Eye on the ball: Stuart Clarke on 20 years of capturing the changing face of British football

By Ben Miller | 03 November 2010
A photo of a man staring up at the camera while holidng a football on a beach
Artist’s Statement: More than two decades ago, Stuart Clarke began his Homes of Football project with a “mission” to photograph the changing face of football in the aftermath of the Hillsborough tragedy and the Lord Justice Taylor Report which followed it. He is currently preparing to launch his new book, Cradle of the Game, and move from his Cumbria gallery to a new home at Manchester’s Urbis centre…

"I got into photography as a way of recreating the world around me, and collecting it as moments elongated. Girls I would never marry would join my family album. And at football, photography provided a way to unravel and then add to its mystery.

I alone discovered photography, then discovered that others had trodden my path before me. Donald McCullin, from England, was eccentric, and Elliott Erwitt, from America, was humorous. Another America photographer, W Eugene Smith, was a campaigner.
[Jacques Henri] Lartigue was the young boy genius with a camera from France, there was the systematic August Sander from Germany, Robert Frank from Switzerland was a road tripper, and Jan Saudek, from Czechoslovakia, was erotic.

I dislike Martin Parr, who gets in the way and is not my idea of a photographer. There are a few painters, filmmakers and sculptors, plus Banksy, who I would rather tip my hat to.

A photo of fans at a football match staring intently forward
Hull City, Staring into Space (2007)
I was with pencil before I was with camera. I was with football before I was with either. Football linked my “art”, my family, my nation, my obsessive nature…sexual awakenings were in there somewhere too.

I watch half the game as a fan-cum-analyst, then release the roving eye to round up all that I glimpsed in the first half and before kick-off and doubtless things not really connected with either.

I love so many clubs, having been to so many clubs and met their tea ladies. Watford started it, and I was fascinated by 1970s Chelsea. Then I moved on to Carlisle United, supporting the team near where I lived. Burnley have the best ground, so I feel I can go and see them as a “fan”.

I look for the people who collectively make up the crowd – how they relate to the club, the match and being shoved in the away end. People used to love it more than they do now. They’re more aware and sometimes they turn their camera or mobile phone on me and my like.

Crowds have been good to me – I’ve only nearly been beaten up three times. I like people, even if I prefer cats.

A photo of a woman in a red football kit pushing a pram along a street
Liverpool, Young Mother Red With Pram (2005)
The Homes of Football project started off as a reaction to the Taylor Report and Hillsborough, something that still looms large over football today. The game was in a mess, but it was still glorious.

It was 1989 and there had been a succession of disasters and tragedies which finally got people to say ‘hold on, enough.’ Twenty years later it’s happening again – this time the grounds are spanking new and well supported, but the finances are questionable and the governance compromised. I loved football when I started and I love it now, but we need to get the game back to where it was.

In the book I am trying to show what it means to love football unconditionally. My pursuit is the purity of the thing – stripped down, showing its beautiful complexities.

I am delighted to be leaving Ambleside [The Home of Football’s Cumbria base]. I have served my time there. The pubs are crammed and people dither to talk about games in the middle of the road. Wordsworth was here and he preferred trees, views and isolation.

I strode into Manchester [The National Football Museum’s new home, where Clarke will work from] and called it home. Rearing up behind the angular, cathedral-sized, mysterious glass home to football’s past and to all of its future history is a huge, sexy Umbro advert, which says ‘you feel the way about Manchester and football as I do’.

In this city and in this museum building undergoing a refit, it feels to me like the nation will finally have a national football museum, although Preston had a stab at it for almost a decade before deciding to up sticks to here.

It was really a skeleton cupboard under a stand there [at Preston North End’s Deepdale stadium] – a bit out of the way, with relatively few visitors.

This is going to be like nothing before. The pressure’s on – we have to get it right or the skeleton will be laughing."

To celebrate the release of Cradle Of The Game, spearheading a trilogy of hardback art-house books, Stuart Clarke is offering Culture24 readers the book at the special price of £29.99 with free postage (rrp £35 plus p+p) through his website. Order online.

Urbis will reopen as The National Football Museum in 2011.
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