Visual punch: Rivka Shifman Katvan’s “Photographs of Cus D’Amato’s Boxing Gym” opens in Catskill

Cus D’Amato’s Boxing Gym (photograph by Rivka Shifman Katvan)

When photographer Rivka Shifman Katvan first encountered Cus D’Amato’s KO Boxing Gym, on the third floor of an old brick building in the Village of Catskill, she was captivated. “The place itself is amazing,” she says. “I think it used to be a courthouse, and the contrast between the ornate interior of the old building and what goes on in there now – a boxing gym in action – I found beautiful.”

But it was the closeness of the people inside the gym that really impressed her. “When they have a boxing match, it’s a neighborhood thing: a small village of people coming together to watch, and everybody knows everybody. So there is no way you cannot catch a moment in a place like this. And I enjoy photographing people doing what they love to do.”

Constantine “Cus” D’Amato (1908-1985) was a boxing trainer and manager who shaped the careers of Mike Tyson, Floyd Patterson and José Torres. He was a proponent of the “peekaboo” style of boxing, in which the fighter holds his gloves close to his cheeks and pulls his arms tight against his torso. D’Amato opened the boxing gym in Catskill in the ’70s.

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  The photographs Katvan captured there ten years ago will be on view this month in “Rivka Shifman Katvan: Photographs of Cus D’Amato’s Boxing Gym” at the Atelier Progressif Creative Art Space at 75 Bridge Street in Catskill. An opening reception will be held on Saturday, April 6 from 6 to 8 p.m. The exhibit remains on view through Saturday, April 27.

Katvan discovered the gym while working on a photography project documenting the lives of Catskill residents. She and her husband, commercial photographer Moshe Katvan, divide their time between their home in New York City and their place on the border of Catskill and Saugerties. They often collaborate on work, each currently contributing to their series of photographs of artists. They first came up to the area as students at the School of Visual Arts, when one of their teachers invited them up to stay at her cabin. Not long afterward, the couple found a small place of their own in the area, and they have been part-time residents here since.

(Photograph by Rivka Shifman Katvan)

When asked which of her photo series is most representative of her entire body of work, Katvan names the boxing gym photos, along with her Broadway series (more on that in a bit) and a series she did on the residents of East 23rd Street, who invited her into their walk-up apartments as she went door-to-door asking to photograph them.

Her photos have impact because of the intimacy she elicits, even when she’s shooting something as monumental as the Brooklyn Bridge, shrouded in fog. Viewers feel drawn in, as if there’s no barrier of a photographer between themselves and what’s depicted in the image.

Katvan accomplishes this by being “a fly on the wall,” she says. “I don’t want the people I photograph to really pay attention to me. I go into places and make myself ‘not-noticeable.’ I just walk around and stay on the side until I see moments and it’s there to capture.”

As one can imagine, this requires being in a place long enough to make people comfortable. And that can take a while. “But that’s the idea: You have to make them feel very comfortable with you – that they don’t mind you being there. You just stick around until they say you can stay; you can do whatever you want. And that’s when you catch the moment.”

Sometimes you see it right away, she says, but most of the time it’s a slow process. “You wait for the moment and shoot. And I don’t use flash in my work, because I feel that flash puts something between me and the subject. If it’s very dark, I use handheld to get the moment; but flash takes away the environment, washes it out.” Katvan also does not digitally enhance anything.

Her best-known photographs were taken backstage at Broadway shows and the Tony Awards. Her book Broadway behind the Curtain (Abrams, 2001) catalogues some of this work, and a number of the images may be seen on her website at www.rivkakatvan.com. The photographs are visually striking – not at all the usual celebrity promotional pictures. These are beautiful, fine-art images capturing familiar faces in private moments. In one particularly poignant image, Carol Burnett and Julie Andrews sit quietly side-by-side backstage at the Tony Awards in 1999, seemingly lost in their own thoughts, their images captured reflected in two mirrors as they have last-minute touches done to their hair by a stylist.

(Photograph by Rivka Shifman Katvan)

Katvan, who is a native of Israel, began taking backstage photographs in 1978 as her degree thesis for the School for Visual Arts. When she was invited backstage by an actress friend appearing in The Magic Show at the Cort Theatre, she was struck by the contrast between the illusions created onstage and the backstage reality. “It was unbelievable. And when I went to my darkroom afterward and saw what I had, I said, ‘This is amazing.’ I went back to show them, and they loved the photos; they asked me, ‘When are you coming again?’” Those actors introduced Katvan to others, and soon she had access to major celebrities in places that are usually off-limits. The trust the actors placed in her is visible in the evocative photographs she captured of Broadway stars that include Alan Cumming backstage at Cabaret and Elizabeth Taylor preparing for The Little Foxes.

Perhaps the freedom her subjects grant her comes from knowing she will respect their privacy. “I capture moments in people’s lives, but I wouldn’t show something provocative. I would never insult people or make them uncomfortable. What happens is something between me and them; I show moments, but I don’t take it too far.”

Rivka Shifman Katvan

A longtime supporter of the not-for-profit Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS organization, Katvan has donated many photographs to it over the years to help fund its work. (Her modesty prevents allowing the dollar amount her work raised to be published, but it’s substantial.) She also donates photographs for fundraising to other organizations whose missions she supports.

Katvan’s work is regularly exhibited in New York City at Gallery 138 and is in the permanent collections of the International Center of Photography, the Museum of the City of New York, the Museum of Television and Radio and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. She has been featured in numerous publications and online media outlets, including Harper’s Bazaar and The New York Times. In 2011, Katvan participated in the State Department’s Art in Embassies program, which places artists’ works in consulates and embassies around the world in an effort to demonstrate art’s ability to bring people together and transcend borders.

“Rivka Shifman Katvan: Photographs of Cus D’Amato’s Boxing Gym” opening, Saturday, April 6, 6-8 p.m., through April 27, Atelier Progressif Creative Art Space, 75 Bridge Street, Catskill; (518) 768-7787, www.atelierprogressif.com or www.rivkakatvan.com.