International exhibit features Pellissippi State Photography instructor’s work

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Portrait of a man with a mustache in navy blue suit with a yellow tieJohn Edwin May’s photographs capture a microcosm familiar to some but seldom chronicled by professional photographers: small-town wrestling. May, who teaches photography at Pellissippi State Community College, has a regional following that recently expanded to an international audience.

May’s work was selected by judges for the ONWARD Compé international photography competition to be displayed in an April 12-14 exhibit in Philadelphia. Juried each year by a leading figure in contemporary photography, ONWARD Compé spotlights new work that pushes the boundaries of the medium.

May entered three photographs from his series “Bell Time,” a project that spans five years and continues today.

The artist first attended a wrestling match to assist a student who asked for some help with lighting. The performers and fans captivated May. In fact, the spectacle compelled him to return again and again to high school gyms, armories and flea markets throughout East Tennessee.

Male professional wrestler walking towards ring with smoke and lights behind him.
KFW wrestler Keith Knox makes his way to the ring for a match at the National Guard Armory in Pigeon Forge during the annual Black Harvest 2012.

“I really enjoy the special exchange that happens at this spectacle, because the crowd is as much a part of it as the wrestlers are,” he said.

May was one of 53 photographers chosen for the Philadelphia exhibit. Contest organizers compiled 2,100 submissions from 29 countries for the sixth annual competition. Guest juror Mark Steinmetz chose a total of 80 submissions for the first-round selection in late March and narrowed the field for the exhibit selection. Steinmetz is a Guggenheim fellow whose has work in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Museum of Modern Art, among others.

Male wrestler with championship belt on his shoulder and he bleeding from his head.
“Black Top Bully” with the Extreme Wrestling Alliance in Newport in June 2011. On this night he had just won the Extreme Heavyweight Championship Title.

In addition to exhibiting at ONWARD Compé, May’s work was displayed in the online Galerie and printed in the exhibition catalog.

While attending the exhibit and two-day ONWARD Summit, May said he planned to participate in conference workshops and bring that knowledge back for Pellissippi State students. He teaches a range of photography courses at Pellissippi State and shares his work with students. He says that he wants them to see the rewards that can come from long-term projects such as “Bell Time” and to observe how work in local, regional, and national shows can translate to an international exhibit.

In addition to recognition from exhibits, May’s work has gained a following through social media. He shares his photos on his website ( and Facebook page, where he has almost 1,000 friends that follow the “Bell Time” series.

Two male wrestlers grappling and one in a headlock submission on the mat.
Two grapplers square off in a Tennessee Mountain Wrestling match last year. Lee Moore has Joe Webb on the mat in a headlock during the Anderson County Fair 2012.

Fans and performers know May, and he receives invitations to matches in Tennessee, Kentucky, and Georgia. He attends matches two to three times a week and always discovers something new to photograph.

“Each one is different. I just look for new things,” he said. “And now that I am becoming more known, more people will approach me and talk to me about my work. If they can’t make the wrestling event, they like to go and look at the work and see what they missed that night.”

To learn more about Pellissippi State’s Photography concentration, one of four in the Media Technologies degree program, visit