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Boxer Paul Vickery Ramon Barry Kamen
BOXERPhotography Paul Vickery

The boxer who was Barry Kamen’s last muse

Shot by Paul Vickery and styled by the late artist and stylist Barry Kamen, BOXER is the photo book about a young boxer called Ramon – here, Vickery tells us all about it

BOXER is a book with a remarkable story. Or rather stories, plural, because it brings together the tales of three people: a photographer, Paul Vickery; a boxer, Ramon Levy-Vassie and an artist and stylist, Barry Kamen, who sadly passed away in October of last year.

It all began with a fateful meeting on, of all places, the Bakerloo line. Paul, whose work crosses social documentary, portraiture and fine art, and who has long fostered a preoccupation with boxers, was sitting on the tube and noticed a guy – Ramon – who he could immediately tell was a boxer. After approaching him, they struck up a connection which resulted in Paul photographing Ramon – first at his gym, then back on the Bakerloo line – and showing the pictures to his friend, Barry. And that was that. The seed that would one day sprout into BOXER was sown. 

When talking to Paul about this book, he kept referring to this “synergy” that existed between the three and describing their work together as “spiritual”. While these photos have an incredible beauty to them, they also have a depth – when you look at that, you get a real sense of the synergy or spirituality to which he refers. 

The book took on a new kind of significance, however, following Barry’s death. This, it turned out, was to be last of his art-style bodies of work and will remain as a testament to his exceptional talent. Here, Paul tells us about the making of this book, what drew him to Ramon, and what will continue to inspire him about Barry.

Can you tell me a bit about the BOXER book?

Paul Vickery: Yeah, sure. I’ve worked with many boxers before and I really wanted to do a serious book about a boxer, where I literally followed a boxer for a series of months. One reference was The Andy Book by Bruce Weber and I thought I’d like to do an answer, a British answer if you like, to that. Weber’s book is largely documentary and his work is highly stylised – I really wanted to make my own project very personal. I wanted to make it personal in terms of the boxer that I worked with – guess I really wanted to do a British/London thing.

How and where did you meet Ramon?

Paul Vickery: I was sat on the Bakerloo line, opposite him, and he had his hoodie pulled over his head and I just knew straight away he was a boxer. There was this thing about him and I was like, ‘I’ve got to talk to this guy,’ but I wondered how to pick my moment. I waited for him to get off and saw that he was getting off at Paddington so I picked my moment, and got off the tube with him. I stopped him and spoke about his boxing. He was initially surprised by that, but then he warmed up quite quickly. We both knew a couple of boxers, you know, mutual friends, and got into a conversation about boxing.

Out of that, we said we’d do some pictures and see what happens – because you never know where a project is going to lead. It could have been just that set of pictures and that’s the end of it – but I kind of sensed there would be more to it, and so I began photographing Ramon in a documentary way. He was training at Johnny Eames’ gym – TKO in Canning Town (it doesn’t exist anymore), and photographed Ramon there. Then I was like ‘Come on, we met on the tube, why don’t we go back and do some stuff on the tube?’ So the two of us did that – I took all my film cameras along – we had no assistants to help – it was just me and Ramon and we just went up and down the tube for a couple of hours.

What’s he like?

Paul Vickery: Well Ramon is the polar opposite of every boxer that I’d worked with before. You know, a lot of boxers… well lets say it’s a sport with a lot of bravado… many boxers are larger than life characters! But Ramon was very quiet, very considered, very considerate. He’s an artist himself, he paints, he writes… But once he got into his training, once he’s in the ring fighting, it’s a completely different story altogether – a different person emerges. So there are obviously different aspects to someone's character and, again, that’s something I like to reveal in my photography – those different layers to a person.

“Ramon is the polar opposite of every boxer that I’d worked with before... many boxers are larger than life characters! But Ramon was very quiet, very considered, very considerate. He’s an artist himself, he paints, he writes…” – Paul Vickery

What was it about Ramon that you wanted to capture?

Paul Vickery: I knew instantly he was going to photograph well. He has a certain killer look, and I’m pretty good at spotting people and know straight away if they’re going to photograph well. So I knew that was the case, but the more I got to know Ramon I sensed there was a kind of spirituality about him, and we quickly developed an understanding and I thought well, I can definitely work with him and there’s much more to be revealed here.

I’m curious to know what he thinks about the book. Obviously it must be incredibly flattering to have a whole kind of book about you – what’s his response been to your interest and, later, to this project?

Paul Vickery: By his own admission, Ramon initially thought ‘Well, I’ll probably get a few pictures out of it and as a boxer they’re gonna help me promote myself,’ – but, as the project developed, Ramon really understood what I was trying to do with the story. He had gotten used to the camera because he had already done some modelling – he boxed in Mexico before I met him, and he’d done a limited amount of modelling there. So he was used to working in front of the camera but I think when you are being followed around there has to be more to it than that. You have to get on with that person and there has to be a mutual understanding if it’s going to work. Over time the project became more collaborative – Ramon gave as much to the project as I did as the photographer recording what was going on. And then of course, later on, when Barry became involved in the second half of the project, the three of us found we had complete synergy, that special kind of synergy.

How does Barry (Kamen) fit into all of this?

Paul Vickery: I had worked with Barry for a a while before this project. He was always interested in what I was doing so I went along and saw him at his studio in Hackney and said, “Look, I’ve been working with this boxer and I think you’d be interested in the three of us doing something.” I showed Barry the pictures I had shot of Ramon at the gym and the pictures that we’d done on tube, and Barry said immediately; “We gotta work with this kid.” Barry, like me, knew if there was something special about someone. So together we hatched what became the third and the fourth parts of the project. The project is really in four parts. The first part is the documentary stuff mostly at the gym leading up to Ramon’s first professional fight; the next part is the collaborative bit with myself and Ramon on the tube. The third and the fourth parts of the project were myself, Barry and Ramon, all working together.

The third section was shot at Barry’s studio and the last part was shot just outside Maidenhead where Ramon lives. Barry came up with the idea to base some of the work around this stadium in Rome, which was built by Mussolini, called the Stadio dei Marmi. Mussolini, a fascist, had built a stadium with statues of athletes – one of which is a boxer. We thought that together we could turn this idea on its head. Ramon is a mixed heritage lad and we thought we’d turn the Mussolini reference completely around by having this mixed heritage lad as the hero. The statues in the stadium are on plinths and I thought about having a plinth built, and Ramon said to me, “Look, I’ve got this chest at home, I’ll see if I can dig it out.” And of course this chest, it turns out, belonged to his grandmother and when she migrated from the Caribbean to England, she brought all her worldly goods with her in that chest. So we have Ramon standing on his own history. It was another layer to the work and a nice finale to the project.

Looking through the book, I was really reminded of the work of Buffalo. That’s not really surprising given Barry’s involvement in the project, but was this something you were consciously thinking about?

Paul Vickery: You know to answer that I’d really like to read a section from a letter I wrote to a friend after Barry passed. I’d also like to say something about my personal working relationship with Barry:

‘During the time that Barry worked with Ramon, Ramon became something of a muse for Barry. Ramon was aware of this himself and he was undoubtedly flattered by it. Ramon was of course also flattered by me wanting to photograph him over that 12-month period. Barry and Ramon also got on well with each other. There was a mutual respect and Ramon also had an interest in the art that Barry was creating. And while Ramon is too young to be aware of all the earlier connections Barry and I were making, including the Buffalo references, it was certainly something I was much more conscious of. I loved all the Buffalo references among others.

“Barry even says something about that in the book; ‘Not much had to be communicated. We all understood our part in the creative process. We also understood what we were creating’” – Paul Vickery

In the final sections of BOXER shot at Barry’s studio and in Berkshire, Buffalo wasn’t something we talked about because we didn’t need to. We were busy creating the work rather than analysing it at the time. Of course I was aware of the Buffalo references. Barry and I are a similar age group, and I grew up with The Face and Arena and so Barry’s references are also my own references. There was an understanding that went on between us – a communication without words. Barry even says something about that in the book; ‘Not much had to be communicated. We all understood our part in the creative process. We also understood what we were creating.’’

So yeah, of course, those Buffalo references are there but it wasn’t something we consciously set out to do – everything just flowed naturally as we produced the work.

Since publication of the book, a number of people have said to me that the images transport them back to another time and another place. And with hindsight, it may well be that Barry was referencing his past and at the same time, securing his legacy as the torchbearer for Ray (Petri). Either consciously or subconsciously, those references are there. They are of course my own references too and Barry knew that. When you have a meeting of minds there’s a certain magic that happens, and this was a meeting of minds. It’s what makes the work special.

Was this Barry’s last project or one of his last?

Paul Vickery: Barry produced commercial work with a number of brands after this but BOXER is the final art-style body of work we produced together. BOXER captures a moment in time and yet some of those images seem timeless. It was a very spiritual experience between the three of us creating that work. We all knew we’d created something really special.

BOXER is on show at Exposure Gallery, Little Portland Street, London, W1W 8BU, October 5–November 25 2016