Fearful Symmetry: The Fights by Charles Hoff

The Fights: Photographs By Charles Hoff, with Essay Selection and Introduction by Richard Ford.
(Chronicle Books)


In the short biographical essay that closes this remarkable collection, critic Richard B. Woodward describes Charles Hoff as “an artist in spite of his credentials.” From the mid 1930s through to the late 1960s, Hoff worked as a staff photographer for the New York Daily News. During this period he turned his jobbing camera on openings and closedowns, floods and presidents, aircraft wreckage and suspected Soviet spies. His most famous photograph happened when, one May evening in 1937, he captured the final moments of the Hindenburg as the dirigible fell burning through a New Jersey sky. It was an image that came almost to define his life, as evinced by the headline to his obituary thirty-eight years later: “Charles Hoff Dies: Hindenburg Photog.”

Hoff devoted himself primarily, though, to the sports beat. Documenting the nightly dramas of  baseball diamond, hockey arena and horsetrack, he earned a reputation for meticulous preparation and professionalism, and, due to the fact that he rarely wasted a frame, the nickname “One Shot Charlie”. While all of his sports photography is recognised as being consummate, however, it was as a photographer of boxing that Charles Hoff excelled. As The Fights, a  collection of his boxing pictures, reveals, his work from the ringside transcended the realm of the professional craftsman, to touch on something higher. Here, the artist is revealed.

Of course, with this subject, Hoff had a head start. Boxing has long held a fascination for artists, be they painters, writers or filmmakers, for reasons that are readily apparent. This is the most elemental of sports, and these the most naked of athletes. From a purely aesthetic viewpoint, it is a choreography of grace and violence, an instinctive ballet performed by bodies in their prime against a backdrop of ropes and canvas so austere as to be abstract. Then there is the ritualistic aura, and the fact that boxing lends itself so naturally to a dramatic reading: protagonist meets antagonist in arena, the subsequent narrative unfolding to an inevitable conclusion.

Surrounding all of this there is the pathos of these men: the romantic cliché of a thousand bad stories, that any ghetto kid has the chance to become champion of the world; the fact that the punishment these men put their bodies through to reach their peak leads only to further punishment; the irony that the very attributes which take a man to the top are those which desert him soonest. The melancholy surrounding a man of thirty five who is somehow become a very old man.

It is a sport rich with the potential to be employed as a metaphor for any struggle, including that which makes up the act of living. The fighter translates into the perfect existential hero, engaged in a lonely cosmic battle. This comes close to the language of fetishism. In his opening essay, Richard Ford sums it up:

“Boxing seems to be about so much more than hitting…Though hitting in the face may be all boxing’s about – that and money – and its devotees have simply fashioned suave mechanisms of language to defend against its painful redundancy.”

This is an ugly sport, certainly not an art, as Ford writes “because, in essence, hitting in the face is not particularly interesting, inasmuch as it lacks even the smallest grain of optimism.” Ford has compiled essays to accompany these photograph, by the likes of James Baldwin and AJ Liebling, assembled with a novelist’s eye for narrative flow. They are uniformly songs of sadness, chronicling things ending from somewhere on the inside.

So here, people get hurt, get damaged and die. There is a hideous jealousy to the audience, a stifled vicarious viciousness and a permanent bloodlust: the rampant desire that someone be hit so hard they lose consciousness. So what prevents Hoff’s photographs from being no more than a seductive pornography?

The Fights unfailingly epitomises the aesthetic appeal of the sport, while simultaneously showing the terrible brutalism of what is actually happening. Time and again Hoff’s photographs depict the exact, fractionary physical aftermath of a fist hitting a head with extreme force; illustrations of faces bent all out of shape under the weight of a blow, pulled into expressions grotesque, senseless and obscene. These are compositions of a truly fearful symmetry.

But away from all formal and technical niceties, beneath the beauty and the horror, these are also, recognisably photographs of men at work,: individuals suffering, noble, patient or brutish, each dragging his own small parcel of desire and dignity. It is here that the art is to be found. Against heavy odds, this remains a profoundly beautiful book.