‘It’s very tribal’: Martin Parr on capturing the real beautiful game | Photography

Despite being a Grade II listed building, Warmington House is nestled incongruously within the fabric of the sparkling new Tottenham Hotspur football club complex at White Hart Lane, north London. It’s like a visitor from another time, and its contents are equally evocative of a world and a set of experiences shared with previous generations.

Inside is the OOF Gallery, a contemporary art space that currently contains a selection of the football photographs of Martin Parr. These pictures have a strange duality. Now 69, Parr has been taking photos for more than 50 years, and his recent battle with cancer has added an extra poignancy to these samples of his life’s work. Parr has traced British football’s journey through decrepitude, deindustrialisation and gentrification. These are definitively football photos but always portraits of grounds and supporters, never of the game itself. They’re cultural totems, snapshots of memory but also football as many of us still experience it.

As Parr sees it, football fulfils an important function. “It’s a way of people accessing emotions. It’s very tribal … It’s an important aspect of creating your own identity. Especially for men; it’s a very welcome way of letting your emotions go.”

His photos record moments of catharsis, but they’re also about belonging. One memorable image shows the seats at Wolverhampton Wanderers’ ground covered by striped Tesco bags. They had been left there by supporters of West Bromwich Albion (who are nicknamed the Baggies and play in striped shirts) as a cheeky way of claiming the territory. Football’s culture has always been acerbic and its humour self-generating. Parr captures these nuances brilliantly.

Football – like many aspects of British urban life – used to be a spartan affair. Parr’s photograph taken at Bradford City in 1979 will spark a wince of recognition and a sigh of nostalgia in anyone old enough to remember the 1970s. It’s black and white. Weeds grow through the concrete terraces. The men (they’re all men, naturally) watch the game studiously standing as far apart as possible. It is a collective, public and yet intensely private experience. The photo is very slightly blurred: it’s a vision, a hallucination of industrial Britain captured just before obsolescence. These are fragments of the past, caught in transition.

A shot of Portsmouth supporters on a visit to Bradford captures another transition. It is 1980 and one era is slowly giving way to another. “From a cultural point of view, you can see how the demographic of football supporters is starting to change,” says the gallery’s curator, Justin Hammond. “You’ve still got old skinheads with scarves tied round their wrists. You’ve got guys in donkey jackets, which were a symbol of the working man in the 70s. But you’ve got this bloke at the back in a duffel coat and Kickers. There’s a younger generation starting to infiltrate. It’s the dawn of the casual era. And then right at the front, there’s quite a glamorous-looking woman, in furs and high boots. In this era, when you see a woman there it really jumps out.”

So what do the replica-shirted fans of 2022 make of this time capsule within their state-of-the-art temple to football? Hammond and co-curator Eddy Frankel see it as an opportunity to enablewant to establish a dialogue between two worlds. Both are Spurs season ticket holders and serious contemporary art curators. “Commercially, it would make total sense for us to display pop art prints of Harry Kane or whatever,” says Hammond, pointing to the gallery’s prodigious footfall on match days. “We’d make a killing. But we’d be really underselling the potential of this.”

Martin Parr bridges the gap perfectly. “This is what’s amazing about having Martin,” says Frankel. “He’s a big name and really well respected as an artist. But on another level, his photos are easy to understand. People get it straight away … The vast majority of people who come in here will never have been to a contemporary art gallery. We’re indoctrinating people by stealth!”

Lower-league grounds are more interesting’: Martin Parr on three of his favourite football shots

Halifax Town, 1977.
Halifax’s top boys captured at The Shay, 1979. Photograph: Martin Parr/Magnum Photo

Halifax Town supporters, 1977
“This is a good example of how a smaller crowd gives you an opportunity to arrange people within the frame in an interesting way,” says Parr. “You need that extra guy at the back to balance out the row of seven and make the picture work. That’s a bit of luck in a way. But luck is earned in photography. If you walk around for long enough, you’ll come across something that fits into place eventually.”

Hartlepool United fans, 1982.
Resourceful Hartlepool United supporters, 1982. Photograph: Martin Parr/Magnum Photos

Hartlepool United fans on the terraces, 1982
“The kids on the ladder at the back probably got in for free. Again, these lower-league grounds are a lot more interesting: you don’t have to sneak a camera in; you can wander around the crowd and choose an angle; you can go anywhere. In the Premier League you’re stuck in one place. I like space but I also like crowds. So it’s a question of balancing those two things.”

Portsmouth fans in Bradford, 1980.
Pompey fans exit Valley Parade, 1980. Photograph: Martin Parr/Magnum Photos

Portsmouth fans in Bradford, 1980
“It’s the end of the match. If you’ve got quite a big crowd, you get these amazing fluid waves of people. This is a good example of that. If you can get a sense of height on the back of the crowd, it works particularly well.”

Martin Parr and Corbin Shaw are showing at the OOF Gallery, Warmington House, London, to 8 May.

By Indana