If nothing, Holger Keifel is a man of patience. Traveling far from his birthplace in the Black Forest of Germany, his most recent project, a series of black and white images of professional boxers, took him eight years and an unknown number of trips around the United States to complete. Living in New York for the past 17 years, Keifel works on his photography until he feels it’s done, and no outside force can rush his sense of perfection.
BOX: The Face of Boxing, was published by PQ Blackwell in September, 2010. With 220 pages of duotone printing, it presents a compelling look at most of the top figures in boxing today. It centers on portraiture, showing a fascinating array of characters, and what the sport has done to them. “I was not interested in doing the typical gym pictures and the fight in the ring,” Keifel explains. “We all know that. I don’t want to discredit what other people are doing. That’s their angle, their thing. I just was more interested to show what happens to a face during a fight.”
In 1986, Keifel flew to the United States from Germany with his bicycle, a backpack, and his father’s old Canon camera. He shot a bit while traveling, and the photographic hook buried itself in him. “I thought, ‘this is really fun, and maybe I should learn the trade so I could make some money to finance more traveling and shooting,’” he recalls. “That’s how it all started.”
Back in Germany, Keifel got hired by a lab in Stuttgart developing film. In 1988 he moved to Cologne, and got his first job assisting in 1989. He assisted in Cologne until 1993, when he moved to New York. He now lives in Astoria, Queens. His work has been featured in museums and gallery shows, and is included in several museum collections.
Beginning the boxing project with a decision to not enter a gym or shoot in a ring, Keifel has a vision which makes this collection stand out from typical boxing books. “I’m more a studio person,” Keifel says. “It’s hard to tell, or you can’t tell at all, most of these pictures in the book I took during press conferences, or like at some fight in some back room. Most of them, I would say, are just on location. I brought a paper roll, like half a roll. I don’t own a car, so I had to carry these things in the subway. You have to limit yourself to the very essentials. Usually, I shoot with one light, and I have my stand bag. I put my paper roll in there. I have my little strobe, my Norman, and I have my Mamiya RZ Pro II with mainly one lens.”
That lens happens to be the 110mm f/2.8. “I love the 110 with the 2.8, and it’s a great lens. Great lens, love it,” Keifel repeats. He also has the 140mm, which he uses less often. He also has an older model RZ II which he keeps as backup. “I’ve never had a problem with the Mamiya in 15 years,” he adds.
Keifel has published photographs in The New York Times Magazine, Der Spiegel, and many other top publications. Taking time out from this commercial work, Keifel financed the entire boxing project himself for the duration. He often flew to disparate locations for just a few minutes of shooting. “Ricky Hatton gave me fifteen minutes, and believe me, it was fifteen minutes.” he says. “I flew to Mike Tyson for a ten-minute shoot.” Without paying his subjects, Keifel’s completion of the project was not easy. He was stood up by some boxers after arranging studio rentals. In the end, he photographed just over 400 people in the world of boxing. The book includes 270. All were shot with his Mamiya on Kodak T-Max 100 film.
Full of great anecdotes about the subjects for this book, Keifel has made many friends in the boxing world. The 89-year-old Jake LaMotta came out swinging, and Mike Tyson and the photographer teased each other. Don King was a limber mental sparring partner, as expected. The efforts have paid off. The New Yorker has proclaimed BOX “beautifully produced.”
Boxing is far from the only subject matter Keifel shoots. His session with Louise Bourgeois produced a delicate image of the sculptor’s forearm and hand holding a piece of clay. The reclusive author Don DeLillo was captured by Keifel in a pose indicative of his character, leaning back, hesitant, and slightly uncomfortable in front of the camera.
When asked how he plans out his portraits, such as Budd Schulberg’s three-quarters profile, or Charles Schulz’s silhouette, Keifel points to operating under constraints. “I just do it on the fly. Usually I don’t have a lot of time. I just set my background up, my light, and then I get these people for a minute or two. Sometimes I get them for a few minutes — three, four, five minutes.” Although he knew Charles Schulz since 1986, it took until 1999 to get him to sit for a portrait. When he did, Keifel had to do some convincing to get the iconic profile shot found on his site.
When asked about shooting things outside of studio portraiture, Keifel feels composition is the key. “To me, if you know how to compose, how to frame a picture, it doesn’t matter what you do,” he says. “It doesn’t matter what you photograph. To me. If you know composition, you don’t have to worry. Once you start thinking about things, it’s maybe too late.”
Keifel has also shot things on a different scale, such as his series of deformed bullets which have killed or wounded people. Photographed in the basement of the Nassau County Police with the 140mm Macro and the Auto Extension Tube #1, this evidence is a startling reminder of the violence and tragedy which happens every day. “With the bullets, I wanted to show what happens when a bullet hits the body or hits the target and how did they get distorted,” he says of this 1996 series.
With his usual pressed-for-time photo sessions, it seems a perfect match for Keifel to undertake a series of organ transplant photos. His work shooting celebrities quickly has helped hone his skillset. “Maybe it’s good that’s the way it is,” he says of his limited time with his subjects. “First of all, regarding celebrities, I can’t do anything about it. I better get my shot. It just brings it down to the essence. There is no posing going on. There is just a straightforward, sharp, honest portrait or document of the face. With the organs, I was in the operating room, other places. They just got the organs shipped in, and they prepared it to put them in the next person.” With his portrait of a human heart, Keifel had five seconds to photograph it next to the brain dead former owner. For the lungs, which came from the same individual, Keifel got a luxurious five or six exposures before they were whisked off to a waiting helicopter.
For this photographer, more than one exposure is greater than the sum of their parts. “I love to work in series,” Keifel says. “Everybody can take a good picture, but to me a series tells a story. To me that’s very, very important. A picture is great, a picture is beautiful, but a series tells a story.”
Maintaining secrecy about his next projects, Keifel has good reason to not want to share details. Twice before, other photographers seized his concepts for new work. As an artist who operates first from the germination of an idea, as opposed to wanting to execute some technical trick, his concepts are where each photographic series starts. Accordingly, he’s keeping quiet about what’s coming next. Judging from the diversity of each series on his site, we can assume the new images brewing inside him will be full of honesty, candor, and emotion captured by a patient man who often only has seconds with his subjects.
Written by Ron Egatz