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
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.