Never Mind the Wisdom, the Beauty of Crowds is the Thing

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Never Mind the Wisdom, the Beauty of Crowds is the Thing

There has also been considerable socio-psychological research into the ways that crowds behave. They have their own tidal flows and currents of sentiment and emotion. Anyone who ever stood on the terraces of a packed football ground, back in the day when standing was the norm, will know the peculiar sense of being part of the herd that such a setting generated. Whether rendered as a matter of chant, shouts or physical movements, the group was somehow more real than any of its constituent parts. Capturing that dynamism in graphic form is difficult at best.

Sporting Spectators and Sporting Spectacle

With the great sporting occasions of the year still to come, cup finals, Open championships in one sport or another and, of course, the rugby World Cup, which will get under way in the autumn, crowds will - as ever - form the backdrop as well as the audio scape to some of our most memorable televisual experiences. From a personal perspective, the rendering of the national anthems at the rugby World Cup will be a crowd watching moment to savour.

There is something singularly stirring about the good-natured national fervour and the gladiatorial quality of the sport that makes an international rugby crowd an immensely watchable beast, almost irrespective of the competitive aspect of the game itself or one's attachment to a particular team. For a moment, whilst grown men unite in song, and tears of patriotic fervour are shed, the not insignificant matter of winning or losing a game of rugby is subjugated to a deeper, more inclusive commonality. It is truly one of the great sporting spectacles.

Crowds typically are little more than background. Either an anonymously blurred flat backdrop to the athletic focal point, or an emotive, emblematic token of a wider story - the weeping fan at the end of a disastrous campaign, or the buoyant celebration of a photogenic winner.

Focal Attention

Crowds as such are only rarely put centre stage. LS Lowry was happy to paint them but only a few professional photographers have elected to devote their attention fully to them. Notable exceptions include Alex Prager, whose exhibition A Face in the Crowd pulled on the tension between individual and collective sensibilities, and Lisa Larsen's work for Life magazine that in a pre-digital era managed to stretch depths of field to generate an almost visceral sense of groups of people packed tightly together.

In the work of these two artists, just as with Lowry before them, that unreconciled, little understood space between each one of us and the groups we sense we belong to was successfully captured. On all counts there is something slightly uncomfortable - or perhaps discomforting - about the images. None of us like to think of ourselves as just a face in the crowd after all. Yet this is the insistent message that these collective portraits convey.

The more intimate and the more personal an image may be, it is rendered somehow all the more emotively charged by being surrounded by similar equivalent figures - each with their own stories to tell.

The Rare Beauty of Crowds

People rarely discuss the beauty of crowds. They are, almost by definition, unattractive entities. As the words we use to describe them suggests, they are a body resonant of danger: mobs, hordes, gangs and packs and such similarly freighted synonyms are far more numerous and more emotive than humble throngs, multitudes or gatherings.

It is perhaps only in sport, and in those rare outpourings of political celebration - the opening of the Berlin Wall, the overthrow of Saddam Hussein - that crowds are given permit as something wholly positive.

So often, however, these events are stage managed for the benefit of TV as much as those involved. Hence, the inevitable commercial anthems of success - 'We are the Champions' and the like - overlay the best, most organically generated aspect of crowds with a patina of artificiality. Great crowds are perhaps best captured in the living breathing moment. Like the roar that greets a Grand National winner or in the 1964 Liverpool Kop's spontaneous rendering of 'She Loves You'.

As an example of the galvanising, energising quality that a crowd can generate, this clip is just about perfect. The stilted commentary of an entirely alien BBC which described the crowd in anthropological terms is doubly revealing in its way. Crowds in the living, breathing sense witnessed here - where surrender to the greater identity was all consuming - were simply not a phenomenon familiar to the 1960s broadcasting classes.

For all that, crowds remain a subject with a distinctive and elusive visual as well as aural quality.