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Dance of Danger

Riveted by bullfighting's blend of cruelty and grace, photographer Justin De Leon traveled through Mexico capturing images of this. . .

August 27, 2000|BEVERLY BEYETTE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

To some it is poetic, to others barbaric. To photographer Justin De Leon of Monterey Park, the bullfight, the fiesta brava, is both. "A tragic ritual, from a moral standpoint indefensible. There's always danger, always cruelty and there's always death."

Yet, from the first time he saw a bullfight in 1997, De Leon, 28, has been obsessed with its contradictions, its "emotions of life and death, of morality and immorality." To him, the bullring is a place "where the artist becomes eternal" in a ritual dating from the time of the Moors in Spain. Traveling through Mexico over the last few years with his Mamiya RB67 camera, De Leon shot these images for his book-in-progress, "Sol y Sombra" (sun and shade).

Overall, bullfighting's popularity "was in a downfall," De Leon says, until a teenage sensation called El Juli (Julian Lopez) from Madrid came on the scene several years ago. "He's being compared with Manolete, one of the greatest ever. People like this come along only every 50 or 100 years."

In Mexico, De Leon observes, bullfighting is far less popular than soccer, but in Spain it has always been "the heart of the culture."

After meeting Jose Luis Bribiesca, a retired bullfighter and father of matador Titi Bribiesca, in his bullfight-themed restaurant in Uruapan, De Leon returned with his bullfight photo portfolio. The older man told him, "Your work has made me feel the way I hadn't felt in 20 years." He then paid De Leon the ultimate compliment: "I'm going to give you a bull."

On Sept. 30 in a novillada--a fight with a novice matador--in Uruapan, De Leon will fight his bull. "I can't just be a spectator," he says. "I need to put myself into this to make it that much more real." He is not frightened, just "very excited, very content with this."

He adds, "It will be a baby bull. I won't be killing it." His ring name? He's thinking of Justiniqui ("little cute Justin"), a moniker given him by Mexican friends. At 5 feet 11 inches and 195 pounds, Justiniqui has been told he'll have to lose weight. "You can't be a fat bullfighter."

He will return to Mexico with his camera late this year and plans to spend six months next year photographing at bullrings in Spain. "The door is open now," he says. "I'm just starting to step in and walk around."

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