London-based photographer Sam Rock’s series Watching the French is a tribute to the warm, indulgent days of family outings and tennis-watching. After graduating with a degree in industrial design and engineering, Sam found himself unsure of his next steps and started toying with the possibility of photography. “They say boredom breeds creativity. I was essentially bored and started experimenting with a skill that was immediately accessible. I would lock myself in the attic of my parents’ house and ingest photo books and magazines. That, and a chance opportunity to move to New York, embedded me in the world of assisting, which is essentially an apprenticeship in photography. I’ve found something which took over my life, all day, every day, and I’m so grateful for that,” the photographer tells It’s Nice That.
Sam lists William Klein’s 1982 film The French – a documentary on the French Open tennis championship at Roland-Garros – as a source of inspiration. The influence is indisputable. Klein unsparingly documents the 1981 tournaments’ day-to-day occurrences, from closeups of legendary players like Björn Borg and Jimmy Connors to shots of enthusiastic spectators and their distinct mannerisms. In the same way, Sam combines splendid overview shots of the brick-red tennis courts with photographs of hamburgers and even a foot. “I love the overall elegance of the French atmosphere and, more than just the theatrical elements of sport, I love the collective and non-collective attitudes of the people that come together to watch. I’m so attracted to the people that watch the events and how they watch them. The feelings these occasions give the audience, for better or worse, is quite mesmerising,” the photographer explains. In including the smaller, less significant details alongside the spectacular shots, Sam transports the viewer into the court and invites us to experience every aspect of the event ourselves.
Sam’s shots are captivating, the vivid hues and distilled movements bringing the scenes to life. Despite Watching the French’s considered arrangement, Sam travelled to the tournament with no expectations of what he was looking to shoot. “At many events like this, you have to just be there. In the future you can return with more of an idea of what you want to convey, but sometimes there’s nothing wrong with just being present. In general you’ll be attracted to the same sort of things you’re usually attracted to and that is what will define you as a photographer. I was looking for things that caught my eye. Simple as that. In addition to the colours, I knew Roland-Garros as a vibrant and beautiful arena because of the clay, and I knew there was simply going to be so much feeling in just the colours of the venue.” By trusting his artistic instinct, Sam’s photography is defined by the particularities and idiosyncrasies of the specific people he encounters. A true voyeur, Sam’s series is a study into the atmosphere that surrounds high-profile sporting events.
“Being there reminded me of Chris Marker’s film The Koumiko Mystery, which again, I love the simplicity of; Marker being commissioned to film the Tokyo Olympics in 1964, and becoming so bored with the actual event, he turned his camera on the crowds, and in the end one person in particular, who becomes the subject of the film itself. So with this in mind, I found more interest in the place and the people, and how they were ‘Watching The French [Open]’.”
Watching the French, which first appeared in True, challenges what we consider to be sports photography and its conventional documentary aesthetic. Through his sun-kissed photographs and curious observations, Sam reimagines how sports can be represented. “Part of me is interested in breaking up the generic idea of sports photography. There’s certain practicalities for sports photography now, but everything I see is cold and automatic. I suppose that comes with the realms of pure photojournalism and presenting the ‘truth’ – but I’m happy to be bending the truth, whether that’s with colour and composition, or with an edit or something caught at the wrong moment in time. Overall I’m not sure if 5000 frames per match has helped photographers get the ‘perfect’ shot. It’s just become less engaged.”
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