The unrivaled drama of bullfighting, with its rigorous combination of athleticism and artistry, and its requisite display of grace under pressure, ignited Hemingway’s imagination and inspired him to write his classic work on the subject, “Death in the Afternoon.” That same inspiration has taken hold of photographer Ricardo B. Sanchez to create the most unique and elegant record of what is and has always been one of the most controversial “sports” practiced by man. Some contend that bullfighting remains one of the most artful and sophisticated means by which some cultures celebrate the bravery of the hunter. This ancient ritual illustrates the complex relationship between predator and prey, and between culture and nature.
In Bullfight: The Pas de Deux (Glitterati Incorporated), Sanchez’s vividly arresting artworks and text reflect this exquisite dance, where the bull and the bullfighter trace the lines and forms of their existence with each pass. The accompanying texts by both author and art critic provide what the steps of the bullfight represent as metaphors of our broader relationships between nature and humans. Here is a distinctively beautiful and enlightened visual and intellectual study of the intersection of tradition, culture, art, and nature in this ancient rite that is so exquisitely and intricately recorded that one can actually see why by so many it is so revered as an art form.
In the introduction to Bullfight: The Pas de Deux, Sanchez quotes Manuel Chaves Nogales, saying, “To transmute the threatening and dangerous existence of a beast into something as gossamer as a dancer’s veil is the great marvel of bullfighting.” Sanchez continues, “Combining the knowledge of his craft with intelligence, willpower, courage, and art, a bullfighter uses two cloths (the cape and the muleta) to lead, dominate, pass, and kill a charging bull. The pass as it occurs in a bullfight can be regarded as a metaphoric representation of life as it occurs outside of the ring. My photographs illustrate how though all passes are the same—the bull must always pass—they are never equal. Like fingerprints and the steps we take in our lives, there are no two that are identical; the pass is that which forever comes and goes, never repeating itself….
“Today, an ancient ritual continues wherein the human being plays the character of good and evil, female and male, predator and victim. The bullfighter, dressed effeminately with a costume suitable for a snake and using a reed cloth (apple) to deceive the bull, creates a powerful drama of life and death. The bull, symbol for both the male and of nature, is irrational seduced and deceived by the cloth. While it pursues the illusion of a target, the beast is condemned because it is powerful and physically superior.
“As I understand it, energy is action. Energy by nature tends to be chaotic and unpredictable; the world often acts in ways that escape our control—through our own actions we can attempt to create order. We are obligated to act without guarantees even as we seek the widest possible margin of safety for our actions. The bullfighter, in his solitary confrontation with the bull, always seems to ask this eternal question—what is it that happens or comes to pass in our lives, in death? With each pass, he attempts to demonstrate his ability to dominate, to control the measure of time and space as they converge with the energy of the bull. Confronted by the magic and the mystery of his existence, the bullfighter requires answers as to how to act in each pass; he must estimate the precise distance that separates life from death. When meaning can one find in life as death passes so near? Perhaps, in fact, one only finds truth in life when death is so close at hand.
“There are five fundamental elements to the bullfight and each has a very particular function. The bull is received into the ring with a cape, he is thus led to the horse, then the banderillas are placed and finally we have the passes executed with the muleta, which set up the bull for the kill. The maneuvers with the vara (the horseman’s pic used to damage and weaken the bull’s neck and shoulder muscles) and banderillas (rounded dowels, 70 cm—just over two feet—long with a harpoon-shaped steel tip, placed in a pair on top of the withers of the bull) are used to sap the bull of his strength thereby transforming the practice of their art into physical punishment.
“The movements with the capes, the red muleta, and the final kill or surete suprema are those maneuvers that represent deception and illusion as an art form. With the cape and the muleta, the bull is punished with nothing but a cloth to lead and touch it. Deceived in his spirited charge, he is thus dominated and eventually killed. I am more interested in the use of deception and illusion as an extension of our culture than in the art of physical punishment. Therefore, all my attention has been dedicated to the passes and what they mean. It is te paradox of the pass that it never ceases to deceive as it reveals its truth.
“If we think of the pass both as a series of ordered steps and as something that happens upon which the bullfighter’s very life depends, we see it in analogies to power and its absence, luck and destiny, what happens with our emotions, what happens when we take risks, both rationally and irrationally, what happens when our courage is demanded, our fears confronted, what happens when we face the magic of the unknown. Eventually in the bullfight, as in our lives, death will be the end. What happens before we reach that end is what makes life and the bullfight fascinating. Life and its intimate relationship with fate involve a continuous questioning of that which appears to be reality and that which really is.
“To admit the fragile and vulnerable nature of the human body when it is exposed to danger, and to recognize the immensity of the risk whereby the unpredictable becomes predictable, is part of the essence and seduction of bullfighting. The bullfight explains the inexplicable just as passion for someone or something, or section by a magic incomprehensible but real at the same time, heightens and stimulates our desire to live. Only rarely do the bull, bullfighter, spectators, and weather synchronize in such a way that the ritual flows harmoniously, transporting the experience of the bullfight to the limits of the unknown. Contemplation of the sublime is a profoundly emotional and moving experience.
“In the bullfighting pass, the contrast between doubt and certainty is extreme. The bullfighter doubts his pass will deceive the bull, and is certain of safety only once the bull has passed. This process, repeated time and again by the bullfighter, is a metaphor for the risk all human beings take in each step of our lives. Some of our actions are obviously more dangerous than others, so the balance of doubt and the certainty regarding the outcome of our actions is proportionate to the risk involved. We are afraid of that which is unknown, of that which is apparently uncontrollable, ultimately, of death—the final unknowable….
“When a bullfighter enters the ring, he defies both the existential solitude of his life and his fear of dying. His actions in the bullring are a reflection of the solitude each human being encounters in confronting his existence. In his extreme, almost tragic isolatio0n, the bullfighter knows that the spectators are all anxiously looking at him and yet none are capable of aiding him if he is suddenly helpless before the bull. Alone, he is willing to overcome the fear of dying in order to feel the power and glory of his victory over death. It is for this reason that he is so admired, well paid, and revered for he is a bullfighter, confronting his solitude and fear, willing to risk his life for the glory of all men. Last of the courageous hunters who risks all in order to kill, he is a salvational figure, who by possibly sacrificing his existence, redeem the rest of us mortal from the sin of fear….
“Photography, as an extension of what we see and as a fine art, is a sophisticated expression and an extension of the living. The photographer chooses that which is important to him or her, thereby establishing a peculiar relationship between fascination with and conflict with what is being photographed in order to stimulate a worthy reflection of our existence…. My photographs record a reflection of this incomprehensible and passionate pas de deux, where the bull and bullfighter trace the lines and forms of their existence with each pass, confronting their lives with their destiny.
“As an investigation of the photographic language, these photographs are clearly a combination of what they eye can see as apparently real, and what can only be seen as a product of photographic technology. I have photographed the extensive variety of passes portraying the dialogue that occurs between that which moves and that which stays still. These photographs strive to illustrate the proper execution of the passes performed in the arena. These are images that suggest a relationship between the controllable and the uncontrollable, between what is apparently static and what is always moving….
“Using the knowledge of how light can be reproduced, the photographer can create an illusion that represents an instant of reality frozen in time and defined in space by the boundaries of its own frame. My photographic process transforms the vision of what I see into a mirror from which I want to learn. This constant looking and reflecting reminds me how difficult it is to see beyond the obvious and how easily we are deceived and seduced by the illusion of what we think is real and true. While I ultimately do not condone or condemn bullfighting as a spectacle, I hope this book will reflect on the bullfighting passes as metaphors of the broader relationship between nature and us. I selected photographs to reveal the essence of a sublime pass, to reflect the passing or light and darkness, which is the soul of this ritual.”
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Photographs from Bullfight: The Pas de Deux by Ricardo B. Sanchez
Curated by Miss Rosen