Photos courtesy of Shelley Calton
Posted Sep 02, 2009
It is often said, and the rumors are true, that it is very difficult to photograph roller derby. As a sport, it’s fast moving, crowded, and usually doesn’t have the best lighting. Photographer Shelley Calton has mostly avoided these straight action images and turned her lens towards a more artistic approach. Shooting black and white images of Houston Roller Derby, Calton exquisitely captures the emotions and intensity of the sport. She has collected these magnificent images into her book, Hard Knocks: Rolling with the Derby Girls. Calton’s photos convey a certain timeless and nostalgic quality; even the most mundane of objects is treated with an artistic eye. The use of black and white images combined with a sometimes blurry and slight grainy effect helps portray the emotions of roller derby. Every emotion is excellently captured on film; from joy to sadness, from victory to injury. With Calton’s book just released, we were lucky enough to ask her a few questions about her thoughts on her photography and even her skating prowess.
How long have you been a photographer?
I’ve been a photographer for 15 years. I moved to Singapore in 1991 on an overseas business assignment with my husband where I studied painting. When we returned to Houston three years later, I wanted to continue and enrolled at Glassell School of Art. I took a photography darkroom class as an elective, and I loved the darkroom and making prints. Since then, I’ve studied with many well-known photographers. Along the way, I decided that I wanted to be a fine art photographer.
How would you describe your style?
My style has been described as romantic, sensual, graceful, and intimate. I would add nostalgic. Some of these elements come through even in a subject that may not typically evoke those emotions, such as roller derby.
What are your favorite subjects to shoot?
My favorite subject is the one I’m working on at the time. The subjects in my projects are all quite different. They range from the documentary portfolio of the roller derby to still life images in Dreams of Geppetto (romantic images as seen through the eyes of mythical toymaker Geppetto) and the studio images of women’s vintage lingerie in Invisible Thread.
How did you get involved with photographing roller derby?
I first learned of the revival of roller derby and the formation of an Austin league in 2002. I was intrigued with photographing women athletes in risqué clothing, but the distance to Austin was a problem. Three years later, the Houston league formed and I attended practice sessions. It was so much fun, I was hooked right away.
What, if any, do you see as the challenges of shooting roller derby?
Technically, there were many challenges. The lighting was a problem because it constantly changed, and I shot with film as opposed to digital. Everything about derby is fast, the action, and the emotions of the skaters, so trying to be there for it all was also a challenge. Part way through the project, I figured that with each bout I should just concentrate on one thing -- whether it was the dressing room, the bench, or the rink.
Tell us a little about Hard Knocks. Where did the idea for the book come from and what was it like putting it all together?
The book idea was there from the beginning even though I knew it would be a huge challenge finding a publisher. After the first year of shooting, I attended Fotofest Meeting Place in Houston and had the opportunity to show my work to book publishers, museum curators, and galleries. I met with a publisher that was interested, but they decided in the end they wanted the work to be in color. It wasn’t until two years and many publishers later that I met with my publisher Kehrer Verlag. Last January, I traveled to Heidelberg Germany to be on press. It was so exciting to see the pages roll off the press and my long-term project being turned into a book.
Can you skate? Ever thought about being a rollergirl?
I did skate at a practice. I was a weekend rink brat in my teenage years. The girls were shocked I knew how to skate, and several teams wanted to recruit me. Although I don’t think I would have ever had the courage to join them, I decided that my role was to document them with my camera.
Any advice for aspiring photographers?
Shoot lots! Study the work of your contemporaries as well as the work of 19th and 20th century masters. I collect books and photographs that inspire me. Choose a subject matter that interests you. Attend photography festivals, don’t’ be afraid, and get your work seen.
What do you like to do for fun outside of photography?
That is a tough question; photography pretty much consumes my life. Lately, much of my time is spent marketing my book. For the past several years I’ve been renovating and decorating my 80-year-old house, collecting antiques as well as a few modern pieces. I enjoy playing golf when I get the chance, though I’m not very good.
Any future plans or final words?
There were many wonderful surprises that came with my journey of photographing the derby. While the roller derby was thrilling and action packed, there was much more depth to the project. I came to respect the skaters and admired their dedication, passion, and courage. In turn, those qualities inspired me to gain passion and courage in my life. I also made many friendships that I know will carry on for years outside the rink.
As for future plans, I am working on a second book with my project Invisible Thread.