‘It’s very tribal’: Martin Parr on capturing the real beautiful game | Photography

DAlthough a Grade II listed building, Warmington House is nestled incongruously into the fabric of Tottenham Hotspur football club’s gleaming new complex in White Hart Lane, North London. It’s like a visitor from another time, and its content is just as evocative of a world and a set of experiences shared with previous generations.

Inside is the OOF Gallery, a contemporary art space which currently houses a selection of football photographs by Martin Parr. These images have a strange duality. Now 69, Parr has been taking pictures for more than 50 years, and his recent battle with cancer has added an extra touch to these samples of his life’s work. Parr traced the course of British football through decay, deindustrialisation and gentrification. They are definitely football photos but always portraits of pitches and supporters, never of the match itself. They are cultural totems, snapshots of memory but also of football as many of us still experience.

For Parr, football fulfills an important function. “It’s a way for people to access emotions. It’s very tribal… It’s an important aspect of creating your own identity. Especially for men; it’s a very welcome way to let go of your emotions.”

Her photos record moments of catharsis, but they also speak of belonging. A memorable image shows Wolverhampton Wanderers ground seats covered in striped Tesco bags. They had been left there by West Bromwich Albion supporters (who are nicknamed the Baggies and play in striped shirts) as a cheeky way of claiming territory. Football culture has always been acerbic and its humor self-generating. Parr captures these nuances brilliantly.

Football – like many aspects of British city life – was once a spartan affair. Parr’s photograph taken in Bradford City in 1979 will trigger a grimace of recognition and a sigh of nostalgia in anyone old enough to remember the 1970s. It’s black and white. Weeds grow through the concrete patios. The men (they’re all men, of course) watch the game intently from as far away as possible. It is a collective, public and yet intensely private experience. The photo is very slightly blurred: it’s a vision, a hallucination of industrial Brittany captured just before obsolescence. They are fragments of the past, caught in the transition.

A photo of Portsmouth supporters on a visit to Bradford captures another transition. We are in 1980 and one era is slowly giving way to another. “From a cultural perspective, you can see how the demographics of football fans are starting to change,” says gallery curator Justin Hammond. “You still have old skinheads with scarves tied around their wrists. You have guys in donkey jackets, which was a symbol of the working man in the 70s. But you have this guy in the back in a duffel coat and Kickers. There is a younger generation that is beginning to infiltrate. It’s the dawn of the casual era. And then just in front, there is a rather glamorous woman, in fur and high boots. At that time, when you see a woman there, it really jumps out.

So what do 2022 fans in replica shirts think of this time capsule in their state-of-the-art football temple? Hammond and co-curator Eddy Frankel see it as an opportunity to want to establish a dialogue between two worlds. Both are Spurs season ticket holders and serious contemporary art curators. “Commercially, it would make perfect sense for us to display pop art prints of Harry Kane or whatever,” says Hammond, pointing to the gallery’s prodigious attendance on game days. “We would make a killing. But we would really underestimate the potential of that.

Martin Parr fills the gap perfectly. “That’s the amazing thing about having Martin,” Frankel says. “He’s a big name and highly respected as an artist. But on another level, his photos are easy to understand. People understand right away… The vast majority of people who come here will never have been to a contemporary art gallery. We indoctrinate people stealthily! »

Lower league grounds are more interesting’: Martin Parr on three of his favorite football moves

Halifax’s Best Boys captured at The Shay, 1979. Photography: Martin Parr/Magnum Photo

Halifax City Supporters, 1977
“It’s a good example of how a small crowd gives you the opportunity to organize people into the frame in an interesting way,” says Parr. “You need that extra guy at the back to balance out the row of sevens and make the image work. It’s a bit of luck in a way. But luck is won in photography. If you wander around long enough, you’ll eventually come across something that will fit.

Hartlepool United fans, 1982.
Resourceful supporters of Hartlepool United, 1982. Photography: Martin Parr/Magnum Photos

Hartlepool United fans on the terraces, 1982
“The kids on the ladder in the back probably got in for free. Again, those lower league grounds are much more interesting: you don’t need to slip a camera into them; you can walk through the crowd and choose an angle; you can go anywhere. In the Premier League you are stuck in one place. I love space but I also love crowds. So it’s a matter of balancing those two things.

Portsmouth fans at Bradford, 1980.
Pompey fans leave Valley Parade, 1980. Photography: Martin Parr/Magnum Photos

Portsmouth fans in Bradford, 1980
“It’s the end of the game. If you have a big enough crowd, you get these amazing flowing waves of people. This is a good example. If you can get a sense of the height at the back of the crowd, that works especially well.

Martin Parr and Corbin Shaw are on display at the OOF Gallery, Warmington House, London, until 8 May.

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