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‘Do It For the Boys’ is a tender show about a violent sport

Photographer Nathan Bolton’s portraits of Rebellion Rugby players are now up at Gallery 263.

Nathan Bolton, "Roy Rogers Beach, 2022."Nathan Bolton

Portraits in black and white alternate with color images of hands in photographer Nathan Bolton’s “Do It For the Boys” at Gallery 263. They depict Rebellion Rugby players in Los Angeles. A bearded player smiles through a stream of blood in “Anthony, 2022.” In “Marcia, 2022,” long pink fingernails glitter with imitation gemstones.

Nathan Bolton, "Anthony, 2022."Nathan Bolton

An amateur club, the Rebellion is an International Gay Rugby member. Bolton, who now lives in Somerville, played with them until he injured his leg in 2022. Then he picked up his camera to document his friends and teammates. It was the club’s 20th season, as well as that of International Gay Rugby, and gay rugby’s world cup, the Mark Kendall Bingham Memorial Tournament.


Rebellion Rugby calls itself “inclusive,” and welcomes players of “all skill levels, body types, ages, and sexual & gender identities,” according to their website. Their counterpart here is the Boston Ironsides RFC.

Nathan Bolton, "Marcia, 2022."Nathan Bolton

“Do It for the Boys” is a tender show about a violent sport. It follows the social-documentary tradition of Danny Lyon, known for his 1960s images of fellow riders in the Chicago Outlaws motorcycle club, and Boston School photographers such as Nan Goldin and Jack Pierson, who covered the queer underground here in the 1970s and ‘80s.

Rebellion Rugby is a proudly public club at a moment in the United States when drag-queen story hours are under attack and LGBTQ books are being banned.

Amateur clubs and marginalized communities each have particular camaraderies that the larger world might not understand. Bolton’s photos suggest these players love and accept each other no matter their athletic skill. In “Roy Rogers Beach, 2022,” teammates dash into the surf together like children.

At its core, “Do It for the Boys” at once celebrates, deconstructs, and challenges traditional notions of manhood that contact sports like rugby can epitomize. An inclusive team breaks open homophobic parameters about touch. There’s overlap between the typical rugby pitch scene of “Huddle, 2022″ and the more relaxed “Ottawa, 2022,” in which one tired player drapes himself affectionately over the back of another.


Nathan Bolton, "Ottawa, 2022."Nathan Bolton

The love and support are palpable. That exists on more traditional teams, but in Bolton’s images, it’s softer, more generous. And these days, if those pictures were in a book, it might be banned.


At Gallery 263, 263 Pearl St., Cambridge, through Feb. 10. www.gallery263.org

Cate McQuaid can be reached at catemcquaid@gmail.com. Follow her on Instagram @cate.mcquaid.