October 09, 2003
The true art of rugby

The Philosophical Cowboy (link not working properly - scroll down to Sept 30 7.16pm), gearing up for the Rugby World Cup, likes this stuff.

With respect, as people say when they are about to say something completely lacking in respect hence the need to shake some verbal respect on with a verbal bottle of pseudo-respect, I … don't like it as much as The PhC does.

The real art of rugby is the game itself, and all the great photos of it that there are, and before that I daresay the odd painting. The idea that in order to make rugby artistic you have to subject it to abstract expressionism is insulting to rugby, and misses a basic point about art which is that it should be all of a piece. Art should be tight, and consistent, and the connections within it should make sense. The art should grow out of the thing itself, not be slopped on afterwards. This Adidas site makes "art" out of rugby in the manner of a Photoshop dork who thinks he can make his holiday snaps more "artistic" by pressing the Cézanne button. Okay, I'm taking it too seriously, it's only a bit of fun, blah blah, but this does suggest to me a wholly unjustified and unnecessary sense of artistic inferiority on the part of the rugby people.

That famous photo of Fran Cotton with mud all over him on a Lions Tour (that's the only www version of it I could find) is worth this entire Adidas site put together, artistically speaking (never mind rugbily speaking), and then some. No metaphorical violence was done to rugby with that photo. It arose completely naturally out of the game itself.

If those New York idiots who chucked paint about want to enjoy this photo too, and pretend that what they do, or used to do thirty years ago (isn't that nonsense rather passé now?), is being backhandedly referred to by it, fine. It isn't, but they can pretend if they want to. But the real art of rugby and of rugby photography is quite different.

Consider these two photos.

This photo doesn't capture the defining moment of this particular moment, which came a fraction of a moment later. What we see here is Jonah Lomu of New Zealand about to run over the top of Mike Catt of England. But we do not see Lomu actually doing it, although I've seen the exact photo somewhere that does show this.


This next photo, on the other hand, from the same site, does capture the exact moment of this moment, during the same game (NZ v England – World Cup 1995). That was exactly when Lomu got past the wretched Rob Andrew.


There's no need to splash paint about to make stuff like this artistic. Both photos have those blurry and "artistic" backgrounds that you often get in sports photos, if you like that sort of thing. Since it arises naturally out of the regular processes involved in photography (focussing, following the action by swinging the camera around to follow it, etc.), I do like this sort of effect a lot. It's quite unlike how the eye sees things, but that's half the fun.

To be fair to The PhC, he does have one terrific rugby photo up at his new World Cup Rugby site, namely the one of Wendell Sailor (who by the way is my tip for Man of the Tournament). He's the beautifully lit black guy, second row down on the right. Although, it does occur to me that there may also be something artistically contrived about this picture too. But if it is contrived, it's contrived in a good way, in a genuine hero-worshipping way, rather than in a pseudo-art way. It doesn't look as if it was taken during a game, but you never know, what with the floodlights they have for games these days … Maybe it was. Either way, it's dead artistic, I think. (Another argument for sporting floodlights!)

It really helps that the rugby players (like the soccer players) don't wear stupid costumes that drain the pictures of individuality, the way that cricketers and American footballers do. Complicated headgear is particularly damaging in this respect.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:21 PM
Category: PaintingPhotographySport