Photographer Kevin Lynch was given an all-access pass to chronicle Ultimate Fighting Championship's mixed martial arts scene. Four years later, he emerged with a collection of images as jolting and disturbing as a haymaker to the face.
"This wasn't about me looking for the perfect scar or wound," Lynch says in his light-infused La Brea Avenue studio. "What I was looking for is the emotion these guys go through, the exploration the fighter and his opponent take. Not a lot of us understand the courage, the bravery, the camaraderie they experience together."
Born in the U.S. and raised in Europe, Lynch grew up a NATO brat. He assisted photographer Horst Wackerbarth with his "Red Couch Project." Lynch crisscrossed the nation in a van for several years, reacquainting himself with his native country while arranging portraits of Americans with the eponymous couch.
In the early 1980s, Lynch settled in L.A. to apprentice under Greg Gorman. Gorman was a "major inspiration," Lynch says, for his conceptual portraits. He left Gorman about eight years ago to pursue his own business, which includes movie posters and fashion shoots. Now 49, Lynch lives with his wife, Hillary, and son in Santa Monica.
In 2002, Lynch was hired by UFC for a marketing campaign. Owned and operated by Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta and Dana White, the Las Vegas-based company was in the process of turning mixed martial arts -- which combines elements of jujitsu,wrestling, boxing and kickboxing -- into a pay-per-view behemoth to challenge boxing's hegemony.
"It's a sport for these times," art and cultural critic Dave Hickey says. "It's scruffier and rougher than boxing, and it's much more about heart than skill."
The raw violence inside the eight-sided ring (known as the "Octagon") transfixed Lynch, and almost immediately he envisioned a grander project. The Fertitta brothers, whom Hickey describes as "serious art guys," embraced and financed his vision.
Lynch documented UFC's mega-bouts and took signature before-and-after portraits of champs Chuck Liddell, Georges St-Pierre and B.J. Penn. In a fight of less than 15 minutes, he says, "you see a face transformed physically and emotionally. Before the fight, he'll be overly confident or secretive. In the after pictures, he shows elation, disappointment and despair."
Lynch spent another year culling images with curator Michele Quinn. The result was "Octagon," an enormous, leather-bound tome. Published by PowerHouse, the deluxe edition sells for $7,500. Last year, DK/BradyGames produced a trade hardcover for $40.
This week "Octagon" debuts at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego in downtown. The exhibit, through Sept. 27, includes a grid of 400 before-and-after portraits and an abstract image of carnage called "Blood Triptych."
Simultaneously, Lynch photographed the years-long effort that he and his wife undertook to conceive their son. That series of impressionistic images, "Watercolors," is being released this month by PowerHouse. " 'Octagon' is the yang," he says, and " 'Watercolors' is the yin."