It’s a quick moment of action frozen in time. Joey Maxim, World Light Heavyweight Champion, is being knocked to the side, his face contorted from a powerful blow. His opponent, fists raised, can only be seen in profile, making it nearly impossible for me to make out his facial features. This print is one of 534 boxing photographs in the Department of Photographs collection and it was making my job as cataloger difficult. I needed to figure out as much information about this photograph as possible, including when and where it took place, in order to fully catalog it. Joey Maxim’s career spanned nearly twenty years and over 100 fights. Without a name, I wouldn’t be able to place this print.
There were a few clues: the letter “G” mysteriously written on the back of the print, and a tattoo on the boxer’s shoulder, showing a bird above the word “Mother.” With nothing but a tattoo to go on, I channeled my inner Sherlock Holmes and got to work on the case of the mystery boxer.
The 1950s were a popular time for boxing as a number of extraordinary fighters came on the scene during the time. World War II was over. Americans, eager for a distraction, turned to TV. Anyone could tune in and watch as fighters threw punches and jabs in a flurry of fists, battling it out to be the last one standing. Clocking in at just under twenty minutes, each match was a guaranteed thrill. The era is well-documented, and I had relied on documentaries, books, score databases, and even a Russian Facebook group for boxing fans to identify previous athletes, so why not this one?
I hit only dead ends. Without a clear view of the boxer’s face, I couldn’t match him to any posted pictures. Sometimes a boxer had a distinctive logo on his shorts, like Max Baer who had a Star of David on one leg and could be identified by that. Not this fighter.
However, I hadn’t seen many professional athletes from the 1950s with tattoos. I started looking into the history of mid-20th-century tattooing and landed on a tattoo appreciation website that featured a few photos of a boxer named Carl “Bobo” Olson. Feeling like a regular detective, I zoomed in on the picture of Olson and compared it to the photograph in our collection. His tattoo showed a bird over the word “Mother.” It was a match!
Finding that missing piece of information felt like watching your favorite fighter win the heavyweight championship. The tension and frustration of each setback and dead-end evaporated. The hours and days I spent researching were all worth it and I could fully catalog this print, without any what-ifs nagging at the back of my mind. The case was closed and I could move on.
As a cataloger in the Department of Photographs, I’m never quite sure what I’m going to come across. The 500 boxing prints were part of the collection of Samuel J. Wagstaff Jr., an American curator and art collector. The Getty Museum purchased Wagstaff’s collection of 26,754 objects in 1984 when the Department of Photographs was established. Wagstaff focused less on the stature of the photographer and more on what he considered to be a good picture. These prints fell into the category of “virtually unknown” and had been tucked away, untouched, in a box for more than 30 years. I was truly on my own. (In 2016 Getty exhibited 100 objects from the collection in a show titled The Thrill of the Chase: The Wagstaff Collection of Photographs.)
According to photographs curator Paul Martineau, Wagstaff likely “admired the physical prowess” of the boxers and “respected their ability to endure pain and keep fighting.” After spending months getting to know the boxers, I do too.
Sorting through hundreds of boxers, I learned about the sport and started to recognize faces. Slowly these athletes of years past began to feel like old friends. “Oh, that’s Rocky Marciano and Ezzard Charles. Marciano fought Charles twice and beat him both times,” I’d tell colleagues who glanced over my shoulder.
Perhaps now, with sports at a standstill and the world seemingly on hold, it’s worth looking back at the boxers to take a moment and admire their resiliency, too.