Lens on the Ball: On Soccer Photography

These photos are less interesting than our usual ones because I took them all.

Through some fault of my own, i.e. volunteering to cover sports at the day job while they hire a new guy, I’ve been forced to think a lot about soccer photography lately.

I am a competent photographer; it’s not one of my stronger skills, but I can still figure out how to get a good shot every once in a while. The biggest handicap, aside from our old and shoddy equipment, is that I’m not a natural at it. I have little eye for what looks good and what doesn’t until I see the image. I compose by trial and error, which in the case of sports photography, means I point and hope. Sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn’t.

More often the moments when it does work out are the less interesting ones. The focus and the lighting and the color balance and the subject all meet in harmony during a moment when the player is taking a touch into empty space, or lining up a kick with no one near him. The shots come out like portraits, ones the parents will be happy with but not something that shows how a soccer game really looks on the field, the physicality and athleticism of it, shots like this one or this one or this one. All my attempts at ones like that come out blurry or with the moment just barely missed, the focus and timing not coming together.

But the real question is why I’m bothering trying to get capture those moments at all. Are they even representative of the game?

In a sense, yes. If we’re looking to put on display the skill of individuals, the combination of grace and power required to control and utilize the ball without using your hands. It’s an old-fashioned English notion of the game: Look at that great play by a great player. What more could his team possibly need?

It’s the what’s more than Hans Van der Meer tries to capture. Van der Meer is famous for his football landscapes (that one of them in our banner, but I can’t recommend the others on his website highly enough), but those aren’t the only shots he takes of the sport.

“A good football photograph for me is one that shows you an overview of the situation on the pitch, a clear recognizable moment of a soccer game,” he told Canon’s European website in a 2008 interview.  “The pleasure of watching soccer in a crowd or on television is about sharing these moments of hope in which the situation is unfolding. We see a possibility on the right wing, but does the player in ball possession see what we see?”

Look at that photograph that accompanies his interview (You have to click the “2” and scroll to the bottom. It asks that you not copy it, and so I’m respecting those wishes.). That’s a soccer photograph at an instant in time that he refers to in an interview in David Winner’s “Brilliant Orange” as “the moment of tension.” Winner says his images “freeze the game.”

And in doing so, they capture the game surrounding the individual performances, the interlocking efforts of each of the component players, the teamwork, the tactics. “Football is a game of space,” the photographer tells Winner. “So why should you leave the space out? Those pictures show you football situations but you have no idea what they mean.” We’ve written about things like this before. Adams did a piece about space a couple of weeks ago, and last summer I wrote about a specific kind of moment of tension, and you could say that our name comes from this same concept, that the space off the ball is as important as the ball itself.

Van der Meer says in the Canon interview that photographs like his used to be commonplace in sporting coverage, but that once TV coverage became commonplace, photographers migrated down to field level to capture angles the TV cameras weren’t showing. “When the sports photography archives are opened in a hundred years, there will be a whole part of the history of the game missing because all the interesting little things around the pitch were simply not photographed,” he tells Winner.

 

I’m inclined to agree with him, that it’s a shame we get so many of the one kind and so few of the other kind of picture, but the great tragedy of missing out on those moments is no longer as severe a problem now as it was when he gave that interview. Now we have a video archive of these moments of tension, and the moments immediately before and after them, in the form of YouTube, 101 Great Goals, and others, as long as UEFA doesn’t block them on copyright grounds.

But even if they aren’t necessary for the historical record, photos like Van der Meer’s retain they aesthetic value. I prefer his shot to all the others linked to; it gives you sensations beyond just “Wow, cool!” It really does create a tension, and shifts the focus away from the players and back to the game.

 

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