Dutch photographer Hans van der Meer spent 10 years portraying the essence of football.
Football is full of moments that truly feel like art: a beautiful through pass, a perfect volley, an astonishing dribbling or a meticulously timed tackle. But the artistic element of football goes beyond the game itself; it resides in the setting as a whole: the combination of the fans, the players, the ground, the town in the background… all these elements together compose the essence of this great socio-cultural phenomenon. Dutch photographer Hans van der Meer perfectly captured that essence on its most genuine expression, that is, at non-league games, where football remains closely bond to its original roots.
Hans spent ten years -between 1995 and 2005- photographing amateur football around the world. “It started as an idea to show that football is an important part of our culture,” he explains. Commissioned by the Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant, Hans started taking photographs at higher league matches. “Soon I granted to lower divisions and the typical rural grounds outside villages. There I could give the landscape its ‘unintentional place beyond football’.
In 1998 he published the book Dutch Fields. But the story was not over. Two years later, the football magazine JOHAN offered Hans a monthly space at their magazine which should include a photograph taken at a ground, each month from a different European location. His journey continued as he travelled around looking for ‘the passionate football of less talented players in the lower leagues, in a setting miles away from packed stands and roof covered stadiums’.
The final result was European Fields: The landscape of Lower League Football, a book containing a fine selection of photographs he took during all those years. From England to Romania, going through Spain, France or Belgium, all the pictures share one common element: there is a football game going on. But besides that, they are all different; there is a rich variety of towns and landscapes.
Hans’ interest in showing the whole composition and not just a close-up of the action goes back to 1988, when he came across a collection of old football photographs from the Spaarnestad Archive, the largest imagery archive in the Netherlands. “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-1950s. Most of the photographs were taken from behind the goal, but some from a position up in the stands,” he describes on the introduction of European Fields. “The space in the images looked so obvious to me that I wondered why I never had 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; or traffic in a street in the distance. I found these unintentionally photographed details touching.”
But he had noticed that this style of capturing football was no longer popular. “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 the players on the pitch, the photographers had given up one of their most powerful weapons: the overview. One of the reasons behind the change was a technical development. At the end of the fifties press photographers abandoned their bulky speed graphic cameras for more the more versatile 35mm format. Film became faster and, crucially, telephoto lenses arrived. From then on the typical photograph of a football match depicted two players and a ball set against an out of focus background, given no sense of where on the pitch this fragment of action had occurred. It was also around this time that television began broadcasting football matches. The role of providing the overview was taken over by television.”
For his project was not about taking pictures of the best moments of action at a match, but about capturing the aura around it, Hans went back to the basics of football photography, and the result were powerful compositions loaded with emotion, just like those old images that inspired him. The process was not as easy as it might sound. “The location search for my football images always took me a lot of time,” he remembers. “After finding a proper pitch I followed a game from my stepladder or some other slightly elevated position. In that fixed situation I waited with my Fuji 6×9 camera for the right moment in front of me, but half of the time the game would take place on the other side.” Those long moments of waiting would end up giving birth to another book.
“The goalkeeper and me were left behind and I always found that image of a solitary goalkeeper very touching. I could never resist taking one. In German language they have this beautiful word for goalkeeper: Torwachter. He is keeping an eye on the gate, that open hole, that can look so vulnerable during the game when the goalkeeper has left it. All his mates have gone out playing, he has to stay there.” Keepers contains 35 pages portraying the loneliness of the goalkeeper.
Hans no longer attends amateur football games to take pictures. Instead, at the age of 62, every week he becomes part of the compositions he once photographed. “I am an amateur player, I still love to play!” Having been in both sides, behind the camera and on the pitch, Hans finds similarities between these two arts. “Photography and football can be a beautiful combination, in both imagination is the important engine that helps us in projecting, creating or reconstructing possible scenario’s in split seconds.”