold a crowd and keep them interested.  Walking out in a pair of denim overalls, work boots, white T-shirt, unshaven and no charisma will not grab a crowd.  And usually will not get any pictures by me.

    Joe:  I love the way wrestlers sell each other’s holds and moves.  Josh Magnum, for instance, and Caleb Konley, in your photographs.  In your experience, which wrestlers have stood out as especially gifted in selling the pain—and in working an opponent over?

    Blake:  There are several who are really good at selling.  Unfortunately, they are outweighed by those who cannot or will not do it.  I've seen many who don't realize that what is happening to them is actually supposed to hurt.  Many who believe they cannot be hurt.  And a few who, because of a certain number of years under their belts, absolutely refuse.  A couple of the pictures I chose show how important selling is.  For the people who can only see these matches through my pictures, selling is vital.  The look on a wrestler's face can express hatred, pain, suffering, joy, indifference--a wide range [of reactions].  A visitor to my site can feel the emotion behind a match when a wrestler is good at selling it.

    Joe:  In general, what’s the talk like in the locker rooms?  Any funny stories we should know about?

    Blake:  It's locker room talk and that's all I can say.  [Laughs.]

    Joe:  Okay then.  Changing gears.  I liked the picture of father and son, the Steamboats.  How are the traditions of pro wrestling handed down from one generation of wrestlers to the next?  Or do you feel that pro wrestling reinvents itself with every new generation of wrestlers?

    Blake:  I have found that when someone who is respected in the wrestling community speaks to "the boys," they will listen.  From guys like Ricky Morton, Johnny Weaver, Bill Eadie, Steve Corino, when they talk about a match, guys pay attention, as do I.  Having respect and knowledge of what came before benefits wrestlers and wrestling photographers too.

    Joe:  Bloody matches.  For you are they a turn-on or a turn-off?
      Blake:  I love shooting bloody matches.  I could have a gallery of just those.  I'm not a fan of hardcore matches [that happen] for no reason--they are pointless and wasteful--but even in those, if a lot of blood starts flowing, you'll see me take more pictures.  The bloodiest match I ever shot was in Statesville, North Carolina.  A cage match between Jake Manning and Bobby Houston.  There was so much of it that, as I walked around the ring, I could smell that coppery blood odor.  It was everywhere.  I even got blood on my camera.

      Joe:  What makes for the best photograph?  High-flying daredevilry?  Or a long sweaty intense hold?

      Blake:  The best wrestling photograph is one that elicits an emotional response from the viewer immediately and every subsequent viewing thereafter.  Very simple.  There is a good way to shoot entrances, a good way to shoot aerial moves, a good way to shoot finishers, and on and on.  I always enjoyed hearing from the visitors to my site who complimented my work.  Yes, it's an ego thing.  And without patting myself too much on the back, I think over the years I have captured a few moments where someone will always say, "Man, that's a great picture."

      Joe:  Finish this sentence:  The most successful pro wrestlers are the ones who …

      Blake:  ... eat, sleep, breathe, respect, train for, study, learn ... WRESTLING.  Oh, and don't piss off wrestling photographers.  They have plenty of pictures they don't use.


            1. Fine interview, Joe. I have long admired Blake's work and it's nice to gain some insight into his skills and talent as a photog. I hope he returns to ringside with his Nikon soon.

            2. Joe,

              Great interview, I’ve forgotten how I first came across Blake’s web site, but I have been a long time admirer of his work and appreciate that he continues to post. There are many DVD’s that I have purchased just based on the quality of his pictures. The cage match in Statesville between Jake Manning and Bobby Houston is one of them, after seeing Blake’s pictures I was like a dog looking for a bone, not giving up until I located and purchased the DVD, and this was not an easy DVD to procure, but I got it and watch the fight frequently.

              I can empathize with his comments about the ref getting in the way, (though for different reasons I am sure), I don’t know how many times I have watched a fight and wonder as their black and white frame blocks the action, is the ref oblivious to the fact that the camera in on that side of the ring?, a rare quality in a ref I suppose, able to focus on the action and recognize that there are considerations outside the ropes that they need to be cognizant of.


            3. This is a great interview. Blake is an amazing photographer, and he doesn't even realize it most of the time. He is so suttle about his work, and yet has taken some of the best photography I have ever seen. If it is the same Blake Arledge, which there's not many people with that name, I do believe he had pictures in a few PWI's that he was accredited for. Such a humble man about his work. He truly deserves more than a pat on the back for everything that he has done. Oh, and Blake, I like the way you descibe that "blonde-haired, tall, buxom female."



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