EXHIBITION / Spectator sport: Turning his back on the football field, Julian Germain takes photographs of aspiring fanatics. Owen Slot calls the shots

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The Independent Culture
Julian Germain's twin passions are photography and football. So what better assignment for him than to make football the subject of his art? A dream come true, it would seem, except for the fact that Germain finds football photography 'invariably dull and repetitious'.

As a result, in his exhibition In Soccer Wonderland, Germain has not trained his lens on determined athleticism or on the kick and thrust of the game - he finds the clutter of limbs a turn- off. Instead, Germain has focused on football without the action, none of the stuff that fills the back pages of newspapers, not even a shot of a rising header from Ipswich's immortal moustache, John Wark.

So it doesn't matter that Germain's photographs are presently showing in Norwich, smiling down on the home turf of Ipswich's greatest rivals. For Germain has captured on film that increasingly fashionable concept: football as obsession.

The introduction to the catalogue of In Soccer Wonderland opens the door on Germain's obsession. There are tales of football in the garden, brother versus brother, each boy representing all 11 players of a First Division football team, on Dad's lawn where there is just a flower pot and a 'tracky' top for a goal. And when rain stops play, it's into the house and up to the landing to continue the game.

Such childish enthusiasm is captured in one of the first compositions in Germain's exhibition, which carries the title 'Cramlington Juniors 1 (Brilliant magic, well-chuffed) Whitley Bay Boy Club (We was robbed) 0' and shows, in a large portrait, the obvious disappointment of one of the defeated players who is framed by a sequence of individual portraits of the victors. Their delight is equally visible.

The dreams of the soccer juvenile are captured in two other pictures. One has a football- shirted teenager lying on his bed, eyes closed but clearly deep in fantasy rather than sleep, with his head pointing up to a shelf crammed with schoolboy soccer trophies. The other is a poster- size reproduction of a 1939 black- and-white shot of a young lad in his garden, standing next to the FA Cup and looking chuffed to bits.

The story goes that the lad's father was a tailor in Portsmouth who, before the 1939 Cup Final against Wolves, offered a free suit to any Portsmouth goalscorers. Portsmouth won 4-1, the tailor delivered the suits, but was allowed to keep the silver trophy for two weeks. The point is, as Germain says, that 'you can imagine it's yourself in the picture - it's every schoolboy's dream to be where that boy is.'

Germain wasn't alive in 1939 (he was born on 25 September 1962, the day Ipswich beat Floriana of Malta 10-0 in the European Cup); the 1939 picture isn't his, as a number of others aren't. And it's not as if he's cheating: the combination of his own photography with found images and archive material is his hallmark, and gives his subjects a wider social and historical context.

The style was established in Steelworks (1990), his first book, which depicted industrial life in Consett. To go from such social- issue photography to football was a change of focus that Germain relished: 'I felt that it would be a challenge to do something completely about me. That's why there's no reference to hooliganism in the exhibition: the task I set myself was to convey what it is that is so special to me about football.'

There is one particular image that shows how much this exhibition is 'completely about me'. It is a large and marvellous composition which actually stars Germain himself, shot in black- and-white, wearing classic Arkwright football gear and controlling a ball on his chest. Behind the silhouette of Germain, also in black-and-white, is juxtaposed an enormous football crowd and framing the image are 14 football annuals from the 1960s and 1970s. There it is, the football obsessive's fantasy: your own sublime skill, in the company of football's greats, played out before crowds of thousands.

But as Germain explains, it is more than fantasy: 'It's about enthusiasm, love for the game, and really, about the game being a part of my life.'

'In Soccer Wonderland' at Norwich Arts Centre to 26 Mar (0603- 660352); then Worcester Art Gallery 30 April-4 June

(Photograph omitted)

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