From Middlewich (near Manchester) to New York, car mechanic to world class fashion photographer, it should come as no shock that Craig McDean has made a book entirely about sumo wrestling. Especially if you saw his 1999 tome on drag racing.
Craig McDean is used to photographing beautiful women: Kate Moss, Tilda Swinton, Amber Valletta (among his 23 i-D cover stars), Natalie Portman, Megan Fox, Mila Kunis, Scarlett Johansson, Lindsey Wixson – you get the point. So why does the image of a giant oily man interest him? The photographs in this book were taken in 1993 when McDean was travelling through Tokyo and was granted access to a Sumo training camp, capturing the wrestlers training and mid-hustle in the dohyo (meaning ring). For our generation at least, the image of a sumo wrestler is associated with cartoon characters and illustrations of bellied, boobed Japanese men with jet black buns wearing XXXXXL pants – a concept that seemed hilarious as a child. But McDean’s images present the giants as they should be seen: highly-respected fighters, who dedicate their lives to playing a thousand year old sport, honouring the traditions and rituals of their ancestors. McDean gives us a rare insight into a powerful, ancient culture, sensationally preserved in modern Japanese society. He is entranced by the things most people would never think to consider. Of course he takes beautiful pictures, but what this project – and the ’99 drag racing project – shows is the breadth of his vision, which crosses the world on bizarre but brilliant tangents.
i-D online asked the photographer and filmmaker what the photographs mean to him now and how this project came to be.
Hand-bound, 30 pages. Why did you want the book to be so delicate? I wanted the book to be “delicate” because I always envisioned it to be less of a traditional “coffee-table book” and more of an objet d’art. I chose Aron Morel to publish the book as he creates very special and individual books. He was able to source the Japanese binding and utilise a French-fold technique on the pages which created the delicate nature of the book.
Tell me about your interest in martial arts, and how this project came about? I have been interested and have practiced martial arts from a young age. Specifically, I studied the Jiu Jiutsu and Kendo forms. I became very inspired and influenced by the Brazilian Gracie brothers, famous Jiu Jitsu artists from Rio de Janeiro. The project came about as I was living in Japan in 1993 and, through a friend, was able to gain access to several different Sumo training camps. I became fascinated by their discipline and would visit them at all hours of the morning to photograph them in action.
The photos were taken in 1993, what kind of photographer were you then? I was an “inquisitive” photographer in 1993. I took photographs of anything and everything that caught my eye.
What prompted you to revisit the pictures? And how did you feel looking at them with a fresh eye? I was prompted to revisit the pictures during a conversation with the curator of the book, Emma Reeves. We were discussing ideas of possible books we could do and through this I was inspired to revisit the pictures. This in turn leant a fresh eye to the pictures as I had not looked at the negatives in so long. When I looked at them again after all these years I found many special elements that I hadn’t noticed when I originally took them.
From sumo wrestling to drag racing, is it the subcultural element that interests you? I am absolutely fascinated by subcultures. But more importantly, it is a subculture’s relation to the individual countries in which they originate which I love. For example, drag-racing is specific to America, Sumo to Japan. Many overall cultural practices can be related to the practices of drag-racing and Sumo.
Do you have any other unexpected hobbies? One hobby of mine is riding motor cross bikes in the desert.
What’s inspiring you today? I am inspired by passion.
Text: Sarah Raphael