Pro Wrestling Iowa talks to Iowa’s premiere wrestling photographer, Michael Watson, about his shooting style, Colt Cabana, AAW, upcoming art shows, and anything in between.
By Luke Raven (@ravenluke)
Photography by Michael Watson
It’s said that more pictures were taken in 2015 than were ever taken in the history of the analogue camera business and I swear most of them are baby pictures my friends are constantly taking. In an era of Facebook, Instagram, filters, Snapchat, and selfies every single person can see themselves as a photographer. Anyone with a phone in their pocket can capture a moment. However, very few people can capture the moment in between the moments which is when one crosses the line from photographer into artist. And that’s what Michael Watson is – an artist.
“One day it just kind of snapped in my head that I should try pro wrestling photography.”
Watson’s love for wrestling came early. He would wrestle with his dad in the living room and say he was the Ultimate “Lawyler.” Like many, his relationship with pro wrestling was on-again off-again while his love of photography remained constant. As he got older Michael was shooting a lot of local hardcore/punk rock shows, but he found them growing a bit stale. Then like a superkick to the head he had an epiphany. “One day it just kind of snapped in my head that I should try pro wrestling photography,” Watson says.
Pro wrestling will always be there. Some people love it while they’re young, but find new interests. Some love it their whole lives. Some come back to wrestling with a new vigor and are able to add something to it. Wrestling photography is an art form meeting another art form. Watson took the initiative and contacted Des Moines independent wrestling promotion, 3XW. “I fell in love with it that night,” he recalls. In the 4+ years since that show Michael Watson has been lending his talents to indie promotions and shot some of the most unique and passion filled photos you’ll ever see.
“I owe a lot to [Colt] honestly.”
After about 6 months of shooting at 3XW the promotion brought in internet wrestling darling, Colt Cabana. Once again, Watson showed his drive by emailing Cabana and offering to shoot some new promo photos for him. “He took me up on it, we chatted quite a bit at the show, ended up taking him to see GWAR at Wooly’s and Fong’s for some pizza afterwards. The whole night with Colt was pretty surreal and stands out since he was the first guy of that caliber I had any interaction with,” Michael explains. Cabana tells this story on episode 144 of his podcast, Art of Wrestling, where he describes Watson’s photos as “great” and the photographer himself as “nice as can be.” That same night our passionate protagonist tells Colt that he will be coming to the Illinois based All American Wrestling promotion and would like to shoot the show. Watson arrived, Colt told the booker he would be taking pictures of the event, the booker shrugged, and Michael was in. AAW enjoyed Michael’s work so much he has an open invitation to shoot their shows any time he likes which, luckily for wrestling fans, he does. When thinking back to that first AAW show Watson credits Cabana with being able to jump start his career with the larger independent promotions by saying, “I owe a lot to [Colt] honestly.”
“[Kevin Owens is] the absolute kindest, nicest guy and so friendly.”
“I’ve had insane opportunities to shoot really mind blowing talent across the board. It’s crazy to think about now,” Watson says looking back at some of his more surreal experiences. Early on in his professional wrestling photography career he fortunate enough to shoot is current WWE Universal Champion, Kevin Owens, who he describes as, “the absolute kindest, nicest guy and so friendly.” Michael says by the time AAW brought then Kevin Steen in there was already chatter of him being signed by the WWE, so it was expected to be a one off show. Much to everyone’s surprise Steen walked away with the AAW title that night, so he was tasked with taking the pictures that would be used all over AAW’s site and fliers. Steen even used a Michael Watson photo of himself holding El Generico’s mask as his Twitter profile picture for months. Along with AAW, Watson has an open invitation to shoot for Ring of Honor, Chikara, Wrestlepalooza, Pro Wrestling Revolver, and many others.
“My style with wrestling photos is high drama.”
Photography, like wrestling, has different styles. Different flavors. “My style with wrestling photos is high drama,” Watson told me. Most wrestling photogs focus on the action. Michael, however, details his favorite images are “the really contrast heavy, shadowy images that convey a lot of emotion.” If an amateur photographer is lucky he can capture one or two emotions in a match by taking a hundred pictures. A professional photographer with talent, such as Michael Watson, is able to convey an entire range of emotions with a single image.
“Sami is crazy fun to shoot. Very animated and dynamic.”
A great wrestling match can convey a range of emotions from the competitors which draws out the same feelings from the spectators. Michael has been able to shoot these types of matches with some of the greatest names in professional wrestling today. Guys like Kevin Owens, WWE World Champion AJ Styles, IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Champions The Young Bucks, and AAW Champion Pentagon Jr., Sami Callihan, and pretty much anyone else you can think of have been in front of Watson’s camera lens. “Sami is crazy fun to shoot. Very animated and dynamic,” he tells me. Each wrestler brings something unique to a show. When shooting guys he’s familiar with Michael is able to focus heavily on specifics. “When Sabre is tying people up in knots or Ciampa starts setting up for a real vicious knee that’s when I’m really in there,” he explains.
CHEAP HEAT 2: BAD BLOOD at The Lift in Des Moines from 6PM-9PM on December 2nd
Much like the wrestling business, hustling all of one’s hard work is a necessity. Always hard at work Michael mentions he is in the beginning stages of a 5 year, yes, 5 YEAR, project of collecting Polaroid portraits that will include wrestlers from WWE, ROH, Lucha Underground, NJPW, and many more. Personally, I don’t even have the ability to tell you what I’m having for lunch tomorrow let alone have a multi-year project in the works. It’s projects like this that are a true sign of an artist. If you’re like me and don’t want to wait to check out Watson’s work he has an upcoming wrestling art show, “CHEAP HEAT 2: BAD BLOOD,” in Des Moines at The Lift from 6PM-9PM on December 2nd. The show will consist of mostly black and white wrestling photography and a couple collaborative pieces with another artist. Watson tells me he uses a Nikon D800 for digital, a Leica M6 & Ilford 3200 Delta for film, and a Polaroid 680SLR for his Polaroids. Everything you see will be up for sale and displayed at The Lift throughout December. I know where I will be on December 2nd and I know that place will be packed with great stuff with great people.
Photography and wrestling, like any art, are subjective. What one person might love might not be as enjoyable to the person sitting next to them. However, in cases like Michael’s the scales tend to tip away from opinion into fact because of the passion and talent he clearly possesses.. He owns his own business, Forever Gold/Photography by Michael Watson, which we here at prowrestlingiowa.net STRONGLY encourage you check out on Facebook, forevergoldphoto.wordpress.com, or photographybymichaelwatson.com. You can also contact him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. He does everything from wedding/engagement photos to family portraits to concerts to modelling sessions and everything else. He has definitely made his imprint in Des Moines not only with his photography, but everyone that meets Michael describes him as a sincere, positive, fun and genuinely kind person. See you at The Lift on December 2nd!
Thanks to Michael Watson for taking the time to answer a few questions and talk about wrestling, photography, and providing me with the pictures included in this article and in the slideshow below.