Ken Grant’s a Merseyside institution. You might recognise his signature 1980s black and white images documenting Liverpool and its inhabitants from his 2002 book, The Close Season. Or perhaps you’ve seen some bits online. Or perhaps not. In any case, the man behind photo series No Pain Whatsoever and Shankly has close ties with his hometown, and he’s got a big love for football. So, in the interest of beautiful photos with stories to match, we had a chat with the man about his route into photography; formative 1970s Marxist footy treatise; and watching fans stream toward Anfield past his Nan’s house as a kid.
What was the reason you got into photography?
My earliest experiences of football were probably the reason I got into photography in the first place. I’ve always played football, always watched football, and always loved football. I was watching the Shankly documentary last night and wasn’t in a good state after watching it; I thought it was so beautiful.
These early experiences were strongly influenced by my grandmother’s house which was in Vienna Street, Liverpool—just off the Walton Breck Road. People who know Liverpool will know that this is where the Kop is situated. I’d often be in my grandmother’s terraced house, and we’d stand in the door together and hear the football taking place and the fans filtering through the terraced streets from all over the city.
Occasionally if my father, who worked for himself, had the time—it was always a little bit erratic and probably not the most financially stable childhood—would take me, and we’d go and sit on the Kop.
As soon as I got my first proper camera, I started taking photographs at the football—it’s a place it made sense to be immediately drawn to, the only place where I immediately recognised what was going on. This wasn’t necessarily inside the ground, but outside the ground. Outside, a football ground is more like a theatre. It’s a carnival—the place where people come together at the end of the working week to watch the match.”
Is it easier to photograph football in Merseyside because of its cultural importance in the area? Would photographing football have the same intensity anywhere else?
I think the reason there is such an intensity in Liverpool for football is probably traceable back to its development in the 1960s, through the Shankly era onwards. It’s through a kind of socialism that seems to permeate through the city itself; it’s how people feel, it’s how people work with each other. And it’s ok if you don’t like football—not everybody’s involved in football, not everybody loves football—but then it does seem to filter into most aspects of life. It’s also visible in most of the structures of industry in the city.
The writer Gerhard Vinnai published a book called Football Mania in1971. It’s almost a Marxist treatise on football, and there’s me growing up as a young lad thinking that football is this big escape from everything. But he was writing about football in terms of its efficiency—if everyone plays their particular role and does their particular job, you have a really efficient team. That’s to say that there’ll be a really efficient outcome, and you should value the work that people do as different parts of that team. And I just thought that was a fantastic way to look at the game.
You’ve said previously how you don’t just photograph for an hour at a time. You tend to want to photograph an event from the outset, how does this work with your approach to photographing football matches?
For a number of years, I lived right in the centre of Liverpool, above the hospital in a place called Kensington. The walk to the ground would be around 25 minutes, and I’d use that walk to tune in. It’s almost like working with a really great musician; you don’t expect them to just land on stage and start playing perfectly; there’s a warm-up, an acclimatisation or something. I guess that would be the same right the way through in terms of my approach to working life.
When I was in New Brighton in later years, I would even go as far as setting off early in the morning and getting the ferry over to Liverpool. I would photograph throughout the whole journey: from the walk down to the ferry, to the ferry across, to the bus up to the football ground. And, by the time I was at the football ground, I would be awake, I would be alive, I would be fluent. I wouldn’t be thinking so much technically about what I was doing, I’d be kind of immersed in the process already. I think that if you’re not as confident as you can be with the materials and tools that you’re using, people tend to pick up on it and it will slow things down a little bit or inhibit what you’re doing.
So, by the time I’d reached the football ground, I’d be warmed up both physically and photographically. Then I’d spend as much time as I could taking photos. I’d be doing laps. I’d wear the same shoes, in fact, I’d get the same shoes every time I needed a new pair so that I’d be able to walk as comfortable as I could around the same streets. I’d be doing routines which meant that I’d be touching on the same corners time and time again. Sometimes I’d just stand and stop because you knew that people were looking at you enough to know what you were doing. You’d have a long conversation, and maybe the whole afternoon or the following hour would be about that conversation. Because maybe not next week, or the following week, but eventually that person would be there again and they’d be on your side, they’d know what you were doing.
I saw one of the people who runs a stall in the streets a couple of months ago, and he reminded me that I’d photographed his daughter who’s now a mother in another part of the world. I don’t remember taking the picture, I’m not able to keep that sort of information in my mind, but he remembered, he remembered the picture, and he remembered the value of the picture I made.
Some football supporters are culturally opposed to being photographed at the match, how do you get around that?
There does seem to be a reluctance at times to being photographed, and I can understand that because people don’t know a lot of the time who you are, what you’re doing or why you’re doing it. The age that we’re in now means that people are self-sufficient in terms of making pictures, so why would I be needed to make a picture of them or what they’re engaged in? I understand all that, and that’s probably the reason why I work slowly.
I try and work slowly enough to make sure people understand what I’m doing a little bit more. When you work in the street—I don’t tend to call it street photography because that seems to be what people who are a little less engaged with the people they’re photographing call it. There’s a lot of street photography around in this day and age that I don’t tend to recognise as something I do. But if you walk around certain kinds of places, your whole personality, even the way you walk can affect how people respond to you. I don’t necessarily think it’s something you can make a guidebook of, but I know that I make sure people don’t see me as someone I shouldn’t be: somebody who’s threatening, somebody who’s there for making reasons for making photography that is not necessarily wholesome.
The process can be without problems for long periods of time, but once every now and again someone can say something that makes it difficult again. But, when that has been the case, somebody who knows of me has always stepped in and explained who I am and what I do—and I’m usually allowed to continue.
That’s been quite a wonderful backup over the years, a lot of the people who used to sell tickets outside the ground would be nervous of me initially, but I’d see them in bars or coffee shops after or during the match, and we’d have long conversations and slowly but surely they’d be the ones who’d be saying “No he’s okay, he’s not anybody he shouldn’t be”.
I’ve photographed inside stadiums a few times over the years, sometimes I’d get tickets off people who’d have spares outside the ground and I’d have a chance to go in. I’d photograph but sometimes there’s a different kind of tension, people are wound up inside the match, people are wound up watching the game and don’t want anyone in the way. They certainly don’t want me to take photographs, so if there’s a situation where I feel uncomfortable, I don’t tend to get in people’s way. I certainly don’t take photos if people don’t want me to do it because the way I look at it is that I want to be able to go back to do it again and again and make that experience happen in a different way for myself.
Although over the years I’ve photographed players for magazines such as GQ, it’s a different relationship when it’s a formal contract. I’ve photographed some of the younger players and apprentices, and it’s amazing how they change when they turn professional because they’re constantly pressurised by the nature of their image, relayed through photography or through video or endorsements.
That’s a big part of what they’re engaged with so when I just say I’m taking pictures and I’m interested in football and Liverpool, it’s almost like there’s a breath of great relief because they become children again and they talk to me like they’re excited about football again, and that’s nice.
Would you say that the way people’s attitude towards being photographed during the match influences the number of pictures you take post-match?
I’d say after the match is different in many respects because the dominant feature is people getting away from the ground as quickly as possible. So the streets become very fluid, lots of people getting away as quickly as possible, sometimes people are trying to get to where their cars are or where the transport is or to pick up cabs. Then there will be social things going on, people stopping for one last pint before going off into the night or going home to their families.
When collating the book, did you want it to be a book on football or Liverpool?
When I did the book about football, I initially wanted it to be a book about Liverpool. But then, of course, it doubles up, it’s always seen through football: it’s always about how people get together at football. When I did the first book in 2002 I used a lot of those pictures I made in the 1980’s and then I kept on going right the way through, I started pulling together a different narrative, and football was a big part of that. The title for that was The Close Season, which is no longer around and it means something very different from an American perspective than the British perspective. But what it means to me is okay, it’s the close season, it’s the time hunting stops or when people don’t have their shooting seasons.
That term is double-edged; it’s about the idea of being close to each other. It’s about the idea of sharing things. Things that are really meaningful—sharing them as friends, as families, as groups of men going to the football; it’s about how much they share with each other, how much they trust each other.
How important is football to you in your practice and your work?
It’s a universal communicative way of getting me into a place. I remember being in Atlanta, in a bar, in a place I’d never been and it turned out to be the home of the Atlanta Liverpool Supporters Club. They wouldn’t let me pay for anything all night.
Then there’s also the fact that through football I’ve met a lot of incredible people who share things with me about the wider culture of the city and beyond. For many years I played football on a Friday, and there are some pictures in that book that I wouldn’t draw attention to by any kind of title or subtitle. There are pictures in there from Friday afternoons where I play football with other musicians, writers, poets, playwrights, TV people, and we’d all get together in a park in Birkenhead and play football.
The football was the thing that we all loved doing, but the football was also the starting point to have conversations with people about making work happen or making ideas happen, or making some kind of mutual supporting framework to keep each other going with the work we were all doing.
I really loved that, and I really treasure that as and when it happens. Even now, with people in their fifties, it’s still an open invitation to play football on a Friday afternoon in Birkenhead.
For more on people from the footballing peripheries, pre-order our next mag, issue 13, here. If you fancy getting hold of some of our back issues, we might just have them for you here. Wanting to get all four of our magazines out this year straight through your door? You can sort that, right, here.