Last Updated on 11/11/2021 by Chris Gampat
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In the early days of professional wrestling, few people knew the truth about it. Back then, the people in the arenas believed what the promotions were telling them. There was a good guy and a bad guy: both would fight it out in the ring. But photographer Greg Bowl got to see behind the curtain. The intimate access the wrestling promotions gave him let him understand the realities of an industry that was always hidden behind kayfabe. Allowing us to go back to the 70s, Bowl shares his professional wrestling images, as well as the rich history and stories behind them.
Phoblographer: You started with a Kodak Brownie camera. For the younger readers, please tell us about the camera and what it was like to use.
Greg Bowl: I was about five years old when I traded a toy truck to a neighborhood friend for an old Kodak “Brownie” camera. This was a typical, inexpensive roll film camera, looked like a small black box, had a crude viewfinder, and I think it had two settings for either black and white or color film (although it may have only been black and white). I’m guessing that camera was made in the 1940s, maybe earlier. But I got it in the late 1950s. Film then was 12 exposures, it got mailed to a processor, mailed back with prints and negatives, which maybe took a couple of weeks or more, and you got to see your photos.
It was always a little bit magical to get the prints back, see the successes and failures. When I was six years old, at Christmas, my present was a “real” camera. It was a “Lark Imperial”, which was a basic plastic camera with a built-in flash. It did have both color and black and white settings, and I have to say, occasionally firing off a flashbulb was fun. I still have that camera.
Phoblographer: How did you get involved with the wonderful world of pro wrestling?
Greg Bowl: Watching the local Boston show, “Big Time Wrestling” on TV, which was on our family’s old “Muntz” black and white television. Saturday mornings, my brother and I would watch the show. Back then, there were about five channels on broadcast TV. Wrestling was big entertainment for young kids. It was all about heroes and villains (like cowboys and Indians).
Years later, when I was shooting at the Boston Garden, several wrestlers that I watched back as a young kid were still wrestling. (Clips of those shows from that era are amazingly crude today.)
Phoblographer: What was your relationship like with the wrestlers and how did that impact the way you made your photos?
Greg Bowl: I can’t say there was a relationship when I started doing live photography at Boston Garden. I made calls to the Boston venue promoter. There were events scheduled every month, and I was given permission to just walk into the Garden whenever I wanted. The wrestlers, for the most part, ignored me, which made my job easier. I never got pushed away, nor did any of them really even speak to me.
It wasn’t until later that I got to know Walter “Killer” Kowalski, who was then semi-retired as “Killer” but still wrestled as the “Masked Wrestler,” the mysterious unknown villain – a type of character that was common in wrestling venues. (It was typical for older wrestlers to work as a masked villain.)
Walter was also a photographer – more of a hobbyist. I got to know him initially through a friend that worked at the main Boston Pro photographer supply store. Knowing Walter gave me some credibility among the wrestlers then, but not much more.
My vision of wrestling at the time was not as a “fan” but more of a social observer. The subject, for me, was an extension of the black and white street photography I had been doing in Boston in areas like the infamous “Combat Zone,” Chinatown, South Boston. I was drawn to the gritty, dark atmosphere of the Boston Garden, the kind of intense and hungry look of the fans, the swinging moods of the crowd when a hero or villain was victorious – that’s what got to me.
Phoblographer: Unlike most photographers who shot pro wrestling, you opted not to use a flash. Instead, you used the light available in the Boston Garden. Why was that?
Greg Bowl: I dislike on-camera flash. I have always avoided it. It’s a flat, harsh look. Sure, it has its uses in news and some edgy, fashion styles but it didn’t work for me. The Garden was expansive. Shooting with the available light allowed the sense of depth to see the far reaches, across the ring, into the crowds, or the far stands. Having a sense of depth of the arena was important.
Back then, wresting photographs were typically “mug shots” of wrestlers posing while someone, usually an old–school guy with a 4×5 Speed Graphic and flash, took a shot. Fake blood, extreme expressions of pain, and anguish were totally set up. I had no interest in that.
Phoblographer: It’s very hard to freeze motion in low light without a flash. How did you approach action shots?
Greg Bowl: Tell me about it! Extremely difficult. I was initially shooting with a 35mm Leica and Nikon F2, and I couldn’t keep up with it. The second time I went to shoot, I borrowed a pair of Nikon F2’s with motors from my employer at the time (I was a studio assistant to an advertising photographer).
The motor drives shot maybe five to six frames per second, but the low shutter speeds I had to work with, even “pushing” the film ASA of Kodak Tri-X from 400 to 1600, resulted in a ratio of maybe 10 to 1. This meant for every ten frames I shot, maybe one was good. There was lots of motion blur in the frames. Everything that happened in the ring was fast. Analog film shooting is slow. That’s why most sports photography back then was shot with flash to stop the action.
Phoblographer: What camera did you use for this work? And why was it a good option for you?
Greg Bowl: The 35mm Nikon F3’s I later used were about as good as it could get for me at that time. It was still slow working with film in available light, and there was still a high rate of bad frames.
Phoblographer: Having time to reflect, is there anything you would have done differently in terms of how you approached making the photos?
Greg Bowl: Technically, no. I was also working as a black and white photo lab film technician and printer. Back then, I printed exhibit-level work, and knew what I was doing. I experimented with different developer options for the “push–processing” of my film, tried different films, etc. The results varied from extremely “noisy,” grainy film to smoother grain. I “cooked” some of the film in an overly warm developer to try and bring out details in the shadows (there were some fails on that as well). There wasn’t much else I could have done as far as the darkroom end.
But with regard to the way I approached shooting, I’d have to say that the “younger me” at that time didn’t know how to really assert myself into situations. At least, not in the way I had matured in the following years as a studio photographer working with ad agencies, interacting with clients, directing, supporting people, just gaining confidence that comes with experience.
There was one time at the Garden when I was walking up to the wrestler’s dressing room with Walter (Killer), and got to look inside the room, which was “off-limits” to me. What I saw were guys hanging out, playing cards, drinking beers, smoking, talking. These guys were friends and coworkers. This was a different view from what the crowds saw. It was a view that the wrestling business didn’t want to get out. It was counter to the hero and villain personality that the genre depended on. You can’t have adversaries getting along. That would crush the fan’s belief of what they thought was “reality.”
(Wrestlers moved collectively around regions and would “fight” each other multiple times a week or month. They moved in buses, shared cars, stayed in the same hotels, they were a close group. The fans wanted to believe that adversaries were real, but in reality, they were coworkers who played their roles.)
Okay, I’ve wandered a bit. But to get into that dressing room, the more evolved version of me would have got into that room. I’ll always miss that, but that’s how it was then. There would have been some interesting images from that room.
Phoblographer: In terms of your overall body of work, where does this section sit in terms of satisfaction and happiness?
Greg Bowl: In my early years of shooting personal work, along with black and white street photography, I also went out into nature and shot landscape with 4×5 and 8×10 film cameras. I did studio still life work of abstract subject matter, sometimes junk that I assembled, found objects, etc.
I still enjoy looking at my early stuff, but the wrestling work became more interesting as it aged, especially given how different it is from what wrestling became. Wrestling in 1978 was the “horse and buggy” compared to the “Las Vegas” style mega-arena events with fireworks, smoke, lights, mega-sound, big money in promotion – the “circus.”
Phoblographer: Let’s be hypothetical. Pro wrestling has changed since the 70s. If you were to shoot today’s product, how would you approach it?
Greg Bowl: Modern arena lighting makes the lighting back then look almost non-existent. Today I’d shoot with something like a Nikon D5 or equivalent, full-frame, fast, and clean.
That would make it easy. I’d shoot normal color mode and work the files in channels later. And I’d never give up all that channel info (although a Leica Monochrome would be nice as well).
I’d still use available light, but running high ISO and shutter speeds, it would easy! The frame rate quality would be very high. The number of images in a sequence could be boggling compared to a film camera shooting rolls of 36 frames when you had to keep the throttle down or burn through film at an alarming rate. Just about any DSLR today would make the film work from the 70s seem stone age.
Maybe without the challenge of doing all the post-processing, I wouldn’t have appreciated it as much? It was technically demanding, but a good image was the reward, and you just didn’t know what was there until that first look at a wet roll of film out of the final wash to get a sense of what might be.
Phoblographer: Do you shoot much nowadays? What tends to be your focus?
I don’t shoot as much. Photography was my career for over 40 years in advertising and design. I do shoot some classic black and white sailing/yacht work, and I still like to shoot landscape.
Work-wise I get asked to shoot and edit photography for book projects, and I do some corporate editorial work for a large client. The whole business of commercial photography has changed since around 2000. I managed to stay ahead of a lot of change since I had been shooting digital in the studio since the early ’90s.
Phoblographer: Finally, there’s plenty of potential for a book with your pro wrestling work. What are your thoughts about that?
Greg Bowl: I hear that often. I started hearing that several years ago from the director at the Boston Sports Museum (where there’s a permanent group of images on display). I’d like to see it as a book, and maybe I will pursue that. Maybe.
All images by Greg Bowl. Used with permission.