kyle cassidy (kylecassidy) wrote,
kyle cassidy

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The Big Austin Roller Derby Post

In which our hero (that's me) continues to wonder if his next book ought to be a book of portraits of roller derby players.


Roller derby, as we know it, started in Austin in 2001. It's the one sport that to discover the origins of you don't have to go back to old newspapers, letters, or the speculation of aged fans trying to write themselves into the story -- you can still talk to the Original Gangsters, some of whom are still playing. Much of this is documented in the 2007 film Hell on Wheels. The birthing pains of the sport split them into two rival leagues, the flashy bank-track TXRD where hocky-like bench clearing brawls are a common occurrence and the more seriously athletic Texas Rollergirls (members of the flat track association being considered for inclusion in the 2020 Olympics). In Austin bar fights start up over which path is the true one. (Later A&E made a totally addicting reality show about TXRD called Rollergirls).

Colin and I had spent Thursday with CenTex, photographing in downtown Austin (which you can read about here.)


I'd called TXRD very late in the game, just four days before my arrival, when I realized that I had an entire day with no portraits scheduled. My experience has been that 80% of the time when you send an email to the address on a team's website you never hear back so I was surprised when TXRD's PR person Jammin E. Cricket got back to me immediately and said she could schedule some portraits for all day Friday.

The sun was really bright but I'd brought my Hoodman, which is a stupidly expensive magnifying glass attached to a rubber funnel you can put up against the back of the camera to block out the light and magnify the image so you can see it in pretty much any light. It's sort of like the old large format photographers focusing with the blackout cloth over their heads. Actually, it's exactly the same thing. Through the Hoodman I could see that things were turning our pretty well, that my exposures were in the right area and that things that needed to get lit were getting lit.

Daisy Duke Nuke 'em

We were on a hill overlooking the whole city of Austin and it spread out before us like possibility.

At one time the hill had been a multi story building and its skeleton remained, a favorite hangout of graffiti artists and skateboarders (the latter skated around us throughout the day while we shot, leaping over things and defying death.) The way the hill was laid out made it really difficult to get from one place to another -- Daisy and I were on the second platform from the top and Colin was up above, he handed some lights down to me and I lit this on myself with the softbox on a 7 foot stand, extended to maximum and a second bare flash laying on the ground aimed up at her legs.

Midway through day two, me with Daisy Duke Nuke 'em, Jammin' E. Cricket, Rosey B. Hind, and Atilla the Nun.

One of the big challenges of something like this is to keep everything fresh and pre-think things that might be useful in an eventual book - like "what if I get half way through and realize that it should be landscape instead of portrait"? The challenge of trying to find good portraits fast is one I enjoy because it prepares you for real-world situations as a photographer where you may get, literally, 60 seconds to photograph some famous person. (About four years ago I was hired to photograph Some Famous Person meeting Two Other Famous People. My "portrait" was to be done right after Some Famous Person got done speaking and right before All the Famous People went off to dinner. I corralled All The Famous People right at the end of the speech managed to take four photos during which Some Famous Person waved his arms and said "how many of these are we going to do?" before walking off. Later his office called to ask if there were any others to choose from but those four, because he had his mouth open in three of them. Hopefully everybody learned a lesson out of this, but I learned to be FASTER, better prepared and MORE INSISTENT. In retrospect I should have had a wrangler whose job it was to get everyone together so I wasn't wasting my shooting time telling people to stop talking and pay attention, I might have gotten eight shots out of it.)

If Colin had been there, I would have gotten all the shots I needed and everybody would have been happy and looked beautiful, cause that's how he works.

Colin and Lonescar from the Cherry Bombs

We did portraits around town until late in the evening, ending up at the practice of TXRD's traveling team the "All Scar Army". Practice that night involves them skating a crazy number of miles around town. We stay at HQ a while and talk to Burr Bank who's been on the team for two years but still hasn't skated in a game because of two broken legs. "Every time I'm about to skate in a game," she says, "I break my leg in practice. I'm thinking of changing my derby name to Ho Broken." A drama teacher by day she's upbeat, if a little stir crazy from being stuck in one place while everybody's out.

Burrr Bank has had two derby broken legs.

The team comes back around ten. Colin and I do a couple more portraits and head back to the hotel to drop off equipment, noting that it's been 13 hours since we started. We end up on 6th street, which is sort of like the French Quarter on spring break. It's only two blocks from the hotel, packed with moving bodies, doormen in front of bars trying to wave you in, and streets full of staggering life.

Somehow we ended up at a roof party

Saturday A.M.: The Thunderdome

We got up early on Saturday to track down Catalac (a star of the A&E show and one of the original TXRD rollergirls) at the Thunderdome -- the true definition of which is "wherever the TXRD rollergirls are playing" so it is sometimes the mammoth Palmer Events Center but today it's a warehouse on the outskirts of town where they're building their new track.

The warehouse is huge & impressive, the track daunting and the signage definitely meant to keep gawkers away.

At the Thunderdome Catalac demonstrates a sleeper hold, not for my benefit, by flattening my windpipe against my spine until everything goes purple. Both she and Colin think this is hysterical. I'm overjoyed that air is flowing into my lungs again.

After glimpsing the short tunnel to the afterlife Colin and I are off to meet up with the Texas Rollergirls. It already feels like we've been in town a month and we're just getting started.

I'd been planning with Texas Rollergirls PR head, Sinnerfold, for weeks ahead of time and she'd meticulously stacked portraits all day long with an incredible skill and dexterity, spread out over time and locations.

Colin and I arrive at the meeting place about 45 minutes early and head off to a bar a couple of blocks away where the bartender is wide-eyed with joy when he hears that we're photographing rollergirls. "Bring them here!" he exclaims, then begins to list his favorites. I mentioned before that rollergirls are like royalty in Austin and it's true.

Behind the scenes action shot with Colin and Kat A. Killzem

This is kind of how things went, Colin with at least one remote controlled flash and a variety of light modifiers, most often a softbox, sometimes on a stand or sometimes completely hand held and me at the other end of the wireless.

Holly Caust was one of the original Philly Roller girls. She's played in L.A. also and now in Austin.

OMG!ina showed up with two of her painting and some brushes. She had a powerful, serene look, we found a tree that looked like a throne or a halo -- something radiant.

We're finally done shooting around 9:00 at night, which means we've been at it for twelve hours, it's all been a blur. We hang out for a bit at the Yellow Jacket Social Club but we haven't eaten all day and we still have work to do. We do a couple of portraits with rollergirls at home, including Electra Bleu, one of Roller Derby's original founders and Curvette, the current captain of the Texas Rollergirls All star team the Texecutioners, now ranked 3rd on Earth. Afterwards we head out to get some snacks with Electra and Curvette at the strangest convenience store turned restaurant turned live music bar -- it makes absolutely no zoning sense but I buy a box of crackers and eat them at a table while we talk about roller derby and Colin is given his derby name "Colin Shots".

Colin and I skip back to the hotel to drop off equipment and run out to dinner P.F. Changs, a fancy Chinese chain that I've never been to. It's nice. I have fried tofu and broccoli. Afterwards we meet Holly Caust and some other skaters at a bar a few blocks away which turns into another bar a few blocks away, which rapidly turns into two or three in the morning.

Holly Caust. You can click to embiggen.

Initially I'd scheduled shoots for early Sunday morning, but when I wake up I'm glad I'd changed things around. It's nice to just be able to pack and go. Holly Caust had said she'd buy us breakfast at Casino el Camino which, oddly enough, was where the first roller derby meeting was held way back on 2001. The restaurant was beautiful and after 14 hour days it was great to sit around doing nothing.

After eating Colin and I walked down to O. Henry's house, we took a photo out in front like a couple of tourists. Colin drove me to the airport and I mailed a story out to Videomaker, got on the plane and started editing photos.

I had most everything cataloged and ordered by the time I landed. The taxi from the airport is usually where I finally start to relax. It felt like I'd been gone a month. So much had happened, I'd met so many people, I got so much done, but it was really good to be home.

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Tags: rolle derby austin texas photography

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