Gershman Y presents Jano Cohen’s ‘A Close Look Inside James Shuler Memorial Boxing Gym’

A boxing legend and legacy in photographs

Boxing may not hold the cultural and sporting cachet it once did, but the sweet science is very much alive here in Philadelphia. Philly maintains one of the more active local fight scenes in the country, with regular cards consisting of fighters trained at area gyms. 

"Sam Davis lectures the kids." (Photo by Jano Cohen, courtesy of the Gershman Y)

One of those places is the James Shuler Memorial Boxing Gym, located at Brooklyn and Aspen Streets in West Philadelphia. The fighters are the subjects of A Close Look Inside James Shuler Memorial Boxing Gym, a striking new photography exhibition by photographer Jano Cohen at the Gershman Y’s Open Lens Gallery (presented in conjunction with Philadelphia Photo Arts).

On hand were Cohen; the gym’s founder, owner and operator Percy “Buster” Custus; and John DiSanto, editor of phillyboxinghistory.com. Cohen’s project explores “the mixture of respect, camaraderie, tenderness, and tough love” at the Shuler gym.

Fresh eyes

Cohen is relatively new to photography, having spent more than 20 years as a dancer and choreographer. She took up the discipline in 2011, but this is her first solo exhibition. She was introduced to the world of boxing when she was hired to photograph a Golden Gloves fundraiser. During her research, Cohen discovered the Shuler gym and was taken by its importance as a community center. She began returning again and again to the venue to shoot more photos. 

The images include candid shots of mostly young fighters training at the gym, although some are older, including boxers in their seventies. Cohen and DiSanto hope to turn the photos into a book.

Though Cohen is a photography newcomer, her photos are quite impressive, both individually and as a whole. Whether it's the candid shot of a young girl named Amira sparring with her instructor or a shot of young fighter Rasheen Brown shadowboxing in front of murals of fighters of the past, these depictions of young African-American athletes convey a beauty and humanity that's palpable -- and distinctly Philadelphian.

Cohen renders these images in lovely black and white, conveying an intimate, you-are-there urgency to them.

The exhibition’s most striking photograph shows instructor Sam Davis reaching into the boxing ring and gesturing emphatically to his young charges, two of whom cover their eyes in what might be frustration. It's a vital look at something that's viewed by many as a dying sport.

Black Gold

The Shuler Gym was founded in 1994 and is named for James Shuler, a Philadelphia native who fought as a middleweight and was known as “Black Gold.” Shuler won his first 22 fights, with 16 knockouts, over five years, losing for the first and only time to Thomas Hearns in March 1986. A week after that fight, Shuler was killed in a motorcycle accident in Philadelphia.

After the opening reception, Cohen said, “It has been a challenging but gratifying experience to spend a year on a project that drew me in deeper and deeper. It was difficult to choose only 25 photographs out of the thousands I’ve taken, but these photographs worked well in the setting of the Gershman Y. 

“I’m happy with the sizes I chose and making them all black and white. People walk in and out of the space all day, seven days a week, often in a hurry, so I wanted the photos to catch their eye quickly.”  

The Gershman exhibition doubles as a fundraiser for the gym. Cohen’s prints are available for $100 each, and the gym is also accepting separate donations.

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