Homes of Football
The photographer explains what led him to take football as his subject
People may think I take photographs of everything that moves; my work encapsulates quite a range of subjects under the umbrella of The Homes of Football. Curiously enquirers sometimes ask, ”Do you actually like football?’ as if I am using football – or perhaps it is using me.
In actual fact, as a photographer I am incredibly fussy; I edit all the time: leaving out is almost as important as putting in. In fact, when I look through the viewfinder (old-school camera) I’m saying “nononononononono...no no… nooo…” to almost everything within that frame. I’m saying, “It’s not quite right.”
Then eventually, perhaps 15 times in a day, but sometimes just the once, when there comes a moment when it is right, I say “yes”. I click. I commit to film. A picture is made. I am decisive. The moment is decisive.
But not wishing to confuse, I am invariably decisive about moments which most people would not think worth being decisive about. Muddled messes of moments. Where a clarity can be sought if one looks for it. Mine is often a delving among the scrap of moment and darkness for something shiny, something beautiful.
When I photograph something there is invariably nothing really much happening, nothing newsworthy. No siege. No hostage taken.
And I like that.
I took this approach to football. A popular universal subject. Something I loved and yet felt peculiarly personal about.
In doing The Homes of Football, I have created my own fantasy league world of decisively taken in-between moments in which I am letting an audience look at each with as much interest as the historic and newsworthy. I am asking them to look away from the narrative commanding the back pages of the newspapers (and sometimes the front) to look at my in-between pages which when strung together take on a sort of narrative; a collection is forged by the association of all these rum, vaguely interesting moments.
Yet perhaps I am using a not particularly secret ingredient to get your interest…
A German writer recently looking on my ‘British’ body of work with a fresh eye as sometimes only a foreigner can possess, came to the conclusion that whatever I ‘Clarke’ photographs, there is a cut to the emotional centre of the subject. In essence, Clarke captures passion.
Passion is most evident when I get stuck into my crowd and peopled shots. Less obvious elsewhere: can one really claim a pair of rusting old dilapidated red gates at an entrance to a rusting old dilapidated football ground have ”passion”?
…and yet this shot at Doncaster and its stable-mate at Barnsley have become my marquee, cover glam shots. Beauty is at the source of this passion and this emotion, however disguised by me or by convention.
Indeed there is a secondary match going on within what I do: convention versus not-convention. The one is defined by the other. Sibling rivals.
At the National Football Museum I watched Denise of the education department speak to a class of children with learning difficulties from Bolton. She had to be careful about what she included and what she left out. She tasked herself with dressing each of the 12 children in an item from the Museum memorabilia cache. If she left a couple of items over on the rack or left a couple of pupils with nothing to wear (however unbecoming the wear) it would be a source of distraction and confusion.
Denise chose items like rattles, ancient footballs, boots, to give the kids the chance to touch football in a simple and meaningful way. I was spellbound like a child myself at the beauty of the exchange.
For 25 years of approaching stadiums, crowds, matches, occasions, empty stadiums… in coming face-to-face with people expecting to be photographed and people completely unaware of being photographed and unaware of the power they might portray as a photograph… I am playing a game of 50/50 with your imaginations.
50 is me. 50 is you. I present and you complete photography’s magical spell. You pass over the void to share in the emotion, wallow in the moment, run your finger down the fabric, get acquainted with a piece of a football stand as though it’s yours to inhabit. The passion and the beauty is yours; my photos say, ”You may have overlooked this but you can get a hold of it, now. As I have done.
This is my currency.
From World Cup finals right down to park football… this is all my currency. I am shoulder-barging some other portraits of the game out of the way.
Tripping them up. Undoing their shoelaces and authority and wanting people to look at mine.
I am an exhibitionist, for football. With missionary zeal.
When I look at football – and beyond football, at random stuff in the street or on the TV or in magazines, I could make do without nine tenths of it. Wanting me to handle it, to take a look at it. To buy it. To photograph it.
Actually, I was just being kind, it’s more like 999 out of 1000 things that I do not want to seep into me. Contaminate my brain and soul. Heaven forbid: I could end up reprocessing it and serving it up to you as if I am endorsing it. Perish the thought.
Most of everything visual around us we do not need and might be better off without. Emotional clutter.
All the time I’m fighting the churn of 24-hour news, going up the wall screaming, ”No no no no no no no,” and not seeing a single ”Yes” in any of its content. It’s a form of hypnosis, porn dressed up as football reporting.
To arms. I get out my camera and try to present my fantasy, my football. I do so competitively so that no one else occupies football’s no-man’s land, football’s vacuum, quite like I do. I want to be a player. A host. There aren’t many people having shows and presenting books like I do. Channel ‘Clarke’ is on air.
I do so to fill the vacuum in my own life created by me saying no to almost everything that doesn’t involve a beautiful football.
Thank you for the ball. Sad me… my life is a bit empty when without a ball.
We built a full-sized goal in my back garden when I was seven. Dad built it from found planks of wood, went to the garden centre and bought the netting. He was on the committee of the Berkhamsted Dynamos Junior Football Club. A dad to two of the team.
Dad’s dad before him had represented Berkhamsted’s senior first team before the First World War and then gone on to create his own team, named after the house he had built, fielding his three eldest sons. His fourth son, ‘Dad’, my Dad, was left out for being too young and had instead to mind the back-garden tennis court.
Dad’s chance return to football came later. Here he was now building my brother and me a pitch of our own in the back garden. Here he was getting ahead of the neighbours: their kids would all come to us to play. What a host. In 1970 Dad got the first colour TV in the neighbourhood. Come Cup Final Day our house then garden was rammed with kids and dads. Had he not done any of this someone else surely would have. Again, what a host.
Quite a lot of the Dynamos supported Watford but some supported Arsenal and all of them had football at school, five days a week. Except me. I had rugby, fives and Latin homework. I had a school-imposed curfew which meant I couldn’t roam the streets after 7pm, even though I lived at home with my family.
Even when the circus came to town I wasn’t allowed to go, for in the eyes of the school it would distract. I thought of dressing up as a clown. I worked away at making Watford mine ahead of what Watford might be more easily to the others who could just pop along to Vicarage Road without getting caned. I drew monumental authoritative pictures of the stands and the stadium and then the players. I drew Graham Taylor.
Taylor was unveiled aside my Dad at the Junior Football League End of Season Presentation Night – the new Watford manager. Polite applause. No one in Hertfordshire had seen him before. He was the guest of my dad, the chairman of the League. He sat at our table and inbetween the dishing out of medals and awards he turned to me and my brother, aged 14 and 16, and asked us to jot down our preferred Watford XI, then quizzed us – while signing autographs for boys who hadn’t a clue who he was – why we had and hadn’t chosen so and so in the XI.
We both made Roger Joslyn captain. We argued passionately to Taylor that ‘Jos’ always tries, sets an example. (Indeed Roger went on to lead Watford to two promotions in Taylor’s first two seasons).
The pictures I drew of Graham Taylor were shown about the club and he subsequently commissioned me to draw some more. Then, Bertie Mee, the former Arsenal manager, at the time vice chairman at Watford, commissioned me to do some of him.
I was paid in tickets and yet more tickets for matches. But I was in for a caning. I simply had to bunk off rugby and fives to get to these matches… and had to dodge the bullets on Monday at school: why I had been absent on Saturday afternoon? How many colds or sicknesses can a boy suddenly get?
When eventually I left school, for good, crayons traded in for cameras, it would be 10 more years before I discovered that my love of Watford could be expanded to include the entire professional football landscape.
I began The Homes of Football.
It’s an imperfect storm that brings most things to bear. The Homes of Football began after a visit, a commission, to Liverpool and Glasgow in the same weekend. I was sent to both by Time Out 20 20 magazine.
In Glasgow, following the footsteps of the pop group Wet Wet Wet, I realised that in growing up, character traits of each member of the four-piece was shaped by the football clubs down the road and across the nearby water. By peer pressure. In all honesty I felt that in my own growing up I had a choice to support this or that football team – and I chose Watford (with a short flirtation with Chelsea along the way).
In fact I had the choice whether I wanted to support football at all. With the Wets, growing up in Clydebank, its industries dead or in decline, you had to have a football team. It was ingrained in you. It was every other sentence. A way to get through, a way to get battered – in itself part of the code to get through.
I returned from that wet weekend thinking I had to use football as the anchor to an identity-based long-term project. The Homes of Football.
There had also and more importantly been the Hillsborough disaster and I saw 1989 as a coming of age time to tackle the wider implications of that catastrophe – who we were as a nation that we could have that happen?
Four years earlier in the Lake District, seemingly far away from the football, I had been cleaning out the fireplace of the hotel where I was working, when the owner, flicking through the channels on the TV, paused on live coverage of the Bradford fire, learnt of casualties, tutted, flicked channels. With utter disregard. Puffing on a cigar.
I knew then that a flame inside me was lit for this mere game of football.
Not long before that, a vast illuminating light had been turned on as regards football in the neighbourhood. I used to go to Sunderland and stay in a terraced house in Roker rented by some nurses. I walked the streets. Photographing. Anything. One winter’s evening in 1984, an almighty Close Encounters spaceship volume of light invaded the bathroom, almost pinning me to the wall, relieving me of my aim.
The floodlights were on at Roker Park across the road!
To prize open the rusty terrace window a mere inch doubled, tripled the Roker roar. Again I was pinned back, put in my place.
But the seeds to The Homes of Football were sown before we had the goals in the garden. Back home. Home being important. In the 1960s we had ‘London Children’ come to stay, kids who had never seen a field of grass. Around 1967 Joseph arrived at the station with a priest. My mum asked, “Where’s your things Joseph?” The priest grimaced, shook his head. Joseph had the T-shirt and shorts he stood up in.
But in the days that followed I learnt that he also had ”his Chelsea”. Joseph’s Chelsea, my mum would say. Some time after he went, I started wearing a blue Chelsea bobble hat and shorts and socks, in bed, even though our family was Watford. I had learnt empathy, aged seven, crucial for the photography career I would pursue.