JTF (just the facts): Published in 2018 by RRB Photobooks (here). Hardcover, 104 pages, with 54 black and white and color photographs. There are no texts or essays included. Comes wrapped in a sheet of 1990s era British racing newspaper. In an unlimited standard edition. Also available in a special edition (here) of 50 copies, which includes a signed 8×10 pigment print. (Cover and spread shots below.)
Comments/Context: When reduced to its essence, gambling is the simple act of placing a bet on the likelihood of a particular outcome. And whether that outcome is who will win a game, a race, an election, or nearly any other kind of contest (legal or illegal), people around the world have demonstrated a consistent desire to wager their money on the idea that they can reliably pick a winner. And so gambling venues and options of all shapes and sizes, from casinos and racetracks to national lotteries and offtrack parlors, have sprung up to make a business of offering bettors the against-the-odds chance to put their money where their mouth is.
Martin Amis’ new photobook The Gamblers uses the horse racing venues spread across the south of England as the starting point for a careful study of the subtleties of human nature. For more than a decade, Amis visited various tracks, pointing his camera not at the horses in the races, the jockeys in their silks, or the grooms taking care of the animals in the stalls, but at the crowds of people in the stands following the action and making their bets. His images are entirely rooted in watching the watchers, vicariously tagging along on their roller coaster ride of gamblers’ emotions.
One of the things that comes through clearly in Amis’ photographs is that gambling, especially on horse racing, is a process rather than a discrete event. There are rhythms and patterns in the activity and there is an observable order to the proceedings, and Amis shows us each of the steps in the journey. A bet actually begins back quite a bit further, with careful reading of the racing form or other tip sheets and newspapers, as well as moments of discussion and information sharing with other nearby bettors. Then comes the parade of horses, where bettors examine their favorites, often using binoculars like birdwatchers or rocket launch enthusiasts. After a period of reflection (and indecision), bets are placed in the nearby kiosks, the paper receipt slips held tightly in hands. When the race actually starts, a flood of emotions washes over the bettors. Anticipation and confidence quickly become anxiety, uncertainty, and concern (with an undercurrent of desperate urging on), ultimately transitioning to the poles of anguish and despair or satisfaction and celebration. And after the momentary jolt of adrenaline settles, it’s onto the next race, with hopes for glory once again renewed.
Amis’ photobook is roughly arranged in this chronological order, so we pass through each stage of the bettor’s cycle as the pages turn. But his study is far from clinical or arm’s length – instead, he gets right up close, using people, and in particular their faces, expressions, and gestures, as the way into the subject. His pictures show us the diligence of pen-at-the-ready notetaking, the furrowed brow of reading the incomprehensible track listings, the earnest eagerness of a hand (or a racing form) used to shade the eyes while looking, and the turn to pursed lipped, arms folded grimness when the race starts going the wrong way. There are a seemingly equal numbers of shouts of encouragement and curses of dreams unfulfilled, with the frustration of discarding the crumpled paper of the now worthless ticket matched by the jumping, dancing, arms raised glee of those who picked the winner.
Some of Amis’ best photographs look back up at the wider crowd, turning the people in the bleachers or on the concrete stairs into layers of closely thatched humanity, and it is in these juxtapositions that we see the range of people that come to the track. For the most part, it is an older crowd, with the most dutiful of patrons outfitted in unassuming tweeds and sensible raincoats, with a few wealthier types in suits and bright scarves sprinkled in. Free flowing beer in plastic cups is more the domain of a younger crowd of mostly men, whose fun-loving boisterousness overruns the sedate watching of the regulars. Amis’ pictures collapse these different personalities into single frame arrangements of faces that brim with human complexity. Stairways allow him to align faces into upward marching rows, and the stands democratize the action, bringing people from all walks of life into close proximity. Like Garry Winogrand’s famous 1964 image of people on a park bench at the World’s Fair in New York, these photographs collapse multiple figures into dense arrays of individual expressions and moods.
There is an undeniable undercurrent of Britishness to these pictures, and a wryness of observation that follows in the footsteps of British photographers like Tom Wood, Martin Parr, and others. While the tweed hats, the wispy white hair, and the jowly older faces provide some handy details for memorable pictures and moments of understated self-deprecating humor, it is the small rituals of gestures and body language that give these photographs their vitality.
Well-defined single subject projects like the The Gamblers generally make for tidy photobooks, and this one definitely fits that pattern. A cover with a bold graphic design and a tipped-in image on the back gives way to bright red endpapers filled with racing form text, and eventually onto the sequence of images in both black and white and color. All of the images are horizontal, so most expand across the spread of the vertically-oriented photobook, with just enough white space left to ensure the pictures have room to breathe. The side alignment wanders back and forth between left and right, ensuring that each page turn creates interest. With no other design elements or background texts, we are encouraged to focus on the images and the many small vignettes found there.
Any gambling story is inevitably one of twinned ups and downs, or wins and losses, with the house usually gaining the upper hand over the long run, and Amis’ photographs certainly capture that gyrating sweep of movement. But it is the empathy in these pictures, and the warmth of acceptance embedded in their perspective, that makes the project so satisfying. While there are certainly caricatures and quiet ridiculousness to be found here, they are largely seen with knowing affection. In the end, there are tantalizing thrills to be found in The Gamblers, but they’re up in the crowds rather than out on the track.
Collector’s POV: Martin Amis (no relation to the author of the same name) does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result, interested collectors should likely follow up via the photographer’s website (linked in the sidebar).