It wasn’t exactly a sucker punch, but Jules Allen was struck by what he found upon entering into Gleason’s Gym: sweat-soaked champs and punch-drunk pugs. Gangsters and posers. Men with hats, stogies and secrets. The leonine and the louche. Wiry trainers possessed of supreme cool and confidence.
Mr. Allen — no stranger to the latter two traits — had gone there to train. He stayed to make pictures. Now, more than 30 years later, he has published those images in “Double Up,” a book that details the bruised beauty he encountered at Gleason’s.
“This was the book I had come to New York to do,” said Mr. Allen, 64, who relocated from San Francisco in 1978. “I didn’t know at the time it would be a boxing book. But I had come here to do something of substance. I wanted to do something culturally specific that would allow me to be culturally general.”
Those principles have guided much of Mr. Allen’s work over the years, which encompasses a number of photographic series on hats, marching bands andnudes, amassing a document of contemporary African-American life. The work is also a pointed response to the kind of photography that he grew up seeing, which presented African-Americans as quiet victims, “folks sitting on the porch” he calls the genre.
“My whole theme as a photographer was I was interested in photographing African-American culture more than anything else,” said Mr. Allen, who has long taught at Queensborough Community College. “I wanted to show a culture of activity. I was tired of seeing photographs of black people sitting on the porch doing nothing. Being victimized. Being dependent. We do things.”
His subjects at Gleason’s were hardly passive. They held their ground.
“Black men are on equal ground in the gym,” he said. “There, you really were what you did. Whatever racism existed, it did not seem to have much effect on the fighters in the room. It was a question of character. It was a place where people seemed to be more equal.”
The idea that he would step into Gleason’s to train in 1983 was not out of character for him. After he graduated from art school in California, he went on to earn a master’s degree in psychology, specifically, he said, to improve his understanding of human nature and photography.
“Before I had no way to approach a disciplined, organized body of work, I was just taking pictures,” he said. “Psychology gave me a context in which I could actually look at the work. How I dealt with what I was looking at. How to talk to people. How to listen to people.”
Though he spent three years on the West Coast working in the correctional system, he had set his sights on New York, finally making his move in 1978. He fell in with other like-minded photographers, kicking around ideas and critiquing one another’s images. He worked out a lot, which is what led him to Gleason’s on the recommendation of a friend in 1983. When he entered the gym, which was on Eighth Avenue just south of Madison Square Garden, he was introduced to Bobby McQuillan, a veteran trainer.
“He had trained Miles Davis,” Mr. Allen said. “That’s all it took for me! He invited me to train. I said, ‘What’s the value in somebody like me training?’ And he said, ‘Son, whatever you do, you’ll do it better if you train with me.’ He told me about what he did, how to breathe, how to move. And then I started seeing a photographic sensibility reveal itself to me.”
He noticed details, from the paint-chipped walls to the hazy air tinged with cigar smoke and liniment. The way the money men huddled in corners, scheming, while boxers trained nearby unaware. The men who showed up everyday to schmooze. In one image, a man lifts his pants leg to reveal a revolver in an ankle holster.
“That cat did 15 years in the joint for murder,” Mr. Allen said. “He used to tell me, ‘You come here like you’re sophisticated. But you don’t know this world. You’re sophisticated outside, with schoolbooks. But you don’t know what you’re doing here.’ All I could say was, ‘You’re right. You’re right.’”
But he learned. His pictures show champions in repose, their hands held just so against their tailored suits. In one photograph, a trainer’s hand pokes in from the side of the frame as he shows a young boxer how to hold his arm for the camera.
“Rodney Watts, I boxed that cat,” Mr. Allen said. “I mean to say, I was in the ring with him, you understand. It was like trying to box the wind. Every time I went to throw a punch, he was somewhere else.”
“Double Up” will be featured in this Sunday’s Metropolitan Section.