Hard Knocks: Rolling with the Derby Girls Photographs by Shelley Calton

Book Review

Hard Knocks: Rolling with the Derby Girls Photographs by Shelley Calton. Foreword by Tracy Xavia Karner.

Kehrer Verlag, 2009. 96 pp., $38.

Shelley Calton's latest book, Hard Knocks (2009) is an outsider's look inside the contemporary Houston Roller Derby scene. Through a series of photojournalistic images, the female athletes appear as one might imagine: tough, sexual, intense women who skate hard, who adopt burlesque personas like "Agent Belligerent" or "disMae West," and who don't give much away. But looking beyond the expectations that roller derby may connote, this body of work is particularly revealing when situated in another context, one that reveals the nascent implications of Calton's seemingly straightforward project.

In the relatively short history of photography, there is a force with which ideas, subjects and formal languages recur. It is most evident in works such as After Walker Evans, an endeavor by Sherrie Levine that involved re-photographing a group of images made decades earlier by Walker Evans, or in Kenneth Josephson's series History of Photography, with its references to other photographers. These types of projects inevitably invite one to think about the original images that inspired them, as well as the relevance of their contemporary re-appropriation or re-appearance. In the case of Calton's book, there are at least two forebears to consider: GUAPA (Good Looking) by Tracey Moffatt and Carnival Strippers by Susan Meiselas. Reviewing these works as a triumvirate tells us something about how Hard Knocks adds to a larger dialogue about the practice of reading photographs.

Hard Knocks
shares its subject matter, women's roller derby, with Moffatt's GUAPA (Good Looking), a project produced in 1995. Completed about ten years before Calton finished her photographs for Hard Knocks, GUAPA offers a more stylized, critical perspective on the sport. Moffatt,
an Australian artist who made her project while living in Texas, employed models to recreate the spectacle of violence that defines roller derby. Because the women in GUAPA appear against a white background, isolated from the context of the rink, the raw physicality of the sport becomes all that you see. The idea that roller derby is theatre was not lost on Calton while making Hard Knocks, but it also was not the primary interest. Her documentary approach toward the women of the Houston Roller Derby implies an attraction to the grit and the passion of the sport.

Decades before GUAPA and Hard Knocks, there was Susan Meiselas' Carnival Strippers (1976). As its title indicates, this book features women who strip and dance on the carnival circuit. Their profession, like roller derby, is based on an inherently physical, sexualized performance. The format of Meiselas' book, whereby images of the strippers in action comprise one section and portraits of those women are grouped in another, is mirrored in Hard Knocks. Calton begins her book with a dark set of portraits of nine women from the Houston Roller Derby;
then, she guides readers inside the rink. In both this book and in Carnival Strippers, the women take center stage in a series of less-than-glamorous scenes, their bodies sprawled and displayed before the camera without much affectation.

Among these three bodies of work about women, there is a common point of intersection and separation in the erotics of looking at such photographs. After Meiselas recognized her subjects as individuals with stories to tell and attempted to show them as anti-erotic subjects, and after Moffatt fictionalized and posed women to represent the artifice of performance, Calton seems to realize that her subjects, tackling gender differences and expectations through their sport, essentially help viewers to think about the naturalized, sexualized codes of looking at photographs. Hard Knocks acknowledges that there is a history to photography, and that it doesn't repeat itself. LT

Amanda Maddox

Assistant Curator of Photography and Media Arts
Corcoran Gallery of Art