Elevate Difference

Hard Knocks: Rolling with the Derby Girls

Shelly Calton’s Hard Knocks: Rolling with the Derby Girls is a book of photographs that illustrates everything I love about black and white photography; the smoky interplay of light and dark, negative space and shadow. These gritty, noir-ish photos of the Houston Roller Derby are captivating, but sadly the book in its entirely lacked the oomph I was hoping for.

I’ve seen a lot of roller derby. I’ve witnessed broken bones and chipped teeth and a lot of other gruesome casualties of this super competitive, sometimes vicious sport, but the biggest problem with Calton’s photographs is that we only get hints of the most infamous aspect of the game. Perhaps she intentionally tried to shy away from the brutality, blood, sweat, and tears, but what the hell for?

Hard Knocks’ foreword was written by Tracy Xavia Karner, Associate Professor of Sociology and Director of Visual Studies and at the University of Houston. According to Karner, the women of Houston’s roller derby “confront, disrupt, and ultimately subvert gender expectations,” but you wouldn’t know that based on Calton’s work, which greatly focuses on the look of the derby girls and not what they do in the rink. There are plenty of shots of fishnet stockings, garter belts, perfectly coiffed hair, expertly applied makeup, intricate tattoos, and awesome roller derby girl style, about as many as there are of the girls cheering each other on, hugging, smiling, and getting lost in other feel good moments.

But—and there’s a point here—this is roller derby, for fuck’s sake. Hard Knocks features very little of the action that makes the sport so unique and interesting. Sure, I’m willing to admit that many (men, in particular) find roller derby alluring because of that fact that it features foxy, confident women looking good and being aggressive as hell, but let’s not forget that it’s a sport, goddamn it. Omitting the grit is like taking photographs of a football game without featuring the injuries, the sacks, and the mid-air collisions.

It’s not all bad, of course. The portraits of the women on Houston’s team featured at the beginning of the book are fascinating. These women seem so harsh and strong and prepared to kick ass, while also managing to appear completely feminine and soft. After all, none of these things are mutually exclusive and it all comes out in the rink, I just wish that it didn’t dissipate after a few pages of Calton’s book.

Written by: Tina Vasquez, January 25th 2010