Members of YPIA’s Europe and Eurasia program recently attended a presentation by German freelance photographer Holger Keifel at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC. Two of Keifel’s pieces are currently on display as part of the museum’s “Eye Pop: The Celebrity Gaze” exhibition, which features 53 never before publically displayed portraits of celebrities and influential persons in various mediums.
The photographs displayed at the National Portrait Gallery come from Keifel’s larger series of approximately 400 black-and-white portraits of male boxers collected over the course of eight years. Cultural diplomacy, an important complement to traditional political diplomatic activities, is often overlooked by international affairs expert. Keifel’s work showcases this idea: a German photographer fascinated by the predominantly American sport of boxing uses art to provide the world a window into the souls of the humans that engage in it, many of whom come from a diverse array of cultural backgrounds.
Portraits of Floyd Mayweather, Jr. and Bernard Hopkins are featured at the museum. Keifel’s decision to only shoot pictures in black and white stemmed from his desire to focus the audience on the person in their most natural state. Shooting in color, he explained, would encourage the eye to wander toward the typically bright colors of Bernard Hopkin’s outfit for example rather than fostering curiosity about their personality beyond their profession.
Keifel also enlightened the audience about the difficulties of convincing boxers to pose for him as a freelance photograph unattached to an established media or advertising house. He explained for the most part he would only have time to snap no more than four or five frames necessitating a refined skill set capable of producing the intended outcome on the first frame.
Following the general public presentation, YPIA Europe and Eurasia members had the opportunity to talk to Keifel about his work in a smaller setting. When asked, Keifel clarified his choice to photograph only male boxers as both an artistic decision to maintain consistency and the desire to not seem as if he was including a few female portraits simply for the sake of gender diversity. Intentional or not the choice reflects the inequalities present within boxing and the relative lack of female representation and participation in the profession. Given another eight years, Keifel expressed interest in creating a complementary series featuring solely female boxers.
In addition to his boxer photographs, Keifel is also known for his 2002 series entitled “WTC Rescue Workers” featuring first responders and volunteers who assisted with rescue efforts in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. Originally from Germany, Keifel moved to New York in the early 1990s. His photographs are frequently featured by German media outlets, such as Der Spiegel and Zeitwissen, along with various American media outlets.