Winter 2006

Violent vaudeville

Wayne Ford
Common knowledge / Mexican wrestlers

Mexican professional wrestling – or to give it its correct title Lucha Libre [free fighting] – is hard to describe. Is it a sport, some form of obscure vaudeville performance, or a surreal combination of the two?

Photographer-turned-director Malcolm Venville found the sight of these athletes, resplendent in their Looney Tune-style costumes, so enthralling that he chose to pick up his camera and produce nearly 150 portraits of them, now published in a superb book entitled Lucha Loco (Therapy Publishing, £45, www.luchaloco.com).

Venville employs a simple technique. Each wrestler (or team of wrestlers) is photographed on a neutral grey background, either as a portrait or full-length study. The approach is not dissimilar to the work of August Sander or Richard Avedon, but Venville makes his photographs in vivid colour.

Other than the wrestler’s name – such as Tigre Metalico, Super Porky, Astro Boy, Paramedico and Pinocho 3000 – and a short quote from each, the viewer has little information about the men behind the masks. Yet through these intimate portraits – which show clearly the graphic styles of costume, be they skimpy, macabre, outlandish or camp – one begins to develop a mental picture of the personalities and behaviour in the wrestling arena.

Alushe, a tiny wrestler whose costume resembles that of a yeti, says he became a wrestler ‘to see if they hit really hard, to see if they hit for real.’ Whether they hit for real or not (and there is no answer among these portraits), there is no denying the entertainment and theatrical value of the Mexican Lucha Libre, either in the wrestling ring or in Venville’s illuminating portraits.

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