Pho­tos ex­am­ine pas­sion for rugby


Why are New Zealan­ders so nuts about rugby?

That ques­tion has brought English pho­tog­ra­pher David Matches to New Zealand five of the past six years – cul­mi­nat­ing in his aptly named ex­hi­bi­tion, The Match.

The New Zealand Por­trait Gallery is show­cas­ing Matches’ ex­hi­bi­tion, fea­tur­ing rugby play­ers from around New Zealand – in­clud­ing All Blacks, club play­ers, and even a few golden oldies.

Matches said he chose rugby play­ers and New Zealand be­cause of our near ob­ses­sion with the game, which arouses no­tions of national iden­tity. ‘‘Why do we get so ex­cited? ‘‘The way it means so much is a lit­tle bit nuts, and fas­ci­nat­ing,’’ he said.

‘‘ No coun­try re­ally has a re­la­tion­ship with a sport quite like New Zealand.’’

The pho­tographs were taken im­me­di­ately af­ter rugby games, as the play­ers walked to the chang­ing shed, ‘‘ be­fore the adrenalin and emo­tion dis­si­pates’’.

‘‘Get­ting to know sub­jects in the af­ter­math of the game tells so much more than the game it­self,’’ Matches said.

‘‘We’re used to the ac­tion telling the story, but the peo­ple on their own hold so much in­for­ma­tion.

‘‘There’s some­thing mys­te­ri­ous about the play­ers on their own. The adrenalin starts evap­o­rat­ing, but the phys­i­cal and psy­cho­log­i­cal ev­i­dence is still there.’’

One of Matches’ in­spi­ra­tions is Dutch pho­tog­ra­pher Rineke Di­jk­stra, who pho­tographed moth­ers an hour af­ter giv­ing birth, then again one day later, then one week later.

He said Di­jk­stra’s por­trai­ture suc­ceeded be­cause they were por­traits of ex­pe­ri­ence, not just por­traits of a per­son.

‘‘You can learn from it, which is amaz­ing that a pho­to­graph can do that,’’ Matches said.

Por­trait Gallery di­rec­tor Ave­nal McK­in­non said The Match was the big­gest and most com­plex ex­hi­bi­tion the gallery had mounted.

‘‘ The vis­ual im­pact of these works is huge, and no mat­ter what the in­di­vid­ual viewer’s at­ti­tude to rugby, the ef­fect of such raw emo­tion and en­ergy is in­escapable,’’ she said.

Matches said he felt sport gave peo­ple an out­let to ex­press their per­son­al­ity.

‘‘There was this old guy, af­ter win­ning. ‘‘He showed a modest pride. ‘‘A very Kiwi modest sort of thing.’’

The por­traits were taken us­ing an old 10 x 8 Bel­lows cam­era, with Matches crouched be­neath a blan­ket to fo­cus the shots.

Ini­tially, this was be­cause the old cam­era cap­tured greater de­tail than dig­i­tal, but the process also re­sulted in bet­ter pho­top­er­for­mances from the play­ers, Matches said.

‘‘[It] slows the process down, gives each photo a sense of oc­ca­sion.

‘‘It’s just the best. The old cam­era gives bet­ter res­o­lu­tion, sub­tle vari­a­tions of tone that you don’t get with dig­i­tal.

‘‘It’s all in­for­ma­tion – with­out that in­for­ma­tion there’s no story,’’ he said.

Matches picked his sub­jects by watch­ing the rugby games and look­ing for char­ac­ters who stood out.

Af­ter the game he took a sin­gle pho­to­graph per player, with­out com­pos­ing the photo or telling them what to do, he said. ‘‘Por­trai­ture is about the sub­ject rather than the pho­tog­ra­pher.

‘‘It’s hav­ing faith in the sub­ject, rather than try­ing to elicit any­thing spe­cific.

‘‘Not try to drama­tise or con­trol the sub­ject.’’

In Eng­land, Matches works in the film in­dus­try as a cam­era as­sis­tant on mu­sic videos, tele­vi­sion com­mer­cials and movies, but he de­cided to ven­ture to New Zealand for his first photography project.

‘‘For me, it was a time when I could do this and have fun, be­cause you work bet­ter when it’s fun.

‘‘So I hired a camper­van and came over for the win­ter,’’ he said.

‘‘ When you strip away the sounds and move­ment, it tells a big story.

‘‘ If you can tell that story, you’ve achieved what por­trai­ture sets out to do.’’

Com­ing from a foot­ball back­ground, Matches’ ob­vi­ous choice for a photography project was not rugby.

He said he chose to ex­plore the spec­trum of rugby in New Zealand be­cause there was a strong and unique con­nec­tion to the sport. ‘‘Why has New Zealand been the best for 100 years when it’s such a

small coun­try?’’

The Match, by David Matches, will be at The New Zealand Por­trait Gallery, Shed 11 on the wa­ter­front, un­til Oc­to­ber 16.


Rugby men: David Matches in front of part of his ex­hi­bi­tion of rugby por­traits.

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