by Muckety Muck, Derby News Network Contributing Writer – Photos by Bob Dunnell

On the night of Arch Rival Roller Girls local events at Midwest Sport Hockey in Ballwin, he is usually one of the earliest ones to show up in order to ply his trade. Conversely, he might be one of the last ones to leave, well after the make-shift flat track has been pulled up and the chairs have all been folded and stored.

He hauls cases containing his own set of “derby gear” to the venue on bout night. However, it doesn’t consist of a helmet, skates and pads. For this photographer, it contains cameras, lenses, lights and other accessories whose total monetary value equals that of a small car.

Bob Dunnell: "Mr. McWheely" in action. Photo credit: Papa Lippy

Meet St. Louisan Bob Dunnell – known in the derby world internationally as “Mr. McWheely” – who photographically documents the action, on- and off-track, for ARRG.

“I am trying to really just show a good sense of what’s going on,” says Dunnell of his art. “For action, I like to see bodies flying, or reactions from good hits, or people twisting themselves in ways they shouldn’t be able to – that kind of stuff.  It shows that this is real and the people that are doing it are amazing.”

ARRG skaters – including those who are practitioners of visual media – can appreciate and respect Dunnell’s body of work.

all-stars1“When we first started, we had no photography,” says ARRG skater South City Shiner, herself a graphic artist by trade. “Derby photography is really niche photography. Bob’s experimenting is the best aspect that the league could ask for.  No one asks him to do that, he just does it.”

“And then we get the benefit of those images that come out,” she adds. “It really is magic.”

But it’s not just the local derby community that notices McWheely’s work.

“Photographically, Bob is in a league of his own,” says Indianapolis-based photographer Marc Lebryk, who covers derby action for the Naptown Roller Girls. “He’s come into his own through roller derby and he is not willing to settle for anything less than the best. ”

“When he started out he knew he had a lot to learn and now has progressed into being one of the best roller derby shooters around,” he adds. “Bob isn’t one to think something is impossible, and that’s one of his best qualities.”

Well that, and his humble approach.

375270_10150408316864716_590594715_8709244_1379431506_n“He’s completely willing to take direction when he is lost (in life or photographically),” says Lebryk. “And he is always more than grateful to see a friendly face and a warm smile.”

The path to becoming one of the most-respected photographers of the sport nationally was equal parts skill, luck, friendship…and perhaps initially…boredom.

Originally a music major in a college, Dunnell’s interest in photography began after feeling unfulfilled by his initial course of study, which resulted in a switch to mass communications.

“I had a bunch of introductory photography and journalism classes and the political biases in the journalism classes were so severe that it totally turned me off,” says Dunnell, who then switched to computer science as a major.

And although the academic transfer netted him occupation upon graduation, he personally felt there was still an internal void to fill.

“I didn’t really have much of a creative outlet,” he says. After casually shooting pictures with a pocket digital camera – earmarked by slow shutter speeds – he went out and bought a DSLR camera as a toy.

“I kind of understood the fundamentals, but really had no clue otherwise as to what the hell I was doing,” he says. “But the camera had buttons and dials. If there’s one thing I am good at, it’s figuring out things with buttons and dials.”

rsaNow with newfound hobby in tow, Dunnell began to turn his attention towards subjects remembered while growing up, which included roller derby.

“I used to watch ‘Roller Games,’ the figure 8 track one, and regular roller derby on television,” he recalls. “When derby showed up again, it seemed pretty cool.  Hot women beating each other up…and it’s real?  Okay!”

His initial relationship with the league – and derby in general – was like that of any spectator that has friends who skate. After attending one of ARRG’s early fundraisers in 2005, a skater recommended to Dunnell, the new possessor of a high-end digital camera, to come and shoot a bout.

He accepted the offer and photographed the second bout of ARRG’s first local season in 2006.

“It was exactly what I was looking for in a social event – music, cool people, lots of stuff going on,” recalls Dunnell of his first derby photo experience. “I didn’t know anyone but I got right next to the teams anyway. I have photos from the bout and there are a few keepers even though I had no clue what I was doing.”

Personally, the experience fulfilled that need. Yet, Dunnell wasn’t sure if the sport locally would progress beyond cult status.

“I figured it didn’t really have legs, everyone would probably get tired of it in a year or two and it’d be over,” says Dunnell.

lghtingLittle did he know that that early ARRG event would merely become the genesis of a long journey that continues six years later.

That’s not to say that there wasn’t the proverbial” learning curve” for Dunnell early on. Like any shutterbug that is given advanced technology, he overshot his early ARRG bouts. In the early stages, it was not uncommon for Dunnell to take over 2,000 images, 800 of which he kept at the end of the evening.

Early constructive criticism was offered in order to lessen the load.

“South City Shiner yelled at me to be more selective – and she was right,” Dunnell said.

“It’s true,” Shiner recalls. “I told him that he needed to become his own art director. As a photographer, part of the development that you go through is knowing what’s good and understanding your own filtering capabilities. You have to hone that as you go through that experience.”

It was advice that was well received.

“Now I watch more,” says McWheely. “I am better at anticipating action and now come out of the average bout with 500 to 600 shots, of which maybe 100 to 150 go online.  I would be even more selective than that but some people don’t get a lot of playing time and I want to try to get everyone in.”

jammersHis ARRG visual peer would agree…quality does indeed trump quantity.

“He’s gotten so much better at narrowing down to what’s select,” says Shiner. “Part of the development of being a photographer is knowing when you’ve got that magic shot and being able to understand what that magic shot is.”

Like any craftsman, the tools used to create imagery are imperative to Dunnell, whose brand of choice for camera body and lenses are Nikon.

“I currently use a D700 camera body with a variety of pro lenses,” says the photog. “The most common one is a 70-200mm f/2.8 lens, which is fairly large in size. I also carry some shorter lenses for working up close or in really low light. I’m also looking at getting a longer lens, such as a 300mm f/2.8, which also has a pretty hefty price tag but would let me reach in closer to the action for close-ups.”

Lighting (or in some cases for some venues, the lack thereof) brings about another set of challenges. For the ARRG home bouts, he runs a set of 4 to 5 Nikon speedlights, which, according to McWheely “is the fancy name for what most people call a ‘flash.’”

lighting“All of the lights are divided into three different zones and controlled wirelessly via Pocket Wizard radios,” says Dunnell. “The Pocket Wizards really open things up and let me do stuff I couldn’t do before with radio flash, because I can shut zones off or adjust their levels in the field without having to run across the room. ”

This is extremely helpful when covering in the 10,000 square foot of flat-track surface that an ARRG team plays on.

“If things just start going crazy and I need a shot in an area that I am not covering, I can put all the zones into “auto” and the flashes will join forces like Voltron and do their best to light it no matter where it is in the room,” he says. “It isn’t perfect but it helps.”

Perhaps Dunnell is his own worst critic. Others have noticed the effort and the results.

“I’ve watched him grow over the last five years with the lighting,” says Shiner of the progression. “It’s been really amazing with what he’s done with that. He’s explored the lighting possibilities. He’s done that on his own and grabbed onto that.”

5“I really look forward to seeing what Bob does with his lighting and how he photographs derby bouts so that I may be able to steal/find inspiration from his adventures,” adds Lebryk, who often works alongside Dunnell at various WFTDA tourneys and invitationals. “This is subsequently how we’ve informed camera gear makers in delaying in their product’s timing, as well as have discovered new ways to tether our lights together at arenas.”

During the course of a local ARRG derby bout, Dunnell ventures into several prime locations within the boundaries of play in order to set up shop.  This includes an area inaccessible to outsiders, the center oval of the flat-track.

“That is great for action shots and getting some shots of the refs, who usually have to go without,” he says.  ”I also like facing right into turn 1 along into turn 2, and depending on the venue, the middle of the straightaways can lead to some really good results, too.”

Dunnell finds this accessibility critical for unrestricted photojournalism.

dallis1“There are a lot of things that go on behind the scenes that affect what kind of images you get,” says Dunnell. “ARRG is pretty relaxed compared to some leagues and it is really helpful to take things that I’ve done locally and show them to other leagues.”

Not only does this include the other leagues associated with the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association, but also the Men’s Roller Derby Association, whose local franchise – The STL Gatekeepers – are also constant subjects of McWheely’s discipline.

Regardless of the league’s gender, if there is a derby bout held in St. Louis on a weekend, safe money says that Dunnell is there. If there is a St. Louis-based travel team playing out of town on a weekend that has no action locally, safe money also says that Dunnell is there. Rare is the weekend that he doesn’t have a women’s or men’s derby event on his schedule.

Taken at the WFTDA 2011 National Championships

The distance travelled to document the action can add up in a hurry. According to his own records, Dunnell in 2011 alone travelled 5,700 miles by car and 4,000 miles by air to cover derby, both men’s and women’s. This included the WFTDA 2011 National Championships held in Colorado last October that according to the Dunnell, had 57 photographers credentialed.

Of course, regional and national derby events give McWheely the chance to work with his peers.

McWheely also covers the St. Louis Gatekeepers mens flat-track franchise.

McWheely also covers the St. Louis Gatekeepers mens flat-track franchise.

“(Minnesota’s) Preflash Gordon was the first guy I ever saw using off camera flash and that blew my mind,” says Dunnell. “You mean you can run that with no wires?  A total Keanu Reeves ‘whoa’ moment.  Plus he’s got the biggest heart and you can tell how much this all means to him, so he’s great to work with.” He also cites national derby lensmiths Axle Adams and Phil Peterson as influences.

And there is the camaraderie and respect shared with fellow North Central shooter Lebryk.

“I really like working with Marc,” Dunnell says. “We turn into mad scientists and goof around a lot with accidentally epic results. I am honestly surprised we have not set anything on fire yet.”

“That’s more than true,” agrees Lebryk. “If you’ve seen my hair lately you’d think I lived my life that way. I always love working on projects with Bob. He definitely brings a great mind to the table.”

And this working relationship pushes the duo creatively – yet there’s always room for a little dose of levity.

practice“He tends to bring out the ‘why not?’ side of me,” says the Indy shooter. “Usually, we encounter someone or something that is just going to make a project a bear. But when Bob’s there, either he’ll make a wisecrack or I will towards a solution.”

“Then, we’ll look at each other and decide “why not?”

And perhaps that’s how Dunnell answers questions when asked about his decision to invest time, money and sweat equity in order to voluntarily document the sport.

Actually, the answer is more direct.

“These are athletes that are doing awesome things and setting great examples,” McWheely says. “The work ethic and skill in high level derby, mens and womens both, is just amazing.



To see more of McWheely’s work, go to his webpage right here.

COMING UP TOMORROW AT 8 AM FOR ARRG’s “30n30″: Mayor Francis Slayer, Chewblocka, The Oregon Betrayal and Munchausen by Foxy. These are just a few of the examples of the creative derby names that emblazon the jerseys worn by the ARRG skaters. It’s a unique element of the sport. But unfortunately, some names found nationally don’t exactly co-exist with the “all-ages” audience that derby targets. ARRG Bout Co-Announcer Magilla Guerilla looks at their use, their misuse and examines if they’re necessary if the sport wishes to expand to a more mainstream level nationally. On Sunday, “Guerilla Uncaged” looks at the “nom de skater.”

ARRG’s “30n30″ is a daily feature that examines different aspects of the Arch Rival Roller Girls – St. Louis’ first female flat-track roller derby franchise. In this section every morning at 8 AM for the entire month of April, a new feature will be presented.


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