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Feature: William B. Plowman goes underground
Friday, July 22, 2011 | by Eamon Hickey
Photojournalist: William B. Plowman
One day last fall, photojournalist William B. Plowman got a call from a friend, fellow photographer Nick Whalen. "He said, 'you're not gonna believe this,'" Plowman recalls, "and then he told me there's this underground fight club in New York City."

The club meets irregularly at secret locations and stages a night of unsanctioned boxing matches in front of a crowd of fight fans and party goers who share only one thing in common: somehow, they are in the know.

Soon, with Whalen's help, Plowman was also in the know and headed from his home in Washington, D.C. to New York to photograph the next extravaganza. He arrived at what he describes as a "nondescript warehouse building in Manhattan" at about 9:30pm.

Most of the windows were blacked out and a plywood boxing ring was set up in the middle of the large space. The bouts ran continuously until close to 3am, when the police arrived and shut them down.

"I came in very conservatively," Plowman says. "I looked like any other normal guy who might be attending. I brought only one [camera] and two lenses. But I didn't hide that I was a photographer. I wanted everybody to get used to me: there is a guy here; he has a camera; he's going to be making pictures."

A good reception

"I got to talking to people, and they were very receptive. As the night went on, some of the boxers would ask, 'Hey, can I get pictures?'. They [boxers and fans] were really generous with me. They were not really trying to hide anything."

Plowman was impressed with the athletes, the event, and the crowd. "Some of the fighters are very high level amateur boxers," he says. "Some are just training. The referee was clearly a pro. There was a medical guy on hand. At the slightest hint of an injury, the fight would be called."

Friday Night Throwdown: Nikon D300 + AF-S 17-35mm f/2.8D at 17mm, ISO 1000, 1/80, f/2.8. Click to enlarge (Photo by William B. Plowman)

The crowd numbered around 150, Plowman estimates, and it was a typically eclectic New York mix, as the blend of cigarette and marijuana smoke attested. "Everything from young hipsters to middle-aged guys who maybe once were boxers. There was a DJ spinning music. People were dancing."

The majority were not boxing fans, Plowman thinks. "They were there for a happening. I really felt like it was a celebration."

Grittier times

To stay unobtrusive, "I decided to take just one camera body and two lenses," Plowman says. The body was a Nikon D300 and the two lenses were the AF-S Zoom-Nikkor 17-35mm f/2.8D IF-ED and the AF-S Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8G ED.

The shooting conditions were a definite challenge. "You can't try to carve out something that you want," Plowman says of this type of shoot. "You have to work within it. The light was extremely challenging but very interesting. It was strips of long office-style fluorescent lights, and then some extra directional lights."

"Everything doesn't have to be tack sharp for me; I'm very comfortable with blurred pictures. I would drop my ISO down to 400 and shoot at 1/10th of a second. When I needed something sharper I'd crank my ISO up to 1600."

Plowman shot NEFs and processed the images in Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 3. He knew from the beginning that he wanted his final images to be black and white.

"I felt black and white would harken back to a grittier time in New York history," he says. "I'm not bothered by pictures being grainy or blurry." Normally, he tries to avoid overexposing highlights, he adds, but he's also comfortable with the shadow and highlight extremes of these fight club shots.

"I tend to shoot on the darker side anyway," he says, broadening the discussion to his general preferences about tonality and other post-processing decisions. "I try to be true to my own self-imposed journalistic ethics. If I can do it on a piece of paper [in a traditional darkroom], then it's okay doing it in Lightroom."

Plowman concentrated on action shots but would like to expand his coverage. "Had I known that everything was gonna be okay, I would have pushed to do some behind the scenes stuff," he says. "As soon as the next one opens up, I'll shoot more of the human aspects rather than just the action."

In the wee hours, something, probably noise, tipped off the powers that be, and around three in the morning the police arrived and killed the party, but perhaps to less drama than you'd predict. "Everybody kind of lined up and walked out," Plowman says. "There was no arguing. It was polite on both ends. I didn't see anybody arrested."

How to read the news

Plowman's interest in photojournalism began at a young age when he became a regular reader of newspapers. He took a detour into political science in college, but quickly rediscovered his passion for photography, partly from seeing images coming out of the Balkans in the early-to-mid 1990s. Soon, he was freelancing for the Associated Press out of Boston.

"It was almost like grad school," Plowman says. "I was learning not only how to make pictures with impact but also how to read the news. How to know what the important thing in a news story is."

A year shooting for the Boston Herald followed, but Plowman left the paper with the intention of focusing on magazine journalism. When the September 11th terrorist attacks occurred, he caught a plane to Pakistan, hoping the assignments would follow.

"I knew in a matter of days in Peshawar that I had made the right decision," he says. "I was very comfortable and very energized. When I returned I did sell some feature stories. I was really pleased with that, but for me it wasn't about getting it published. It was more about seeing if I can do it."

After going freelance, Plowman joined the World Picture News agency, and when it closed, he moved to the REDUX agency, which still represents him. He has shot for news and non-governmental organization (NGO) publications in the U.S. and Europe, including Time, Newsweek, Der Spiegel, Le Figaro, and Reporters Without Borders, among many others. In addition to New York City and Pakistan, he's covered stories in Afghanistan, Haiti, Guatemala, and Venezuela, to name a few.

Letting the assignments come

"The stories that are closest to my heart are the ones that involve issues of human rights and the developing world," Plowman says. "Hard news photojournalism and human rights."

Consistently getting paid to travel and shoot documentary stories on human rights and developing world issues is no easy task. News magazines simply don't finance extended picture story projects in far-off lands like they once did.

So, like many good photographers with similar interests, Plowman relies on other tactics to support his habit, including gladly taking on paying work such as portraits and simply taking a chance that somehow the story will sell.

The week we interviewed him, he was moving up the schedule on a return trip to what is now South Sudan. "I might try and get over there pretty quickly," he said. He'd heard that things there were heating up.

"I try to secure some [assignments] beforehand," he says of these kinds of trips. "I make my agency well aware of where I'm going and what I'll be doing. I give them enough advance notice to spread the word. I've found that if you believe in something, once you get there, the assignments come."

Gallery

What follows is a collection of William B. Plowman's underground fight club photographs. Click on any one to see a larger version. On subsequent pages you'll find more of Plowman's work, including powerful photographs from Haiti, Sudan and Guatemala.

Ring: Nikon D300 + AF-S 24-70mm f/2.8G at 24mm, ISO 1250, 1/60, f/2.8. Click to enlarge (Photo by William B. Plowman)

Motion: Nikon D300 + AF-S 24-70mm f/2.8G at 56mm, ISO 1250, 1/20, f/6.3. Click to enlarge (Photo by William B. Plowman)

Revved Up: Nikon D300 + AF-S 24-70mm f/2.8G at 70mm, ISO 1250, 1/100, f/4. Click to enlarge (Photo by William B. Plowman)

Gaze: Nikon D300 + AF-S 24-70mm f/2.8G at 70mm, ISO 2000, 1/30, f/2.8. Click to enlarge (Photo by William B. Plowman)

Tackle: Nikon D300 + AF-S 24-70mm f/2.8G at 24mm, ISO 1000, 1/10, f/5. Click to enlarge (Photo by William B. Plowman)

Down: Nikon D300 + AF-S 24-70mm f/2.8G at 27mm, ISO 1250, 1/100, f/2.8. Click to enlarge (Photo by William B. Plowman)

Yell: Nikon D300 + AF-S 24-70mm f/2.8G at 24mm, ISO 1000, 1/80, f/2.8. Click to enlarge (Photo by William B. Plowman)

Ropes: Nikon D300 + AF-S 24-70mm f/2.8G at 32mm, ISO 1000, 1/80, f/2.8. Click to enlarge (Photo by William B. Plowman)

Watch: Nikon D300 + AF-S 24-70mm f/2.8G at 24mm, ISO 1000, 1/15, f/2.8. Click to enlarge (Photo by William B. Plowman)

Cover: Nikon D300 + AF-S 24-70mm f/2.8G at 55mm, ISO 1250, 1/100, f/4. Click to enlarge (Photo by William B. Plowman)

Spray: Nikon D300 + AF-S 24-70mm f/2.8G at 35mm, ISO 1000, 1/80, f/2.8. Click to enlarge (Photo by William B. Plowman)

Cheer: Nikon D300 + AF-S 24-70mm f/2.8G at 24mm, ISO 1250, 1/100, f/2.8. Click to enlarge (Photo by William B. Plowman)

Taunt: Nikon D300 + AF-S 24-70mm f/2.8G at 52mm, ISO 1000, 1/80, f/2.8. Click to enlarge (Photo by William B. Plowman)

Corner: Nikon D300 + AF-S 24-70mm f/2.8G at 40mm, ISO 1000, 1/80, f/2.8. Click to enlarge (Photo by William B. Plowman)

Aftermath: Nikon D300 + AF-S 24-70mm f/2.8G at 24mm, ISO 1250, 1/6, f/2.8. Click to enlarge (Photo by William B. Plowman)

XXX: Nikon D300 + AF-S 24-70mm f/2.8G at 34mm, ISO 1250, 1/60, f/2.8. Click to enlarge (Photo by William B. Plowman)

End: Nikon D300 + AF-S 24-70mm f/2.8G at 24mm, ISO 1250, 1/40, f/2.8. Click to enlarge (Photo by William B. Plowman)

More photographs by William B. Plowman are on the next two pages, beginning with Haiti and South Sudan.
Next Page: Haiti and South Sudan
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