house of worship

words: chris isenberg

photography: geoff winningham

Before pro wrestling was a national pay-per-view spectacle it was a regional affair. For his 1971 book Friday Night in the Coliseum, photographer Geoff Winningham immersed himself in the scene at the Sam Houston Coliseum, one of the key stops on the Southwestern circuit. His images not only capture the action—Gorgeous George II getting dropkicked in the head, or Mil Mascaras leaping from the top rope in a luchador mask—but also expertly reveal the intimacy and intensity of the crowd's relationship to the unfolding drama.

VJ: Can you give some backstory about how this project got started?

GW: They were made in a very short period of time. I started photographing in early March of 1971. The circumstance basically was that I had moved back to Houston from Chicago where I'd been in grad school. I thought of myself as wanting to be Houston's Weegee. Wherever there was a crowd, wherever there was a ruckus, wherever there was a celebration or anything like that, I would go and try to make a picture or two. I was actually following fire trucks from time to time, and I was going to parties, particularly crazy weird parties wherever I could find them. I looked in the paper and saw a Houston wrestling event on Friday night. I forget who was wrestling that first time, but it was one of those things that had been around all of my life. Where I grew up in Jackson, Tennessee they had wrestling every Saturday night in the armory, and yet I had never paid attention to it. It was on TV when I was a kid. There was nothing by Howdy Doody and wrestling.

I went down there that first Friday night and it just blew me away. For a photographer it was so incredibly dramatic. The lights overhead, the white ring mat, the crowd very close to the ring, within eight/ten feet of the ring. Screaming, hollering, and for me—and I guess for a lot of people—it wasn't a question of whether it was real or not. It was the most amazing theatrical thing I had ever seen in my life. I started shooting in early March, going every Friday night. By the middle of the summer I had a big stack of pictures. I probably could've put a pretty good book together after maybe four months of shooting. Then I looked at them over the summer. I was gone about a month and then I came back and I shot maybe from September, October, November. I think I started putting the book together maybe early October. It was one of those crazy things. I couldn't do this again if I had to. I laid that book out in one night. I just took my big stack of photographs up and I was, what? 28 years old? I was tireless. I just kind of did it in one pass and then I made a few changes but not many. Then I had all these tape recordings I'd made of people—

VJ: You had recordings of wrestlers or fans?

GW: Both. I had first of all been recording people at the matches—the fans. Then I sought out the wrestlers and interviewed them. Paul Bosh, who was a promoter—the whole thing never would've happened anything like as well as it did except that the promoter Paul Bosh was just very helpful to me at every turn. I would go down there on Friday night and photograph, and he would have the camera crew put the camera on me and I'd watch it on Sunday morning. There was professor Geoff Winningham from Rice University down there recording this match for posterity on TV. I became part of the whole scene down there. I was the professor.

VJ: So you were a character in the show.

GW: Yeah. I'll tell you a very funny story at the end about my participation. Anyway, once I started putting it together it just went very fast. I'll tell you, there's a book that was a great inspiration for me. You might or might now know the book. Very few people now do because it hadn't had nearly the attention I think it deserved. Around 1969 or 70 a book came out from Scrimshaw Press in California, maybe San Francisco. The name of the book is Delta West, done by a photographer named Roger Minick. I loved the book—particularly the way he interwove conversations with people...kind of overheard conversations with the photographs into a cinematic flow. That book was a huge influence on me. When I sat down with my pictures that night, I had a stack of probably 150, 200 prints and my recorded and transcribed conversations. It just flowed. It was just like it was done almost by itself. Once I had it all together, I went to a friend who was in the printing business and he had told me years ago that he'd always wanted to do a good photo book and when I had one to come to him, so I went to him. I said, "Jeff I've got a book for you now." He said, "What's it about?" I said, "It's about professional wrestling." He said, "My God, professional wrestling? Is the book any good?" I said, "Yeah, I think it's really good." He said, "What'll it cost to do it?" I said, "I think it will cost 10,000 dollars to print 10,000 copies." He said, "Oh I've got that much money, let's do it." That's how it happened—almost that quickly. Then I went to the best local printer in town where I'd already gotten a price and pushed it on through. The whole thing happened from maybe mid-October when I started making the layout, until early December when I had the physical book in my hand. It consequently, there's some little eccentric flaws there. The copyright notice is in the wrong place. I didn't know what I was doing but the flow and the energy of the book were there. Here's what happened: the book was printed really very well and then we decided to do 100 hardcover books—or maybe it was 150—and then all the rest would be softcover. They printed the softcover, went to the bindery, and the bindery actually scratched like 85 hundred of the softcover copies badly. There we were with 1,500 books instead of 10,000 books, which turned out to be a godsend because we couldn't sell them at any price. Nobody wanted one. Light Impressions was my first distributor. They were in Rochester and they were a big vendor of photographic archival supplies at the time. They probably sold ten books in three years. We would go down to the wrestling matches, finally trying to sell them for a dollar a piece. We couldn't sell them. People at the wrestling matches—they didn't have a dollar left after they bought their ticket and so the books just sat around forever and ever and ever. After giving them away and selling a few here and there, finally by maybe 1985, I didn't have any books left.

VJ: What did they do with the scratched up ones?

GW: They had to trash those. It was a settlement. Instead of paying the printer 10,000 dollars you pay him like 2,000 dollars and all the damaged copies were destroyed. Then the book started getting around a little bit and I guess the peak moment in my entire life as a photographer is one afternoon I was puttering around in my dark room and the phone rang. I had left some pictures for viewing at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. I had met Peter Bunnell who was an associate curator there and I left some for viewing thinking like a note in a bottle, I'll never hear anything back. The phone rings and this guy with a curious accent and a deep voice says, "I'm calling for Geoff Winningham" and I said, "That's me." He said, "This is John Szarkowski, I work at the Museum of Modern Art in New York." I said, "Oh my gosh, of course I know who you are. I know your books and all that." He said, "I'm sitting here looking at these wrestling photographs." I had this lump in my throat, I said, "What do you think of them?" He said, "Well, I think they're about the best thing since Alfred Stieglitz." 

VJ: He did the great outdoors stuff?

GW: Stieglitz was the guy who pioneered photography in America in terms of showing it. He had the 291 gallery in New York. He became known for his photographs of clouds, which he called Equivalents, and for his photographs of his wife Georgia O'Keeffe. He's kind of one of the greats, so Szarkowski's remark to me was both an amazing compliment, but also a big joke. Wrestling is the last thing on earth that Stieglitz would've ever photographed. Anyway, Szarkowski put several of the pictures in a number of shows. He put one of the pictures as the cover picture for the book he did, Mirrors and Windows. For those who know my work outside of Texas, that work is still what they tend to know and I can see why. The subject is amazing.


VJ: You mentioned the wrestling circuit, at that time those guys who were wrestling here on Friday night were also wrestling, almost off of them, would be wrestling maybe Thursday night in Dallas and Saturday night in San Antonio, or some other close by southwestern city. There was the southwestern circuit. Was it the same guys every week?

GW: There would be the same guys. The preliminaries, who were mostly local, but they didn't have to be local...they were the non-stars, the regulars. They either had some kind of comic routine—they might be midgets, or there might be some kind of funny idea that would work in. Then there would be four or five matches leading up to the main event. The main event always had somebody of major stature, meaning in this part of the country they were known widely. That would be somebody like Johnny Valentine or Wahoo McDaniel or one of those guys. You would have Johnny Valentine wrestle some guy who claimed to be a Russian defector. He would have to work his way through a bunch of really bad, threatening opponents to get to fight with Dory Funk Jr., who was the world heavyweight champion in this part of the country. He would work his way through all those, he was building up every week. If he can fight this, if he can win he can get to Dory Funk maybe and then finally he would fight Dory Funk and lose and then a new series of some kind would start. The promoter was really inventive at keeping four of five strains of narrative going at any point. I was an English major in college but I had myself utterly convinced that if Shakespeare were alive and well he'd be choreographing and promoting wrestling matches because of the good versus evil, the crowd appeal. The crowds down there were just crazy, frantic.

VJ: Did they let you in on the behind-the-scenes craft element of it at all?

GW: You know, I think one reason they welcomed me is because I never asked. I never wanted to know. I just wanted to see what happened in the ring. To me that would've been like wanting to see the rehearsal for a play. I guess it would be kind of interesting but I never really wanted to. One time I asked if I could go into the dressing room to photograph people getting ready, and Paul let me. He would let me go anywhere I wanted. I got back there and they were giving a fake medical exam to The Spoiler. He's sitting there with the doctor and the stethoscope. I'm sure it was all done just for me. What's kind of fascinating to me is how wrestling changed, and when it changed I just totally lost interest in it. Something about the big World Wrestling Federation national promotion, the Hulk Hogan thing and all of that, I don't just went right over my head. I never had any interest in watching it. For me, they were bad wrestlers in this sense, when I was photographing, during the main events the best matches toward the end of each evening, I knew logically that the whole thing had been figured out in advance to a certain degree. I knew they knew who was going to win and who was going to lose but I'll tell you, when they were actually in the ring wrestling, I was saying to myself all the time, "Oh my God, they're really fighting now. Look at them, they're really fighting. Oh my God, he's going to hurt him," because they were so good.