This past weekend, SLAM! Wrestling photographer Andrea Kellaway took her keen eye for portraiture (and her camera!) to visit with the one and only Superstar Billy Graham in his Phoenix home. Graham, just days released from the hospital after a near-death bout with the flu and pneumonia, can still pose like a young WWWF World champion.
It was raining on Saturday when we arrived — I am told it only rains six days a year in Phoenix, so lucky us. It was pouring so hard that The Score’s Arda Ocal and I got soaked walking from the car to Superstar Billy Graham’s apartment unit.
We knocked at the door and were greeted by a very animated Superstar. I was expecting to greet someone who had just gotten of the hospital, and I feared he might appear to be a little run down from his hospital stay, but there were no signs he was ever sick two days ago.
He was quick, and funny, and a gentleman, even offering to move furniture out of my way.
Of course, this is a man who still goes to the gym at age 69 and can’t wait to get back.
We were asked inside, and offered wash-cloths to dry off with. I went to close the door and he said, “No, please leave it open.” He explained he loved the sound of the rain, that he doesn’t get to see it much, and how it’s a wonderful break from the Arizona sunshine. He said that he could sit for hours painting with his door open and the sound and smell of rain in the background.
After towelling off, we talked about his art, and from there I started photographing him while he painted with the sound of Bob Dylan on the CD player, and the rain in the background.
While I photographed him, he talked about everything — wrestling, the weather, his family, and painting.
His painting of a cactus is his favourite, and it has received some acclaim. That day, he was working on a painting of a hawk. As well, there was an unfinished rhino.
Before every shoot I try to envision the images I want to capture. After a conversation with my editor on this, I knew I was going to photograph Superstar painting, the rest was up to me. The next thought I had was about his hands, and maybe a nicely lit window portrait of him looking outside.
As soon as I arrived and surveyed the location, I quickly realized his home was not what I had visualized in my head. My original thoughts for the photograph included a giant window, with an artist’s easel and the Superstar sitting on a stool in front painting. As you look through this gallery you will not see this image, simply because the location, and that story doesn’t exist.
This is not the first time a location has been different than my visualization — in fact it happens all of the time. And this is why every portrait sitting is unique.
From the second I walked in his home I knew I wanted to photograph his home just as much I wanted to photograph him.
Other than a photo from the WWF music video “Piledriver” on his dresser, a copy of his autobiography, and a painting of himself in the ring that hangs in his kitchen, you would never know that he had been a wrestler, let alone a WWWF World champion.
His face is full of character, his hands are beaten up, and these are the expected character traits of a retired pro wrestler.
The unexpected, for me was his apartment. His home is the story nobody knows, and I felt it was just as important as photographing Superstar himself. The portraits of Superstar you are viewing are the portraits I visualized in my head after talking to him for a few minutes, and after looking around his home for a half hour. These images are “The Story” he let me experience and capture, and tells a different tale of Superstar than you will find in the video interview.
It was obvious that he was having a good time reminiscing, and it was equally obvious he loves telling stories!
Once I was done, and Arda shot his video, we packed up to go. Superstar again offered the wash-cloth to me to take. “You might need this,” he said.
I thanked him very much for his time and we were off.
It was a cool experience.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Thank you to Devon Nicholson, a.k.a. Hannibal, for helping to make this special photo shoot happen. Nicholson is also suffering from Hepatitis C like Graham.