BULLFIGHTING HAS captured the hearts of artists of many ilks and eras, from Goya to Hemingway to Laurel and Hardy. For the aesthete, the allure of la corrida de toros is simple. In the matador, writers and painters (and, yes, even slapstick comedians) see not just a sportsman but a fellow traveler, a seeker who's willing to find truths in territory far more dangerous than any studio. "Bullfighting," Hemingway once wrote, "is the only art in which the artist is in danger of death and in which the degree of brilliance in the performance is left to the fighter's honor."
Among the photographers to fall for el toreo is Minneapolis-born Michael Crouser, who shot his first bullfight in Madrid in 1986 and over the next 15 years photographed more than 150 events in the bullrings of Spain, Mexico, Ecuador and France. The result is Los Toros, a stark and stunning collection of photographs released this month by Twin Palms Publishers. The sepia-toned images capture the ballet of the ring and the ambience of bullfighting's grand old arenas, as well as Crouser's own discordant reaction to the spectacle. He's dazzled by the sport's beauty—and made queasy by the brutality of the "cruel fiesta," a term coined by Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa in his introduction to the book. "[T]he bullfight is surreal to me," Crouser writes. "I've found nothing else that affects all the senses so strongly or elicits so many conflicting emotions and reactions." The proof is in his pictures.