Lori Grinker was an undergrad at Parsons School of Design when boxing historian Jim Jacobs told her about some teenagers training to be boxers upstate. Needing a subject for a photojournalism project, she got herself invited to the Catskill home of trainer Cus D’Amato, his partner Camille Ewald, and their unlikely squad of trainees.
“There was a girl there, and at first I wanted to focus on her—she was a Mormon and had
a pet rat. I was fascinated, but nobody wanted to hear about a girl boxing in 1981. I started focusing on Billy; he was just nine years old, and my piece on him was published in Inside Sports, which was a big thrill.”
D’Amato encouraged her to pay attention to the big, quiet kid, saying Mike was going to be world champion. “Cus was the master, and he knew Mike was so unusual,” says Grinker. “He was 13, very shy, just out of reform school. He was very, very smart, and I came to learn he had exactly what it takes. Cus had a method, and Mike learned it very well.”
When Tyson went professional, “they kept letting me come up,” she says. “I was a bit apart, as you have to be, but I was sort of part of things, and I’d say the defining quality of that home was laughter. I saw how the discipline of boxing was helping those kids, how they were learning to play together.”
Mike Tyson is Grinker’s third book (text by Bruce Silverglade), which will be published on September 6 by Powerhouse Books. It’s a collection of rare and never-before-seen photographs from the 1980s and 1990s, showcasing a lesser-known side of the boxing superstar in his prime, both in and out of the ring. Earlier books by the photographer include Invisible Thread: A Portrait of Jewish American Women and Afterwar: Veterans from a World in Conflict. A photograph of a Beninese veteran from Afterwar appeared on the cover of the April 2005 issue of Chronogram.
This month’s cover shot was taken on November 22, 1985, at the Latham Coliseum as Tyson entered the ring for one of his first professional bouts. “He was probably 18; he looks older,” says Grinker. “The fight lasted about 30 seconds.” At later matches, she would find herself elbow to elbow in a media scrum. “It taught me a lot about how to move and shoot,” she says. “But that time, I think there might have been just one other little local paper.”
In 1988, one of Grinker’s Tyson photos made the cover of Sports Illustrated. “I was in the right place at the right time,” Grinker says, “and I stuck with it until he got more and more famous and became unreliable. He started getting pushed into all kinds of things. I think if Cus hadn’t died when he did, things would have gone differently for Mike.” D’Amato, who adopted Tyson after Tyson’s mother died, died in 1985, a little over a year before the boxer became the youngest world heavyweight titleholder in history at the age of 20 years four months.
Grinker, who splits her time between Newburgh and Manhattan, will be participating in Newburgh Open Studios on September 24 and 25, from 12-6 pm at her studio in the Holden Arts Building. Her work will be featured in a two upcoming group shows: one with the Women Photographer's Collective of the Hudson Valley at the Lace Mill Galleries in Kingston September 3-25 and one at Davis Orton Gallery in Hudson that opens October 8. She’ll also be reading and signing at Mama Roux in Newburgh on October 12. There will also be an exhibit of images from the book at Clamp Art Gallery in Manhattan in November. “I’m so thrilled for this book to be born in the Hudson Valley,” Grinker says, “where the story really began.”