2004 Lange-Taylor Prize: Katherine Dunn and Jim Lommasson, "School of Hard Knocks: The Struggle for Survival in America's Toughest Boxing Gyms"

Katherine Dunn

Jim Lommasson

2004 Honorable Mention: Corey Takahashi and Teru Kuwayama The Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University has awarded the fourteenth Dorothea Lange–Paul Taylor Prize to photographer Jim Lommasson and writer Katherine Dunn. The $10,000 award is given annually to encourage collaboration in documentary work in the tradition of acclaimed American photographer Dorothea Lange and writer and social scientist Paul Taylor.

Lommasson and Dunn’s project, “School of Hard Knocks: The Struggle for Survival in America’s Toughest Boxing Gyms,” documents the history of classic boxing gyms across the country and the way their presence in urban communities has changed the lives of the people who train in them. Most literature on boxing focuses on competition in the ring and stars of the sport—this project will take a close look at the countless hours young boxers spend at gyms with coaches who have volunteered their time to pass on the “skills, mores, history, and traditions” of boxing. As these gyms disappear, the oral histories, essays, poems, and photographs brought together in this documentary will provide a valuable portrait of this historic American institution: “Each gym is a shrine to the traditions of the sport.”

“The natural environment for a boxing gym is the poorest, meanest part of any town. Despite the cruel reputation of the sport, the gyms are built around a peculiarly generous kindness. All ages, sizes, races, and genders get equal respect. The violence taught is ritualized and restricted to formal sparring. Physical gentleness is the rule in all other interactions. . . . For many, the gym is the safest place they know,” Lommasson and Dunn write in their proposal.

“For every boxer who appears on television, thousands are studying in gyms from coast to coast. The majority of these students will never be professionals, but their lives are marked and improved by their time in the gyms. . . . It is a marginal world outside the tax-supported public schools and well-funded team sports. Students uncomfortable in the regimen of school or too alienated for teams find a compelling logic in the disciplines of individual combat. No law requires students to show up in a boxing gym. They go on their own time.”

Lommasson’s photographs will include views of the neighborhoods in which the gyms operate, as well as interior studies of gyms as “living environments and as archives of boxing history,” and formal and informal studies of coaches and students. The text will consist of a montage of interviews with boxers and coaches and original essays and poems by various writers as well as essays by Dunn.

Lommasson and Dunn’s work on America’s gyms will be published as a book of photographs and essays, titled Shadow Boxers: Sweat, Sacrifice, and the Will to Survive in America's Toughest Boxing Gyms, in spring 2005 by Stone Creek Publications. There will also be a traveling exhibit.

Jim Lommasson, a freelance photographer based in Portland, Oregon, has been photographing gyms since 1993. His work has been included in numerous solo and group shows. His most recent show was “on the road. revisited” at Gallery Untitled in Portland. He has received a New York Art Director’s Award and was named Person of the Year by Media Inc. and the American Marketing Association.

Katherine Dunn is the author of Geek Love, a finalist for the National Book Award in 1989. She started writing about boxing in 1980, and her reports on the sport have appeared in such publications as The New York Times Magazine, Esquire, Interview, Mother Jones, Sports Illustrated for Women, and Playboy.

Honorable Mention

An honorable mention was awarded to writer Corey Takahashi and photographer Teru Kuwayama for their project “The Return Refugees,” an in-depth look at the lives of young Cambodian-Americans who have been deported to Cambodia and are now living in Phnom Penh: “In 2002, under pressure from the United States, the Cambodian government began accepting the first of an eventual 1,400 or more Cambodians who’ve been legally residing in America, but who have past convictions that make them deportable under controversial 1996 changes in immigration law.”