For The Love Of Our Fathers: Art And Football

Walton Breck Road No. 2, 2010.

Stephen Clarke on the artist/photographers that share ‘common ground’ — academically, personally and geographically, and now in an exhibition of the same name on Liverpool’s Albert Dock…

I love my dad, but I don’t love football. Fathers pass down to their sons an inheritance: for some this is a title, for others it is material wealth, for all it is culture. My cultural background is Northern, working class, and Catholic. Each of these appellations carries with it fixed features. It can be expected that I speak with a particular accent, that I enjoy certain things and have specific allegiances. Born in St Helens, my voice has either a Lancashire or Merseyside tone. I grew up in an industrial environment of factories and wasteland, with a countryside that is spoiled by local toxins. My Catholic upbringing ties me to an Irish diaspora that settled in this area. These are the things that my dad has passed down to me, and his dad to him. It is a generational identity. A defining characteristic of my dad is his love of football, and his team Liverpool; frustratingly for him, it is something that he has not been able to pass down to me even though he has tried. Every Saturday during the football season, the house that I grew up in was filled with the sounds of football matches. This was a routine followed in many households.

“In the afternoon, Wood would follow the football supporters as they made their way to and from the match”

Tom Wood was born in Ireland in 1951. In his late twenties he joined Liverpool College of Art as a technician. Wood immersed himself in Liverpool and its environs, photographing almost every aspect of the life that surrounded him. His daily and weekly excursions have become a considerable record of what his camera observed. Well known are his pictures of the buses that he travelled on – published as All Zones Off Peak (1998) – and the nightclub that he frequented – the Chelsea Reach in New Brighton published as Looking for Love (1989). Part of this continual flow of everyday life were his visits to the street market where women would do their shopping on a Saturday morning; in the afternoon, he would follow the football supporters as they made their way to and from the match. What he noted of the football fans was a tribalism that sometimes spilled over into aggression. Religious tensions are occasionally cited as the source of tribal aggression, as Liverpool Football Club has been considered the team for Protestants, while Catholics have tended to support Everton. The son of a Protestant father and a Catholic mother, Wood is familiar with this divide; however, his approach to his subjects was neutral. Favouring neither side, he enjoyed being part of the life around him.

Tom Wood - Anfield 1987

From his role as a technician at Liverpool College of Art, Wood became a lecturer in Birkenhead on the Wirral. This is where Ken Grant ‘found’ him, and so a generational exchange began. For Grant (b.1967), the working-class people of Liverpool have his accent. Grant’s father, a joiner, introduced him to the subjects that populate his pictures. From his beginnings helping his dad in his daily work, to training as a photographer, Grant followed in the footsteps of his ‘fathers’, continuing to be immersed in the community that formed him. Like Wood, Grant photographs supporters before and after football matches. Travelling to the grounds and talking to the people he already knows, he is an acknowledged member of this community. He speaks about his participation as a ritual. This, perhaps, marks the distinction between Wood and Grant. The elder photographer is observing a city that he was becoming acquainted with, whereas for the younger man, Liverpool is his cultural inheritance. Grant shifts out from the frame of a Wood photograph to take up the camera of his mentor. Since the 1980s, Grant has taken up the mantle of a ‘photieman’ recording his familiar Liverpool.

“Jussa charts the fluid current of football supporters, flowing between buildings and becoming one with the city”

In turn, the student becomes the teacher. After initial training in Birkenhead, Grant studied atWest Surrey College of Art and Design in Farnham and eventually took a job as a lecturer at the University of Wales, Newport in 1998. This was the place for the next generational exchange, that between teacher Ken Grant and his student Tabitha Jussa (b. 1974). Like Wood before her, Jussa is not native to Liverpool but neither is she an Irish immigrant. Although her paternal roots lie in Lancashire, her birthplace is South West Wales. She moved to Liverpool in 2001 after many visits to the city. This change signalled a new start for Jussa, not only in relation to her place of residence but also to her practice as an artist. Her training as a photographer, which began in Liverpool, was further advanced by journeys south to study on the MA in Documentary Photography at Newport. Inevitably, her adopted city has become the subject for a number of projects, including her on-going examination of Liverpool’s housing stock, Let in Light. For Match Day, Jussa charts the fluid current of football supporters, flowing between buildings and becoming one with the city. In contrast to Wood and Grant, Jussa is not so deeply immersed in this tide of people; she takes an ‘observer’s distance’. Her large-scale photographs of football supporters are constructed from several images brought together. This may reflect the changing nature of these communities, no longer local and defined, they move beyond civic boundaries.

Ken Grant Dr Fun, Donaldson Street, Liverpool 1996

The three photographers, Tom Wood, Ken Grant and Tabitha Jussa, represent a lineage from one parent to another, and then another. Essentials are passed on, the place where they take photographs, the people that they photograph, and the values that they attempt to portray. The ostensible subject of Common Ground is football, yet there are no photographs of the match or the players. The action picture would be regarded as ‘sports photography’, a category of practice that belongs to another photographic culture. Documentary photography– the label that some would attach to Wood, Grant and Jussa– is an easier fit, but not a definitive one. The more esteemed title of art has become nearer the mark, as these artists are shown in galleries and develop bodies of work. If these categories are applied, then the conflict of high and low culture becomes apparent: sports photography for the working classes, documentary for the middle classes, and for those in the higher echelons there is art– a simple formula, that puts football in its place and elevates art beyond reach of the common man. This is an accepted status quo.

“Grant provides testimonial to those who would remain forgotten if not recorded by him”

Just as we are defined by our parents, we are defined by religion, class and place. Wood, Grant and Jussa complicate this narrative: Wood sees the universal in his subjects and not their denomination; Grant provides testimonial to those who would remain forgotten if not recorded by him; and Jussa recognises the network of social injustices that connect urban populations rather than cleave them. All three depict football as a significant cultural practice. Football may not be art, but then art is not football. This is the point where my dad and I have arrived. We share essential characteristics but those of class, faith and residence are more mutable. I don’t understand football, and my dad doesn’t understand art, but my dad loves me.

Stephen Clarke is Lecturer in Critical and Contextual Studies at the University of Chester

The exhibition Common Ground runs until Sunday 15 July 2018 at Colonnades Unit 7, The Albert Dock, Liverpool — FREE

Common Ground is part of the Art of Football Festival, and is curated by Foto Octo

Tom Wood’s exhibition Cammell Laird Shipyard 1993-1996: Photographs from the Documentary Photography Archive is on show at the Williamson Gallery, Birkenhead until 14 October 2018. The exhibition and the book published by Steidl is a collaboration with the artist Cian Quayle, whose work is also showing at the Williamson 

Photographs by Tom Wood and Ken Grant can be seen in New Brighton Revisited at The Sailing School Gallery, Marine Point, New Brighton until 25 August 2018. The exhibition is curated by Tracy Marshall

Images, from top: Tabitha Jussa, The Red one is ‘Walton Breck Road No.2, 2011; Tom Wood, Anfield, 1999; Ken Grant, Dr Fun, Donaldson Street, Liverpool 1996 

Posted on 09/07/2018 by thedoublenegative