The Roller Derby Portraits facebook page is a tantalizing ten people away from 700 likes. https://www.facebook.com/RollerDerbyPortraits
Here’s Carrie Gunns from the Tucson Roller Derby.
We start in ernest Friday morning with a full schedule of portraits. These are removed from a lot of the previous portraits that I’ve done in that there’s a lot of time scheduled for them and a lot of location options, Lorraine is a scheduling professional and it shows. Typically I’m photographing at practices and having to make due with five minute breaks and whatever locations happen to be nearby. This is luxury. On top of it, Lorraine’s has added various breaks and stoppages throughout the day so that I eat and have time to put together mini slide-shows of the work we’ve done so far. The whole day is something like a party with thirty rollergirls that just wanders from place to place.
Some time in the afternoon author Joan of Dark (knits) shows up from Indiana with her husband Dill who’s one of the announcers for tomorrow’s game. I’ve “met” them on line and they’ve tried to help me before with the derby portraits project. It’s great to meet them in the flesh. Dill is really funny and humble and we get along famously from the very first. Joan is quiet and friendly with pink hair. They have matching hats and sunglasses.
The day winds down and I’m very happy with the work I’m doing.
Sometime around midnight, the quiet Joan of Dark has been replaced by the not-at-all-quiet Joan of Drunk who, among other things, encourages the rollergirls still lounging about the kitchen to take off their clothes and join her jumping on the trampoline in the back yard. This in no way is the most outrageous thing Joan of Drunk says in the evening, and it inspires the Twitter hash tag “ShitJoanOfDrunkSays” – when I complain that I don’t want to use profanity Joan of Drunk admonishes “You can’t keep a family friendly Twitter-feed and hang out with rollergirls.” I throw up my hands in resignation.
It’s wonderful watching Moxie interact with these women, hearing them talk about strategy, finding out that different things have different names in England. I learn about a derby strategy called “killing the baby seal. I’m amazed at how in depth it is, how it’s not just skating around in a circle and trying to be faster than the person next to you, that it’s as complex as a football playbook. Moxie’s beaming but I’m fading.
By 1:00 a.m. Joan of Drunk has convinced many of the remaining rollergirls, including Moxie, that they need to get up early tomorrow and get matching tattoos. I go to bed before anything drastic happens.
The next morning as many of these tales are being recounted, Joan of Dark will say: “I love it that my alter-ego has an alter-ego.”
The next morning I rise early, feeling refreshed and daunted by the schedule ahead. I’m always apprehensive about things until they’re underway and then everything’s okay.
Jenn picks me up at 9:00 and we drive out to our first shoot with the Minnesota Rollergirls at a place called “the ruins”. One of the girls we’re photographing here is Fannie Tanner who was the undisputed star of the only roller derby game I’ve ever seen before – almost a year ago in central Wisconsin. In a game where four points a period is average and five is really good, Fannie scored twenty, twice. She was intimidatingly good and I’m a little intimidated at doing a portrait that will live up to it. Looking back at my notes I’d described the opposing team’s efforts to thwart her as “a cake trying to stop a bullet”.
“Don’t worry,” Fannie assures me a little later when I mention this, “I didn’t score 20 points at one time again all year.” But still, she was my first roller derby star, so I still feel like I’d better be doing something really good for her.
And I do.
Jenn and I leave the ruins three hours later and head off to dinner where we meet up with Sharon who’d wanted to be my assistant on the shoot initially but had to work. She’s got time off now and says she can come with us to the last shoot of the day, which is either in Saint Paul, or it’s not. It’s still a blur to me and Jenn’s driving. So I just worry about where the camera is pointed.
That evening we meet Madam Stompatore and a number of the women from the Minneapolis Rollergirls at a park where they’re about to do a skateless practice. Nobody likes skateless practice, it involves a lot of crunches and running up and down hills it’s an ugly muscle-building thing but it gets results. And the MNRG practice three times a week, they’re serious about what they do.
Moxie McCmurder arrives, driven down by Woodsman Hans – Moxie’s from England, the editor of Lead Jammer Magazine and one of the reasons I’m here – I would have been here, most likely, anyway, but Moxie coming has made it special and in many ways it seems to legitimize our project – now it’s news. Moxie’s been staying with Lorraine and she’s down now to interview players. She talks, I take photos. The sun goes down. Jenn and Sharon say goodbye and go off. This part of my journey is complete.
As the evening winds down Jenetic Defect from the Chippewa Valley Rollergirls arrives to pick up Moxie and me. I’d seen Jenetic play last year, in the first roller derby game I’d ever seen and she’s turned into something of a hero. She’s six feet tall, maybe six one, blond and charismatic with a deep midwestern accent, boisterous and powerful. The announcer had described her plowing through opponents “like a bowling ball through lawn gnomes” and it’s true. Roller derby values speed, and it values mass. The ultimate combination of the two is mythic. Some jammers excel by being small and quick, being able to skate between opponents, others, like Jenetic, do so because they can shove their way through like a snow plow. She is magnificent to watch. She is the most elegant tree which has ever fallen on your car, crushing it completely.
Jenetic packs Moxie and I up into her car and we drive off to Lorraine’s. I’m already not sure what day it is and my muscles ache like I’ve been running up and down mountains. Lorraine has promised a hot tub and it’s been the thing driving me all day.
“This might be my last bout,” Jenetic says in the car and suddenly everything seems serious. “I work in Houston now and I can’t make the practice schedule a thousand miles away, and I can’t just come back for games – I’ve been looking at houses in Texas and wondering what derby is as part of my future – there’s a great team in Houston, for sure – but I just though I’d always be with these girls. It’s going to be the last game I play with Chippewa Valley – I hope it’s not the last one ever.”
For some reason this affects me profoundly – seeing her play was one of the things that made me admire the sport and to think of her in a business suit at a desk somewhere not bowling people over seems – wrong. It seems like a waste.
I’ve often wondered where roller derby might go pro – at the moment all the leagues are volunteer – but some of them are drawing big numbers – Minnesota is pulling in 4,500 spectators a game and many of the teams are playing in large arenas – what is it going to take for teams to start paying their star players to keep them around?
Insurance is another issue, WFTDA (Womens Flat Track Derby Association), the governing body of women’s roller derby, requires that all players have their own insurance as well as supplemental insurance from WFTDA – which means that in America at least, if you want to play, you also have to be working full time, or married to someone who is.
We arrive by nine and there is some discussion between Moxie and Jenetic and Lorraine about something. I leave and crawl into the hot tub and immediately everything is worth it. All the pain and anxiety go away. Eventually the others join me and we go over the rest of the weekend’s plans which are meticulous.
I have no trouble falling asleep.
Airplanes are all blurring together in my head. I remember as a child taking a 747 to visit my great grandparents in Illinois and it being a Big Deal – a huge production for which we got dressed up in suits and ties and my mother in a long purple dress and her mother’s gold locket on a chain around her neck, looking like we were going to lunch at the White House. I remember flying TWA and the flight attendants giving my sister and I Colorforms books with flat plastic airplanes, people, luggage and three panels of adventure – we also got wings – real wings like the pilots wore with pin backings. The whole experience was wonderful. I remember later as a teenager flying to California with my grandmother to visit my aunt Joanne and thinking the experience on the airplane was so wonderful that I didn’t want it to end. I wished that I could save away some of the time and come back to it later – not to use up something so precious all at once. The idea … that we were flying – Icarus real – and the land square and green and brown beneath us – that idea was remarkable. Over the heartland were dotted perfectly circular patches of green in a brown landscape. I asked the flight attendant what they were. She didn’t know but went to ask the pilot. He told her they were donut farms. Years later I learned they were the result of circular crop irrigation.
A lot of this adventure is gone. I still sit by the window and look out – I still marvel that I can fly – but all the trips have blurred together and the hassles of security now mean that not only don’t I get dressed up, but likely as not I’ll go in my pajamas and slippers if it’s still early in the morning and try and curl up in the window nook and sleep a little. This time, 9:00 a.m. Is not early enough for the PJ’s, but I am wearing my slippers.
I’ve packed really heavy for this five day trip photographing rollergirls in the central US. I’ve got light stands, background stands, a backdrop, flashes, camera bodies, a five foot reflector and a huge assortment of lenses. Normally I try and bring one bag with my cameras and clothes and stay light. This time there’s so much going on, and so many plans that aren’t fully formed I brought everything, preparing for anything.
I hit the ground running – my assistant, Jenn, picks me up at the airport and we start out right away for the first shoot, which is 20 minutes away at a place called “the armory”. Aurora Whoralis, the North Star Rollergirl that I’d been dealing with to set things up told me it was a parking garage. I’d thought a parking garage would be great for one or two shots but I’m apprehensive about photographing ten portraits in one location like that.
We find the armory, a giant, beautiful yellow building from the early 20th century and haul our gear inside. It’s a giant one floor indoor parking garage with arena seating above it. Someone later tells me that this is where the L.A. Lakers got their start. At one end of the building is a wall of glass letting in beautiful light but – it’s strewn with cars. Apart from the window, it’s not really that interesting. Jenn and I set our gear down and start walking around looking for either rollergirls or some place interesting to shoot. Along the way we pass the lot attendant climbing out of a Volvo.
“You must be the dude photographing the rollergirls,” he says. His name is Mike and he used to own a smoothie shop a few blocks away. “It just wasn’t in the cards,” he says.
I ask him if I can get up to the stairs and use them for photos.
“Sure,” he says, “but it’s kind of hard to get to, you have to go through a door way over there and climb around in the dark. You should check out the basement,” he adds.
“Yeah, it goes under this whole place. There are classrooms down there with the effects of mustard gas still written on the blackboards. This place really did used to be an armory. If you go down deep enough, there’s a shooting range.”
“Really?” I’d thought the parking garage took up all of the space in the building.
Mike leads us across the parking lot and down a dark corridor. He opens a door and inside is an expansive ruin of pillars and windows that looks like an abandoned Egyptian city.
“Sweet barking cheese,” I gasp, “can we shoot in here?”
Mike turns to me, slowly, like a Scooby Doo villain, and says “At your own peril … man. Here’s the key.”
For the next four hours Jenn and I explore the building, smashed rooms, abandoned closets, scary staircases, pools of standing water, giant machines, bird skeletons, crazed toilets, demolished light fixtures, peeling walls…. We photograph half a dozen women crawling about the wreckage and only leave when it’s time for our next shoot.
We unpack lights and Aurora comes over and introduces herself. She makes an announcement and throughout the evening women stop by when they have a few minutes and we do portraits. As cool as the armory was, I was happy to get away from that look. A few weeks before I’d gotten an email that balanced somewhere on the cusp of “fan mail” and “hate mail” – saying, in part, that I was doing roller derby no favors by photographing tattooed women in abandoned buildings. The letter asked, rhetorically, if I’d photographed any rich women or business executives and I honestly couldn’t say one way or the other – the only question I’d asked everybody is “what’s your favorite book?”
While I wasn’t concerned about tattoos I was concerned about a homogenous look – that all the portraits would start to blend together and that I’d fall into a rut looking for a quick and easy portrait solution. I’m really happy with the way the portraits in the giant practice space turn out. When it’s over they invite us out but I’m really tired after a twelve hour day.
Jenn drops me off at the house of novelists Emma Bull & Will Shetterly and we sit up for a while, talking about friends and the projects we’re working on, their recent move back to Minneapolis from Tucson, and they pour over each of my portraits with the close attention to detail that a castaway on a desert island would give to a lone book that washed ashore after a decade of isolation. I go to bed grateful and inspired, and covered in a giant black cat named Toby.
Chippewa Valley jammer Skeeter slips past a falling opponent.
Yesterday involved all the local rollergirls (the house is filled with Moxie and various other not-local rollergirls) getting up really early and going to practice. I stayed home and worked on sorting photos, then we all headed down to the sports arena. Moxie did video interviews and I set up for more portraits. I set up a small studio as well as grabbing some one-offs. Then I photographed the bout. I’d only photographed one other roller derby game — the first one I saw a year ago. In the interim I’ve gotten interested in how I could have done it better — namely by using flashes and I’d been trying to figure out in my mind how they’d best work. I used two to cover half the track, one back light, and one key — this is the result. I’m thinking now that I could add a third and cover most of the area that I can see from one spot.
The bout was exciting. Chippewa Valley won 110 to 76 but more exciting was that Stunt Double, Chippewa’s main jammer, proposed to her long time girlfriend, Arm & Slammer, on the track, doing a long baseball slide and ending up on one knee in front of Slammer, holding out a ring. Slammer said “yes” and the crowd went wild.
At the after party the rollergirls taught me a move called “the can opener” which will be murder if anybody ever tries to get past me on the sidewalk. I also learned what the phrase “eating the baby” means, and a move called “Princess Thigh.”
Today Lorraine leaves at 7:45 for the “hangover bout”, I get to lay in bed for another hour and then follow along. One more game and half a day of portraits and then I head back to philadelphia.