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“they build the atmosphere” — lee brown

“they build the atmosphere” — lee brown


One by one, the prints arrived. There was a new exhibition at the Gallery at Munro House in Leeds, and the prints were being carried through the cafe in heavy frames, as customers drank their coffees and ate Saturday croissants. The gallery space had been blocked off for the arrival of the prints, but confused customers, balancing mugs in saucers, kept trying to find seats in there all the same.

“I’m very sorry, but this space is closed!” said a staff member, as a pair of patrons carrying chocolate-topped lattes tried to squeeze past the chair placed at the entranceway. One mug-balancer shrugged at the other, who had noticed an empty table in the corner. They wobbled on by.

The soundtrack was jazz, the place was packed and it all felt a bit chaotic. There was an expectant feeling in the room as prints were arriving one by one like at a red carpet event. There are few places in this world you can enjoy a flakey butter croissant while new art parades past your table. The Gallery at Munro House is one of those places, and sitting within the jazzy commotion, we felt glad to be there.

Photograph by Lee Brown

We were at the Gallery at Munro House to meet Lee Brown, a photographer who had flown into Manchester that morning, from Hamburg, where he’d watched an FC St. Pauli game. He arrived just as another print passed through the room. We ordered more coffee and asked about the football.

“They lost, but it was great,” says Lee. “I got told off by an ultra for taking pictures. They had a pyro going, which they’re not meant to do — that’s why we got told off.”

Lee had gone to Hamburg with the Yorkshire St. Pauli supporters’ group. When he has the time he’ll play football with them on Sundays; sessions they call Football For All. He photographs the sessions, now and again.

“People say it’s hipster football,” says Lee, talking about St. Pauli. “But it’s amazing to see a football team be so open about what they stand for. And feeling like the fans and the club are building that culture.

“Sometimes, there are decisions that mean sponsors aren’t taken on board if the fans disagree with them. It would be nice to see that in British football,” he adds.

Photograph by Lee Brown

Lee is a St. Pauli fan; he’s also a Leeds United fan. When he talks about sport, his words spill over into each other, as if somebody kicked over a fresh basket of golf balls. The first football ground he ever went to was in Spain; he was five, and his family was on holiday.

“My dad took me on the stadium tour of the Nou Camp,” he says. “Didn’t see a game but we went and looked around. There’s a picture of me stood in one of the trophy rooms with all the trophies behind me.

“I’m from Scarborough, originally. Scarborough has always had a team that filtered between non-league and the third division; the lowest divisions. Terrible team; and they never played Leeds.”

Lee is a hockey fan, too. He fell in love with hockey after watching the film Mighty Ducks as a kid. He dreams of going to Toronto to visit the Hockey Hall of Fame. His favourite team are the New York Rangers. “A team that has won stuff, but not since 1994,” he says, laughing.

He likes American football. “Granted,” he says, “last season I watched a grand total of ten minutes of the NFL, because the NFL starts and then two weeks later it’s the NHL.” He says he played a bit of rugby a kid; he started watching it seriously after meeting his wife.

Photograph by Lee Brown

The first time he went to New York he took a skateboard, because he liked the idea of skateboarding around the city. “You watch skateboarding videos and there’s that sound,” he says. He pauses for a second, as if he can hear it in in his head.

“Hearing that sound is like — oooooshhhh.”

We ask Lee how he came to photograph sport.

“Weirdly enough,” he says. “Photography came into it from going to gigs.”

Lee went to university to study nursing. He began photographing touring bands and gigs for some of his friends’ zines. He was working in Hull at the Hull Royal Infirmary as a renal assistant when he decided to apply for the photography course at Leeds College of Art.

Photograph by Lee Brown

“I’m still convinced I managed to blag my way into art college,” he says. “I taught myself how to use a camera. I knew two photographers that I liked; the only two photographers that I knew.”

One of the photographers is Glen E. Friedman, an American photographer famous for shooting groups like Black Flag, Misfits, Run-D.M.C. and Public Enemy. The other is British photographer Kevin Cummins. “He shot groups like Joy Division and the Smiths, but he’s obsessed with Manchester City as well,” he says.  

Now, Lee is a freelance photographer and photography assistant.

“I photograph things that I like,” he says. “I don’t class myself as a music photographer, or a sports photographer. I’ve just got all these passions that I’m able to put into my work.”

Photograph by Lee Brown

Lee tells us he’d like to photograph fandom; the kind that will fly across the world to watch their favourite teams.  

“I want to photograph supporters clubs; the groups supporting clubs that aren’t necessarily in England,” he says. “Fans of German teams, Italian teams, French teams, American teams; football, ice hockey, American football, basketball. I think that’s so interesting.”  

Fans, that are just like Lee.

Photograph by Lee Brown

“You know,” he says, “I’m still trying to get my head around the Ultras I saw yesterday. They’re just so passionate about about everything about St. Pauli. And they’re leading the songs, there with the flags, and the loudspeakers, and the drumming. They build the atmosphere.”

When we leave, the mug-balancers are milling about the gallery space, admiring the prints like iPhone paparazzi. The atmosphere had been built and we had seen it all happen. Now, it was time to go.


Words by Jennifer Lee O’Brien
Photographs by Lee Brown

Originally published in The City Talking: Sport