Representing Space

When I close my eyes and remember my childhood, I am running across a bumpy field in Holland, the ball at my feet. I am 12 years old, wearing the red-and-black of my club, Ajax Sportman Combinatie, and we are playing against some farmers' kids from a local village. Each of them is a head taller than us, and the Dutch are the world's tallest nation. It is a cold autumn Saturday morning. ~Simon Kuper
This post is about landscape photography, and about the manipulation and representation of public space. This post is also about football, the (mostly) fluid manipulation and representation of public space.

I've recently purchased a book of photographs called European Fields: The Landscape of Lower League Football by the famed Dutch photographer Hans van der Meer. I am running short of superlatives that will adequately describe this collection of landscapes so I'll keep it simple: it's stunning.

Van der Meer captures and weaves together so many of the things that inspire me, and thoughtfully articulates such representations--discursively and visually--in a way that is impossible to digest in one sitting. You see, these photographs are not about football, they are about spaces, places, and publics. Football, you see, is about spaces, places, and publics.

In 1988 someone in the Spaarnestad Archive in Haarlem, Holland's largest photo archive, showed me a pile of old football photographs. They were beautiful black and white prints of the Dutch national team's international games from the beginning of the twentieth century until the mid-1950's. Most of the photographs were taken from behind the goal, but some from a position up in the stands. The space in the images looked so obvious to me that I wondered why I had never seen football pictures like them before.

Taken with old large-format cameras, each photograph was pin sharp. You were allowed to see the entire setting of the match. The pitch was only the foreground. You could also distinguish the faces of hat-wearing men in long coats in the opposite stand, the flags on top of the roof and the trees beyond; sometimes even houses, or traffic in a street in the distance. I found these unintentionally photographed details touching.

In the archive you could see how radically the photography of football had changed at the end of the fifties: space disappeared from the images. In a sport which is all about the position of players on the pitch, the photographers had given up one of their most powerful weapons: the overview. ~Hans van der Meer
More importantly, photos of contemporary football elide the quotidian realities of the game: it's rarely played as spectacle, yet nearly always photographically represented as such, in the cathedrals of sport where comparatively few are granted admission. Yet variations on the sacred spectacle are played in the publics of the everyday, nearly everywhere. Van der Meer's photographs offer representations of everyday publics, "as far away as possible from the Champions League."

The precursor to Van der Meer's European Fields was Dutch Fields, a work that respected landscape architect Dirk Sijmons calls "the best collection of photographs about the Dutch landscape" he had ever seen. Van der Meer is interested in the "second world" beyond the pitch--in the juxtaposition of publics--the manipulation of space from touchline to touchline, and the orderings of space beyond both.

Many of the collection's most remarkable representations of public space are muted and difficult to spot. In Consett, England, a muddy community pitch sits opposite a skinny wooden fence, duplexes and row homes arrayed haphazardly up a hill, the sky a slate, formless gray. The action on the pitch, in the forground of the image, escalates just outside the 6-yard box, as the Blackhill Comrades mount a menacing attack. To the far right of the image, a shaggy-haired blonde boy, perhaps 12, stands on the back stoop of his family's duplex in short sleeves, taking in the action with neither glee nor contempt. It is what it is.

In Marxloh, Germany, two teams kick up dust on a pitch that resembles a baseball infield, all gravelly dirt and white chalk lines. In the distance beyond, impossibly tall smelter smoke stacks rise above the trees that ring the pitch.

In Lourmarin, France, players from Lourmarin JS and Cheval Blanc, teams with nearly identical kits, anticipate a corner kick, while a handful of spectators sit upon a stone wall that separates a car-lined street from the pitch. Across the street are tasteful, tile-roofed commercial buildings, two or three stories high, with signs that advertise a pharmacy, La Poste, and Credit Agricole.

In Salon de Provence, France, the detail is easy to miss. A keeper stands alone on a dirt pitch, framed at the left of the photograph, hands on hips, standing near the top of the 18-yard box. His shadow stretches long to the right, streets, trees, and homes in the background. Directly behind and parallel to the goal is a medium-sized chapel, its roof, bell, and cross striking against a pale blue sky. To the far right of the image, just inches from the touchline, stands a priest in full vestments, hands drawn up in a prayerful pose. Like the keeper, he takes in the action at the other end of the pitch.

These photos are rarely about football, and always about public space. Public space in each of these photographs is often about football.

In Brilliant Orange, David Winner argues that "space is the unique defining element of Dutch football," that "no one has ever imagined or structured their play as abstractly, as architecturally, in such a measured fashion as the Dutch." Winner's assessment of the ways in which the Dutch fluidly manipulated the space of the pitch is astute and inspiring. And yet I wonder, how are young players in the dusty streets of Angola being shaped by the space that surrounds them, as they play right now? How will the kids playing in an alley of Marseille shape the limited space of their makeshift pitch? How does public space structure football, and football structure space? And how will we represent such interaction where it occurs?

[The above photos may be found in there original contexts here.]


Anonymous said...

Thank you for this.

Brian J. McNely said...

@Anonymous My pleasure!

Ionut Tataru said...

Great man. I really enjoy it! :)

Brian J. McNely said...

@lonut Thanks much!

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