British photographer Katinka Herbert has been chronicling Lucha Libre since 2003. Her photos are vibrant portraits of legendary luchadores at home with their kids and equally warrior-like pitbulls, lifting concrete blocks in their kitchens, you name it. A photo gallery on the Telegraph’s website claims that Herbert was given “unrivaled access to these strangely hyper-masculine stars.”
But wait. Doesn’t this sound familiar? Don’t we know a Mexican photographer who’s been doing the same thing for over 25 years? That’s right, the unrivaled champion of luchador photography is not Katinka Herbert, it’s 75-year-old Lourdes Grobet. Grobet’s collection of more than 20,000 negatives highlights the complex duality of luchadores, who play roles as iconic warriors while at the same time basing their aggression and violence on a desire to protect their loved ones and uphold traditional familial values. Rather than attempting to debunk the myths associated with these characters, Grobet “nurtures and expands them in an offbeat way.”
So is Katinka Herbert trying to rip off her predecessor? Is she helping to build and expand these mythical elements of Lucha Libre– which take on tremendous importance in Mexican culture– or is the integrity of the sport and symbolic power in the fighters that represent the masses lost in her flashier shots?
It is fair to say that fans of this type of Lucha-centric photography will enjoy both collections, but there are some striking differences: the colors contrast, the settings collide, the use of masks is more dispersed in recent photos. Regardless, it does seem as though both outsider and insider found distinct ways to promote and empower these cultural icons, upholding the significance of the mask rather than mistaking it for extra makeup.
In The mask in Mexican politics and culture, Lourdes writes that in the fight– “la lucha libre, la lucha social, la lucha por la vida”– the mask is redefined. Its utilitarian use and its deeper, more significant connections to cultural references are one and the same; “In Mexico, politics, culture, ritual and survival are condensed and contained within the mask, which in itself is a central signifier of our cultura enmascarada.”
In the same Telegraph photo gallery, Herbert is quoted coming to terms with her fascination with what she can’t see behind the mask: “It’s still there, in the eyes, as all portraits are… Their relationship to the camera is one of trust. As I hide behind my lens, their character emerges as if less conscious of my presence. They perform. It’s in their bones, beaten over time and worn on the face, never to be seen.”
Ultimately, the line between inspiration and outright infringement is thin and fraught, and there’s no denying Herbert’s work is compelling – if perhaps derivative. Are these photos building on Grobet’s legacy or ripping it off? Sound off in the comments.