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Homage to West Ham

Homage to West Ham

Homage to West Ham
May 28
00:42 2016


The US photographer captured Upton Park as the Hammers prepared to move to the Olympic stadium

©Jim Dow

1985: The club shop

If you were a soccer fan living in Boston, Massachusetts, in the late 1970s there were only two ways to watch foreign football. One was at members-only Irish, Italian and Portuguese sports clubs that had satellite dishes the size of swimming pools in the backyard; the other was on the national “educational” channel (PBS), where hour-long highlights from the Bundesliga (Soccer Made in Germany) and the English football league (Star Soccer) were shown on Sunday mornings in black and white.

Besides the games (often brawls in the winter mud, half-obscured by fog), what caught my eye most were the stadiums, particularly the English ones, how they sat right in the middle of neighbourhoods, unlike in the US where they would be surrounded by car parks. When the camera panned away from the action there would be a panoramic view of the immediate environs: tower blocks, terraces, potting sheds, fish and chip shops, maybe a passing bus.

West Ham’s treatment room in 1985©Jim Dow

1985: The treatment room at West Ham’s Boleyn Ground

The first time I saw West Ham from the stands was at the Charity Shield match in August 1980 when they played Liverpool, winners of the league. As a distanced football fan visiting from the US, the Reds were all I knew about.

When I got on the Tube to Wembley, the swaying carriage was full of chanting, singing, cheering claret-and-blue-clad folk of every size, age, shape and description. I was a veteran of countless baseball, basketball, football and ice hockey games in the supposedly sports-mad city of Boston but I had never seen the like, and after two stops I was hooked. There was and is nothing similar back home to match the raucous bonding, edgy wit and the frisson of anticipation that a British football crowd evokes. I wanted to be a part of it and, while slithering along Wembley Way on a sea of empty lager cans, I first heard what I took to be the team anthem, “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles . . . ”

Panorama of Boleyn Ground from South Bank. 1980©Jim Dow

Panorama of Boleyn Ground from South Bank in 1980

A week later I went to the season opener at West Ham’s home stadium, the Boleyn Ground in London. At that point I hadn’t been much further east than Brick Lane, and getting out of the Tube at Upton Park I was carried along Green Street by a throng similar to the one that had engulfed me a few days before. The surroundings were no longer the predictable, prim suburbs of the north-west part of the city, but a mixture of every sort of architecture, food, person and style; a multicolourful, multicultural “kind of London breed” (to quote the poet Benjamin Zephaniah).

And then there was the stadium itself — a somewhat funkier cousin of a more familiar Fenway Park and Wrigley Field, classic US baseball stadiums. It was packed full of the people just described as well as the most idiosyncratic nooks and crannies, everywhere decorated with the crossed hammers that gave the team its famous nickname. I presented my ticket, clanked through the turnstile and arrived home.

Panorama of Boleyn Ground from NE corner. 2016©Jim Dow

Panorama of the Boleyn Ground in 2016

I returned as soon as I could to photograph the club with the wooden 8x10in view camera that I have always used. In order to capture the full sweep of the ground, I made three different exposures that were then pieced together to make a single, panoramic image (later examples shown overleaf). Inspired by the results, I went on to photograph scores and scores of stadiums throughout the US, Canada, the UK, Argentina and Mexico over the next three decades.

Since then, whenever I’ve been in England, I’ve always returned to West Ham to attend matches and make photographs. It’s about being a fan, loving the ground and the area, wanting to reconnect with everything about the game and the club I’ve come to feel a part of. When I heard they were moving to the Olympic Park, and the old stadium was to be demolished, I wanted to go back one last time to create a photographic bookend; homage to a place where much has changed over the years but a great deal has not.

Panorama of Boleyn Ground from the Chicken Run and North Bank. 1990©Jim Dow

Panorama of the Boleyn Ground in 1990 as seen from the Chicken Run terrace and North Bank

Built in the first iteration of the stadium, the Chicken Run — the terraces at the front of the East Stand where the loudest home fans used to stand — still exists, albeit now with seating. Rule 12 of the terms and conditions on the club website states optimistically: “It is a condition of entry to the stadium that the holder of the ticket agrees to remain seated during the match.”

The club’s greatest memorial, the bronze statue of Bobby Moore, its most accomplished player, with 1966 World Cup teammates Geoff Hurst, Martin Peters and Ray Wilson, stands a few yards down Green Street from the ground. There is also a plot in a corner of the players’ car park to accommodate fans’ ashes and other memorabilia, as ashes can no longer be scattered on the pitch. I have been told the plot will be maintained when the club moves.

Steward's jackets. 2016©Jim Dow

2016: Steward’s jackets

Recently, Sister Immaculata of Our Lady of Compassion, the church next to the stadium, was quoted in a British newspaper, saying: “We have been almost sucked into West Ham, as a Hoover sucks one in.” Deep in the belly of the Boleyn Ground someone has planted a big, hot-pink lipstick kiss smack on the sign that carries former manager Alan Pardew’s exhortation: “Winning, it’s what we are here for.” I’d like to believe the sister did it.

When I was done photographing, I walked back up Green Street past the Tube, across Portway and finally through the huge shopping mall to the new site in Stratford. I felt I’d left east London and arrived in Houston in just 3.4 miles. In a place like the Boleyn Ground, there seem to be ghosts in every corner and if you sat quietly, as I did in the two days I was there, you could feel them. As yet there are no ghosts at the Olympic stadium.

Entrance to East Stand, upper level. 2016©Jim Dow

2016: Entrance to East Stand, upper level

Shrine for scattering ashes, in players' car park. 2016©Jim Dow

2016: A plot in the players’ car park serves as a memorial site

Works board. 1990©Jim Dow

1990: Works board

Boot room. Chadwell Heath training ground. 1990©Jim Dow

1990: The boot room at the Chadwell Heath training ground, which opened in 1962 and was used by first team players until recently

Home dressing room. 1985©Jim Dow

The home dressing room in 1985

Home dressing room. 2016©Jim Dow

The home dressing room in 2016

Groundkeeper's shed with corner flags. 2016©Jim Dow

2016: groundkeeper’s shed with corner flags

West Ham's Favourite Burger Bar, next to the East Stand, 2016©Jim Dow

2016: West Ham’s Favourite Burger Bar, next to the East Stand

Photographs: Jim Dow

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