Last summer, I was walking around the DUMBO section of Brooklyn taking street photographs. I noticed a small sign for a boxing gym on the front of a warehouse. My curiosity prompted me to enter the building. I walked up an old staircase and felt like I had stepped back in time. To my surprise and delight, I was in Gleason’s Gym! I grew up hearing stories about this famous boxing training facility. Over 100 championship fighters have trained at Gleason’s including Muhammad Ali, Roberto Duran and Larry Holmes. Hilary Swank trained in the Gym for the academy award winning movie “Million Dollar Baby”.
I was granted permission to photograph, but unfortunately, I was unable to stay long. I reluctantly left, knowing I just had to come back. Last Saturday, I returned to Gleason’s Gym with fellow photographer and friend Steve Sherman. Steve photographs with a large format camera and is a darkroom expert. His early recollections of watching the “Friday Night Fights” on a black and white television in the 1950’s with his grandfather piqued his interest to accompany me.
Gleason’s gym appeals to a diversified group of people – young boys and girls, men and woman training for a boxing career, middle aged professionals, and senior citizens seeking a good workout. The atmosphere is electric and their determination is fierce. One of the female participants said:
“Gleason’s is a place you can go to train – and be taken seriously – whether you are young man looking to break into the professional boxing world – or a middle aged woman looking for a good workout. No judging. No sideways looks. Just hard working athletes.”
Gleason’s Gym is poorly lit with sparse fluorescent bulbs – a photographer’s nightmare. My challenge was to freeze the action and capture the intensity of the athletes under these poor lighting conditions.
There are three methods to photograph a poorly lit interior. In the image below I shot at ISO 20,000 at 1/1,000sec with a Sony A7R II. This is an amazing lightweight camera that can shoot at very high ISO with minimal noise. Notice that this image is evenly lit throughout the frame, and I was able to freeze the action without a flash.
The second method is to shoot with a long exposure, a high f stop, and a wide angle lens with black and white film. Digital cameras do not do as well with long exposures. This method should render a beautiful image of the gym with amazing sharpness and detail. The people in the image will be soft and blurred. Below is an image of Steve setting up his Deardorff 5×7 large format camera. He used a 20 second exposure.
The third method is to use some type of strobe. I used a Profoto B1 500 Air TTL on the three initial images and the image below. It is a rechargeable battery powered strobe. I could have used my Canon speedlight, but I would have replaced the AA batteries often. Also, the speedlight would have needed to be closer to my subject than the strobe because it emits less light. I shot with high speed sync that allowed me to shoot at 1/1000 second. To achieve the facial lighting that I desired, I placed the strobe 4-6 feet to the side of the camera. I attached it to a light stand, but could have had an assistant hold it. I also placed a remote trigger on my hot shoe. These images were shot at ISO 2,000 at a shutter speed of 1/1000 second at f5.6. With these settings and a strobe, I could freeze the action, light the face, and have the background go dark. Obviously, I had to shoot multiple images of each boxer to achieve the intense facial expressions that I obtained.