1988 photojournalist Robert Clark joined the writer Buzz Bissinger in the western Texas city of Odessa with a mission in mind: to record a season of high school football with the Permian Panthers. Bissinger’s book Friday night lights later became a Hollywood film and inspired the television show of the same name.
Clark made over 80 rolls of film for the original book, but only a few pictures were included in the original book. He has visited Texas a few times over the years to photograph a handful of players and coaches and eventually create his photo book Friday night lives, which was released in 2020. In black and white photos, Clark presents an intimate work that captures the innocence of life before the 21st century and what came after it. His 1980s footage shows the ups and downs of student athletes, many of whom had professional hopes that depended on the Friday night scoreboard. Of the seniors Clark captured, only one played for a major college football team.
Fast forward to 2021, the once young men are now reaching middle age and working in a number of fields including trucks, oil, and law. Some had drug abuse problems and were imprisoned. The team’s beloved coach, Gary Gaines, saw signs of early Alzheimer’s disease in his final season running the Permian High School’s football program in 2012.
We spoke to Clark about what attracted him to high school football back then and what it feels like to reflect on his historical images today.
Did it feel special to film in Odessa in 1988? What Makes Texas Football a Great Subject?
I think it was both the cultural moment and the place. Buzz looked at Pennsylvania, Ohio, and a few others, but Texas was perfect. The experience was special because the kids had very few distractions at the time and the game and team were pretty much everything for these kids.
The game is a tough game and that works well with what I call “a fist fighting city” that is Odessa. Odessa is a boom town in many ways. As they say, “In Midland you start a family, in Odessa you start a hell”.
The economy is related to oil; The boom-and-bust cycle of this oil-based economy brings in workers of a temporary nature – “robbery”. Lots of single men staying for as long as a job in the oil fields lasts. Odessa is also a great city and has a racial makeup that makes the city more interesting. The spectacle was and is astonishing to me – the ritual of the Pep rally, the fresh air of the autumn nights, the lights of the stadium. I love it.
One thing that I find very interesting is that the title “Friday Night Lights” has become part of the dictionary, much like “the greatest generation”; it is about a very specific part of our society and everything related to these words. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen the phrase “Friday Night Lights” or the silhouettes of players being shot from behind while holding hands. Both are iconic which I think is pretty cool.
Do you think the passage of time and the development of technology have changed the culture of sport or the nature of athletes?
The sport hasn’t changed; the ethos, the pathos of everything is the same, but the advent of social media would make it impossible to do this “under the radar”. The fact that Buzz wrote the book, the fact that I took pictures – everything would have been different on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. The players were trapped in my negatives as these young, strong kids, and it was interesting to photograph them now as 50-year-old men.
Did any of the young players wonder why they were followed by two journalists during this time?
The players were so focused on winning and being successful that I think they never thought much about the project when we were in town – but after the season, the book, the movie and the show, they got it that it’s a hell of a piece of journalism, and they’re glad they were there.
What was it like to visit Odessa in recent years, to return to this city? What has changed?
Returning to Odessa is bittersweet for me. I had such a good time coming to town. Also, the work I produced in Odessa has been rewarded with attention and success, but I also feel old. [laughs] It’s been a long time since I took these pictures. Much has changed in my life, in the country and in the world.
Most of the city looks the same. The team has changed and the pressure on the players has changed. I’ve been to a few games since the ’88 season and the audience has dropped; Children have so many other distractions and activities that come in their own time. I just don’t know how important football is to the students compared to 1988.
Can you tell me about that moment when you caught Mike Winchell surrounded by balloons at the Pep rally? How was it to see him again in 2019 to photograph him?
Mike was a shy guy. He was under a lot of pressure, but he was smart and competitive, so he was the best choice as a QB for the Panthers. The picture is one of my favorites that I have ever shot. Not that it’s that good, it just reminds me of a time gone by, not unlike a song from your high school days that kidnaps you, takes you somewhere other than where you are. I love the composition, the expression, pretty much everything about the picture. Mike always tried to hide when I took photos – but at the rally it was very loud and he had the balloon in front of his face. As he pulled it down, I shot it when we made eye contact. Seeing him again was really nice. We had a fairly long breakfast; he still said “yes, sir”, “no, sir” which is funny for a 50 year old, but that’s how he grew up.
How do you know when you’re getting the shot?
For me it feels like I’ve just eaten something good. When that happens, I start thinking about the next photo and move on. As for sports photography, I’ve always been more interested in making and losing pictures, tragedies or triumphs, the more emotional response to the results of a game than the action pictures. The thrill of victory versus the agony of defeat.