Fans for the memories

by Garry Cook (published in Practical Photography magazine, June 2006)

When Prime Minister Tony Blair says your work is full of ‘raw emotion and unique’ you know you’re doing something right.

Stuart Clarke has been taking photographs in and around football grounds for fifteen years.  What makes him different, unique even, is his lack of interest in the games themselves. His photographs concentrate on the passion of the fans, the sculpture of the stadia and those inconsequential moments that most of us miss.

Breathtaking photographs in football are not unusual, but surely no single person has managed to produce as many beautiful, amusing and descriptive images of the game as Clarke. Just look at the euphoria on the Manchester City fans’ faces at Ewood Park, or the Sunderland fans looking up in his most iconic photograph.

Clarke’s world of football is like no other. From nothing he created his own gallery in the Lake District town of Ambleside on the off chance it would succeed. It did. He launched a touring exhibition that few curators wanted to put on. He turns them away now.

As we sit in the upstairs office of his gallery beneath a huge black and white photograph of four children at Clydebank’s former Kilbowie Park ground – one gestures a ‘V’ sign at the camera – it is hard not to be impressed with what Clarke has achieved.

Anyone who has accidentally stumbled across Clarke’s gallery in the Lake District will know what a delightful surprise it is. He has also has produced five stunning books, while his exhibition has graced no less than 88 venues across Britain. Not impressed yet?

In 2006 Clarke began a jaw-dropping world tour which saw his beautiful pictures across six continents and in 14 countries.

After completing a degree at the Polytechnic of Central London (now the University of Westminster) Clark, born in Hertfordshire in 1961, was forging himself a promising career in media photography. But while on commission in Glasgow to photograph the history of the Scottish pop band Wet Wet Wet, Clarke visited Clydebank’s stadium (the very match which produced the picture in his office) and got his big idea. He began turning up unannounced at empty football grounds – often up to seven in a day – as he devised his plan to archive the Britishness of British football.

When Clarke began his quest, football was living under the shadow of the Bradford, Heysel and Hillsborough disasters. He has clicked away as the game has transformed from a decrepit, cold and rusting sport into an expensive, pristine product.

Clarke’s power is in his quirky observations. By all means admire the technical brilliance, the lush colours and the moments he has captured, then study the more candid shots and understand what they say about us. But don’t turn up to the free to enter gallery expecting posed shots of David Beckham.

Clarke explains: “I kind of do a bit of a story that is unfolding without necessarily doing any momentous moments. If I’d been at Crystal Palace’s ground when Eric Cantona jumped on that guy I would have loved to have got that picture because I knew it was historic, but the history I am getting is almost the inbetween moments and everyday moments.”

His early work was shot in black and white but he says he soon realised the power of colour in football.

He says: “I began in black and white because that was what I was trained for. But I quickly thought this has got to be in colour, Chelsea were blue, Watford yellow, Sunderland red and white. It’s the nature of our support. There is so much colour association.”

The interest shown in him now is a far cry from when he first tried to launch the exhibition. In the early days he found it difficult to persuade curators to put on his show. His first exhibition was launched at Burnley’s Towneley Hall. “Curators were women in art galleries who thought football was for the back pages of a newspaper. Why bring it into an art gallery? It was quite a victory for me to that some of them had to eat humble pie, over-ruled by their bosses, to put on a show which brings in the numbers.”

Clarke says he takes between 15 and 60 shots when visiting grounds and can expect to get one or two ‘crackers.’

He has embraced the digital age in as much as he now has an in-house Imacon scanner and printer, combining Laserchrome photographic prints digitally imaged on Durst Lambda to Fuji Crystal Archive paper with trusted Ilford Cibachrome prints, but he refuses to put down his trusty medium format Bronica – despite the occasional nightmare that they will stop producing film for it.

“People keep telling me, ‘you’ll be trading that in soon for a digital’ but I think in my mind as long as I can I’ll keep going with it. I feel comfortable with it. It feels part of me. I don’t have to think about what I’m doing. The feel and the style of the imagery would change a bit in digital.”

But he worries: “What if film is going to be outlawed? I don’t want to be left trying to find some film and a lab which will develop it. If I can see that coming I’ll have to make the change beforehand.

“I used one Bronica for many years until it stopped working. Now I’ve got three. I’ve just got two more because I fear I won’t be able to get them anymore – and brand new because their almost as cheap brand as second hand. They are amazing quality.”

And he reckons the lookdown viewfinder suits his work. “I like that because it relaxes some of the people because they don’t actually realise I’m photographing people,” he says. “They just get on watching the game – I don’t want them all staring at me. I don’t use any zoom lenses, I just use my standard lens and get close up, I like the simplicity of the process.” He prefers Kodak EPP and Fuji Provia film. His awesome stadium panaromics are taken with a now obsolete Widelux camera.

Taking his pictures abroad offered a new perspective for Clarke.

“For years it’s been about Preston and Rotherham the English minutia of the game,” he says. “But I really want to test the best of those pictures over fifteen years and see if they can stand them up for a foreign audience. Will they find them interesting?

“I think the difference is that with the English pictures I assumed a lot. That the viewer would know why it’s funny to laugh at Doncaster Rovers or Rotherham. But take those pictures to Madagascar or South Africa… apart from really big clubs like Man Utd and Chelsea they won’t really know too much about our traditions and folk stories.

“And bringing pictures back from South Africa or Madagascar to Britain the same is true – they’ve got to be pictures which really draw people into them just by the way they look and not because they mean something if you read all the captions.

“They’ve still got to be very iconic. After fifteen years I feel very confident that I’ve trained my eye to find things that are very iconic, that are very simple, strong composition that draw the eye in. Colours and shapes, strong imagery. Pictures that make you go, ‘wow,’ even if you don’t like football.”

He says his inspiration comes from two sources. “Lowry was in my mind, his going to the match picture, and the photographer Donald McCullin – not that he ever touched football but that feeling of walking down the street, of less than sparkling lives but people making the most of it. Football was very central to those people’s lives and that was the great attraction for me.”

During his time working within football Clarke has seen many transformations. He doesn’t think a budding photographer would find it so easy to follow in his footsteps today.

“Then you could say Mr Groundsman, can I come in and take a few photos?” he recalls. “He’d be pleased. He’d put his fork down and show you around, share a few jokes with you. Today the marketing man would be very curious as to what you wanted to do with these pictures and whether it had any conflicting use with what they wanted to do.”

With plans for up to nine books – including some non-football projects – the next five years are well mapped out.

But his passion for football remains at the forefront of his work. His plan for the Germany World Cup is typical. “The proximity means there’s a chance of me coming back in the middle of it to see how people are enjoying the World Cup back in Ambleside and Burnley.” There aren’t many who would swap the stunning Olympia Stadion Berlin for a few days in darkest East Lancashire. Is that true passion or football fever?

There can be no more seen image of Clarke’s than his quintessential John Motson capture. Luck or good judgement had Clarke at Wycombe Wanderers ground in 1990, the morning of an FA Cup tie. You will have seen the film of BBC commentator Motson suffering the extreme cold in blizzard conditions.

Motson himself admits: “This photo did more for my image than I could have imagined. It has also made the sheepskin coat a cult garment. The amount of people who ask where was it wand when… I tell the story about the localised snowstorm – always a good start for after-dinner speeches. I have a big pile of it in postcard form – thanks to Stuart – which I use for special occasions and thank-yous.”

One of Stuart Clarke’s best known images is ‘Looking Up’, taken at the Fulwell End of Sunderland’s former Roker Park home. It has an incredible tension about it.

Clarke, a Watford fan, says: “Sunderland kids looking up – everybody loves that pictures, or the Manchester City crowd going mad [at Ewood Park when they won promotion]. Some pictures go beyond their own teams. Even Manchester United fans will admit to liking that picture.”

Of the Manchester City picture taken in 2000 Clarke says: “It is a goalkeeper’s view of the crowd, with the fans going bananas, a big sort of panoramic sweep of the crowd and the guy with crutches gives it something, a bizarre shot. There is something almost biblical about it. I love that and also, commercially, it’s sold loads of copies for me. That’s not bad.

“Looking up with the Sunderland fans is a bit more studied. It was very composed and thought out. I had stared at this group of people for 25 minutes before I took the picture. I picked the moment. The other one was more spur of the moment.

“Those two pictures mean a lot to me. Crowd shots, because of the human factor, although I love empty stadiums because I know they were built for people by people. The simplicity of some pictures like the red gates at Doncaster. I think that’s my skill. I’m not sure everyone sees it. But those quirky little things are me at my observant best.”

All images © Copyright Stuart Clarke

(except the image of Stuart Clarke which is © Copyright Garry Cook)