Picture perfect

Photography is at the heart of football culture and Ian Plenderleith is happy to tour the best sites on which you can admire the snappers' art.

The Franco-Mauritanian artist and sage Malcolm de Chazal once said: “When indifferent, the eye takes still photographs; when interested, movies.” His aphorism applies to football photos, too.

Thanks to digital photography and amateur websites there are millions of football pictures out there, but most look either dull and blurred or, when taken by professionals, sharp but bland. There are only so many takes on a goal­scorer punching the air, or two men in differently coloured kits climbing for an aerial challenge. Pictures such as Vinny Jones grab­bing Gazza’s knackers only come along once a decade. Mostly, it’s like looking at wedding photos – the only people likely to be interested are the ones actually in the picture.

Due to one hack’s fetishistic predilection, this page may have featured more stadium sites than it ought to have. Yet taking interesting shots of actual people involved in the game is arguably much more challenging than getting the right angle on the (over)wrought iron decay of Blundell Park. There are a handful of sites where you can enjoy quality, original photographs of players and fans as an alternative to shelling out for an expensive coffee table book.

Footballissimo is an archived website of a 2002 photography exhibition, encompassing subjects from a Colombian FARC guerrilla side training to a palette of fans’ proudly bared tattoos, including captions that tell tales such as that of one Mic Corbett, who persuaded his wife to name their daughter Chelsea Faye so he could tattoo her initials on his back.

It may be down to the photographer or it may be the choice of film, but the black-and-white photos appear far more captivating than the colour ones. Robert Brady’s Hackney Marsh kicker portraits, John Perkins’ Palestinian snapshots, Ismar Uzeirovic’s Goodison Park matchday exteriors and Sophie Verhagen’s action and inaction pictures of south London lesbian side The Studs (one caption reads: “Only in London – Steve, a Rastafarian, coaches white lesbians”) all seem to possess a quality that a thoroughly inexpert photographer such as I can’t quite put into words.

These are mainly static studies. Football action photos are much harder to make interesting. A random web search can, though, turn up the odd pleasant surprise, such as the football page at Photography Dundee depicting skinny young Scottish amateur footballers under a pallid sun on an open field. There’s something in their expressions that sums up all the emotions you can go through while playing – from fleeting worry and grimaces of exertion and rugged determination, through to a crafty background grin that reassures you it’s not all being taken too seriously.

Capturing that crucial second of telling facial demeanour is the key. Paul Thompson’s pictures of Middlesbrough fans over the past decade and more succeeds when he snaps an earnest young man with a partially shaven head on the Ayresome Park terraces greeting the home side as they run on to the pitch in 1993. His face asks: “Will we do it?” In another picture a teenage boy celebrating a Paul Wil­kinson goal looks like he doesn’t know whether to let go of his crutches or not as all celebrate around him. (And, ha ha, look at those casual fashion victims.)

Thompson’s portfolio takes you from Ayresome to the Riverside and sums up well the Premiership era from the viewpoint of a middle-tier, post-Sky team as both relegations and foreign stars have come and gone. By the end the fans have changed their clothes and are all sitting down, but the looks of horror, angst, anger, ecstasy or disillusion are pretty much the same. And once again the skies and faces of north-east England lend themselves well to the black-and-white genre.

Of course there are websites where you can buy iconic moments in football photography, such as Maradona facing a line of six Belgians, or Gazza’s Tears. Sports Photo Gallery has them on offer at £9.95, although that’s for the extra small 9in by 6in image, and nothing less than a poster would swing it for me at that price (you’re looking at well over a hundred quid in that category). However, as with all good art, different things move different people, and you might be moved to splash out upon seeing the photo of Ronaldo in action against Morocco at the 1998 World Cup. His legs and arms look like they’re whirring, Billy Whizz-style. It’s a photograph, but it looks like a movie.

From WSC 214 December 2004. What was happening this month