Ward Roberts’ Courts
Sam Twyford Moore
The work of Ward Roberts, a young Australian photographer, was introduced to me by the website of a men’s fashion magazine. That might say something about the sort of audience who could be seeking out his work—his photographs speak to the aesthetics of the fashion market—but if anything he seems to be a photographer willing to be play with notions of the superficial.
Courts, his debut monograph, published by the small art imprint Erm Books, is the end result of four years work, documenting, well… courts, mostly of the basketball variety but there are tennis courts too. Perhaps Roberts played down the tennis angle, not wanting to echo a similar project by the Swiss-born photographer Giasco Bertoli, whose 2009 book Tennis Courts is almost identical in thematic concerns, documenting abandoned tennis courts. Limiting your subject like this allows you to sharpen your eye, which is appealing. The risk is that the work can come off as little more than a catalogue.
The viewer can appreciate the lengths that Roberts has gone to in order to capture these courts—some of which he broke into, all of which he has travelled far to find. Ward has said that he waited hours for to get a clear shot. I play tennis with a friend on free courts in the Sydney suburb of Summer Hill and this too can often be a game of waiting, sitting outside the perimeter for up to an hour. Particularly aggressive players will come onto the courts and stalk their territory as you play. Often we will give up a game because those on the courts next to us were going overtime and we felt guilty by proxy.
Ward’s empty courts are incredibly appealing to the impatient player in me. The images are winning. The interviews Robert has given about the book, however, have been incredibly mundane and he has been repeating the same rehearsed line about the project:
‘As a kid I played sports every weekend and spent a lot of my younger life being very active. I was curious to find out if this was still a universal lifestyle.’
And in a different interview…
‘When I was younger I’d often spend a lot of time playing tennis, soccer, and basketball with friends,’ he says. ’We’d break into schools on the weekend just to play sport(s). I was curious to find out if this is still a popular activity.’
As far as a statement of intellectual curiosity, it’s not one with a particular reach. Is sport still popular? Roberts has yet to find a convincing way to talk about his fascination with architecture and his particular aversion to photographing people.
Ward has answered his own question about the universality of the sporting lifestyle by producing interchangeable images and by leaving the locations anonymous. Roberts shot locations including Melbourne, Hong Kong, London, New York and ‘even Bali’ as he writes in his short, clipped afterword to the book. Why ‘even Bali’? As if Bali is harder to get to than New York, or that we should be surprised that they would have sports courts? I can’t tell which prints are Bali and which are Melbourne anyway. There is only one photograph that stands out to me as London and one that stands out as New York. Everything in between is indiscriminate.
That Roberts photographs the courts depopulated adds to this sense of placelessness. It also gives Ward an international edge. He does not present as an artist with a uniquely Australian perspective and he emphasises the years he has spent in Hong Kong in his biography. A refusal to use the courts as they are intended is partly artificial, of course, and public spaces without their public are depressingly redundant.
This aversion is partly due to an architectural obsession—a weirdo obsession I share and one I would argue is completely healthy. Roberts courts are exclusively found in dense built-up urban settings, giving him a mark of difference from Bertoli’s courts which were typically found in woods. Ward is city-fixated. A photographer can become known for photographing one thing. Roberts enthusiasms for photographing architecture have good historical precedence. Pedro E. Guerrero, who died in September at the age of 95, was known primarily for photographing houses designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. There are few critics who would argue that this is a derivative art form but Guerrero’s sharp camera invents the Wright houses over and over again, showing us Wright’s warped designs from angles that you wouldn’t be able to find on even the most inventive architect’s blueprints.
Roberts does not have Guerrero’s passion for architecture’s dramatic play of shadows. His real achievements are the inverse, how he flattens everything out. Perhaps this is the real appeal of the courts to him. He has said in interviews that he prefers to shoot when it is overcast—particularly fetishising Hong Kong’s ‘hazy skies’—seemingly because it merges sky and concrete in the same grey tones.
The recent exhibition and book Backyard Oasis: The Swimming Pool in Southern California Photography, 1945-1982—a collection unafraid to act as catalogue—demonstrated how focusing on a single subject can become strength. Loretta Ayeroff’s Pool with Silver Handrail and Cactus (1981), from her Motel series, is fascinated with the lines of the architecture of leisure. Between 2006 and 2009 Ayeroff lived in two suburbs where Raymond Chandler once lived and dedicated a series to him, but her probing framing had a touch of the private investigator to them, each photograph suggesting that it had already been contemplated from multiple angles. Roberts shoots his courts from the same seeming angle, his feet flat on the courts. I can’t imagine his knees bending. I never get any sense that he wants to play sport.
Again, I feel that this might have more to do with the limited way that Roberts has been speaking about his project, than the images themselves.
Perhaps photographers just shouldn’t speak at all. In How To Make a Book With Steidl—a documentary about the German book publisher Gerhard Steidl—the American photographer Joel Sternfeld becomes a central figure, and is portrayed, mostly to comic effect, as self obsessed and pretentious. A five minute monologue half way through the film, in which Sternfeld describes how he sees his work responding to climate change is remarkably wrong headed and hollow sounding. It doesn’t help matters that iDubai the book that he is producing with Steidl’s help in the documentary seems like a dubious project, whose intent doesn’t seem clear except being a lame brain criticism of the consumerism of Middle Eastern malls. The lower-case i in iDubai refers to the iPhone which Sternfeld used to take the photographs in Dubai’s malls. Sternfeld is no master of the technology.
But if you leave the confines of the iDubai and How To Make a Book With Steidl and go and look at Sternfeld’s back catalogue, there are photographs of incredible sensitivity and detail. The best of Sternfeld’s early photographs make nature and architecture strange, not by waiting for them to empty, but by showing figures as acting witnesses, as in his photograph of the families leaning over the Glen Canyon dam. I can’t stop thinking of how great Roberts photographs would be if there were people waiting on the use of the courts, trying to make sense of them too. Ward Roberts is certainly a photographer, in the reviewer parlance cliché, ‘to watch’. I just hope that soon he’ll be watching us too.
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