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Errol Daniels photos at Villa Maria score a knockout

Young boxers in action from Butterflies and Bees

Sweet Science

One photo stands out as different from—not better than—all the rest in a show of thirty photos about Golden Gloves boxing by photographer Errol Daniels at the Villa Maria art gallery. It shows a young pugilist not in an actual fight but possibly during prep for one. Fists padded and bandaged, but no gloves or headgear on, in a classic semi-crouch stance. Looking warily aggressive, super alert, eyes up, and straight into the camera. It’s different from all the rest because it’s a pose. All the other photos are of action moments in the ring—no time or place for posing—or quiet moments before or after a bout. Or between rounds, while getting treatment and instruction from seconds. When you just listen. Try to process every bit of the ancient wisdom as if your life depended on it. Because it does. Because this is your life. This is what you do. Try to knock the other guy down or out. Who you’re finding out is as tough as you are, or tougher. And is trying to knock you down or out.

The title of the exhibit is Butterflies and Bees, a reference to the great Muhammed Ali’s description of his own fighting manner and method as “floats like a butterfly, stings like a bee.” The bee stings are here in some of the punches landed, but the butterflies reference seems more about the building tension before a ring encounter. The shots in the dressing room. When nobody seems to have much to say. Say it in the ring. Or not. In a few minutes, that may seem to be going by like hours.

But no Muhammed Ali swagger on display. Right next to the pose picture is an action shot of a kid—he couldn’t be more than twelve—in an unprotected attack stance, guard down, but like a coiled spring, about to unleash and land a telling wallop on an opponent apparently in trouble, head down, gloves and forearms around his face and headgear, maybe finish him off. Across the room there’s a shot of the same kid out of the ring. Looking calmly straight ahead, but not at the camera. Taken maybe right after the action photo encounter. In the same fight shirt he’s wearing in the action photo, that now you notice is about five sizes too big for him. In a mood of reflection and quiet satisfaction in what he may have just accomplished, but nothing like swagger.

The exhibit poster photo shows a somewhat older fighter—but you could still call him a kid—in a quiet moment mid-bout, between rounds, looking off to one side, past the camera, an expression on his face that says nothing and says everything.

The shots of fighters between rounds, getting treatment and instructions from trainers and seconds, are maybe the most remarkable. The writer A.J. Liebling called the training grounds for similar young pugilists in another place in another time the University of Eighth Avenue. Any professor at any of the many regular colleges and universities in the area would be delighted—and no doubt surprised—to get two or three students a semester of such patent intelligence and attentiveness in one of their classes. Socioeconomic situation is typically destiny. Under other circumstances, these guys could have gotten Ph.D.s with one hand tied behind their back.

Errol Daniels’s first endeavors in social documentary photography were in connection with the Civil Rights Movement in Chicago back in the 1960s. In the 1980s he began to lose the use of his hands due to a motor neuron disease, and had to stop shooting. A decade later, having adapted somewhat to his disability and by dint of much physical and occupational therapy, he was able to return to doing photographic work. About the subjects depicted in his current project and the access they allowed him to their world, he said, “I’ve never met a bunch of more soft-spoken and mild-mannered men and women. They graciously let me in.”

The Butterflies and Bees exhibit continues through October 31.

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