A Terrible Beauty in Chicago

Fightland Blog

By Michelle Keim (words and photos)

“A terrible beauty is born”—Joyce Carol Oates in reference to Mike Tyson.

The reason I love to fight is because it is thrilling and terrifying at the same time. Throwing crisp punches and kicking with liver-killing precision is all very satisfying work. It’s just fun. And working my body so hard that I think my legs might give out contains its own kind of rush and thrill. Adding an opponent to the mix creates an element of the unknown and the great probability of pain, which together create the basic elements of terror. 

This is the same dichotomy that I seek out in my work as a photographer. For about 20 years I have photographed the industrial landscape of the Midwest at night. More recently I have started photographing fighters. It may seem like these two subjects have little in common. But, for me, all of these images are about the same thing: power, beauty, masculinity—the thrilling and the terrible.

It is a specific kind of beauty that I am looking for: the sublime. It has been described as the greatest beauty, awesome in the true sense of the word which has an element of fear and apprehension attached to it. Traditionally, sublime beauty has been associated with the natural landscape. A good example is the way that we can all marvel at a storm as it rolls in across the lake (or ocean or prairie or wherever you may be) but at the same time understand that those swirling, bruise-colored clouds have the potential to mercilessly wipe out our entire neighborhood. There is no way to know for sure what will happen when nature churns up a storm. That uncertainty combined with the perceived possibility for harm creates an uneasiness. It puts our finger on the switch of survival instinct. 

The industry that I photograph contains that same tension and potential for disaster. Whether it is knowing that the emissions are chipping away bit by bit at our atmosphere or sudden horrible disasters such as a molten steel explosion or like the Chernobyl and Fukushima catastrophes, the structures I photograph house massive destructive potential that could be released in any number of ways. And yet these are marvelous, monumental structures that rise up out of our landscape. They were not built for beauty, but they have a magnificence that commands admiration. Nature and industry alike gobble up lives like Grendel, the horrible man-eating monster in Beowulf. You don’t have to love him to respect his ferocity and stand in awe of such immense strength.

When I look through my camera’s viewfinder to sort through the landscape of bulging, sweating, sometimes bleeding flesh, it is with the humbling appreciation that the power inside that highly trained, masculine body could easily crush the life out of me. Learning to fight should be empowering for a woman; and it has been. But training with men has given me a very clear understanding of just how powerful men are. Men are like gorillas. No matter how much I train I don’t think I could defeat a man by strength alone. Maybe a small man. But my point, of course, is that I respect and admire the physical strength of men. Especially skilled fighters. The gnarly but somehow graceful masses of veiny muscles on fighters’ bodies represent power, beauty and masculinity in one handsome, very often tattooed package. 

Very much like sodium-vapor lit steel mills or power plants glowing in the night landscape, fighters in an illuminated ring or cage are a spectacle to behold. There is no way to know for sure what will happen inside the fight arena. Fight spectators must surely understand and share my ambivalence for this awesome, bloody sport. To watch a fight is to experience a bit of the apprehension and anticipation of two nearly naked fighters alone in a match that will produce only one victor. Fighting contains an enigmatic satisfaction that I think we all understand from a place deep down inside because we are built to survive. Whether that understanding is an uncomfortable truth or whether it is celebrated, it is a terrible beauty inside all of us.

See more of Michelle's work on her website.



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