By Simon McKenzie
All photos by Hans van der Meer
The vast majority of football photography involves close-ups of the action and the key protagonists, with the background a blur. Most football photos focus in on two or three players, either in a pivotal moment of movement or reacting in the aftermath of one. It’s rare to see a wide photo that shows every player on the pitch – curious, given the importance and endless debate surrounding formations – and seldom do you get to see much of the ground or the stadium itself.
Until the late 1950s and early 1960s, though, photographing football usually involved the wider picture. Before telephoto lenses became commercially available (and before regular TV broadcasts), the lead photo in a newspaper match report was often a wide angle taken from an elevated position in the stands.
In 1988, a Dutch photographer named Hans van der Meer was searching through a photo archive of football matches and noticed this shift in perspective. In 1995, when he was commissioned by a Dutch newspaper to take photos to accompany an article about amateur football, Van der Meer decided to incorporate the background into his images – the more landscape and the fewer spectators the better. In the process, he took some of the most remarkable football photographs you’ll ever see.
Van der Meer ended up traversing the Netherlands for three years to photograph lower-league games, often setting up his camera atop a step-ladder and waiting for the action to come to him. The resulting photographs were published in Hollandse Velden, or Dutch Fields (De Verbeelding, 1998).
“Football is a part of our culture, and football fields form part of our landscape,” Van der Meer said at the time of its publication. “There are proportionately more grounds in Holland than in any other country in the world… I was looking for those situations where I could make a combination of a field with players and an interesting landscape in the background. I needed the world outside the field to show literally that football is part of our culture.”
The stunning photos in the book got a lot of attention in football circles, and one was featured in David Winner’s acclaimed 2000 history Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football (highly recommended). The unique photographs were both visually stunning and a wonderful tribute to the grassroots game.
In 2001, De Verbeelding asked Van der Meer if he had enough photographs for another book, and he kept returning to the images of lone goalkeepers that he would shoot while the lower-league action took place outside of the frame he had chosen for the best landscape. Those photos became the book Keepers, published (only in Dutch) later that year.
In 2002 he was invited to Bhutan to photograph The Other Final – a game between the two lowest-ranked sides in the world, Bhutan and Montserrat, that took place on the same day as the final between Brazil and Germany at the 2002 World Cup. The resulting book was published by KesselsKramer.
Van der Meer then decided to expand on Dutch Fields with a version taking in amateur football in most of the countries in Europe. His aim was simple: to photograph games “as far away as possible from the Champions League”. The project also gave him a little more scope in terms of landscape – Holland is notoriously flat, and there was much more dramatic scenery on offer around grounds in countries including Switzerland, Austria, Italy and Portugal. European Fields: The Landscape of Lower League Football was published in 2006 by SteidlMack and 12 years later it is still in print. It can be ordered here: https://steidl.de/Books/European-Fields-The-Landscape-of-Lower-League-Football-0911215658.html
“In the hearts and minds of these amateur players in all those villages, the stadiums are not far away at all,” Van der Meer wrote. “Even in remote villages in Europe, amateur teams line up near the centre circle. Then they wave at a packed stand. In reality they are a plumber, teacher, tax inspector, systems analyst, salesman, bank clerk, farmer, garage owner, glass cutter, student or baker, and they are waving at no more than two men and a dog. That is proof enough of the powerful mechanism that nobody can take away from us: our imagination. And for me that is exactly where football and photography come together.”
[Simon McKenzie is a Kiwi living in Norway, who didn’t know what the fuss was about football until he saw Roma play. He is now a fan of Roma, Dunfermline Athletic, Universitario de Sucre and Barcelona in that approximate order.]
Categories: Other Football Topics
A grassroots sports photography enthusiast based in Auckland, New Zealand, and a fan of the most magnificent football club on earth - A.S. Roma.