“I’m not a hipster!” Louis Bever says, while describing the art that inspires his Nineties and 2000s football shirt portrait series. And he’s right in so far as he’s not following fashion intentionally — his 16-year-old cousin was the one to inform him that his 80-strong collection of footy jerseys was in fact “trendy”.
Between the ongoing obsession with all things Y2K, the fact that football fashion is having a moment, and the legion of obsessive sports fans — there are many potential audiences for his work right now. But it’s down to Bever’s ability to stir emotion that has turned the nearly 50K Instagram followers he acquired at pace into a captive audience.
Tender, wistful, and timeless aren’t necessarily words you’d associate with portraits of people in full kit, but his feed of photos — inspired by a mix of abstract, contemporary, and Renaissance paintings — definitely are.
Bever, 28, is a fashion and portrait photographer for brands such as Uniqlo and Adidas by day, and began shooting the series in 2021 as a hobby. He had recently moved to London from Manchester, and was starting out as a freelance photographer, having left a career in law. Trying to cover his rent by raiding charity shops to find things to sell on Depop, eBay, or down the pub, his collection of retro football shirts was growing rapidly. It gave him an idea for a way to combine his life-long passion for the sport and love of paintings.
“It was an accident really. I thought: well, I’ve always collected football shirts and I like taking portraits, but I’m getting a bit bored of them,” he says. “Then I remember being on the phone to my mum and dad and saying: ‘Wouldn’t it be funny if I just recreated paintings with the shirts?’ They thought it was a bit niche and weird, but I did one and it was really fun. And because I get quite obsessive I kept going, and here we are two years later. There’s no edgy meaning — it’s just for fun.”
Bever now shoots about three times a week in his East London bedroom, taking up to six portraits per subject on his 1980s Mamiya RZ67 camera, each influenced by a different painting — so he has to get the money shot in one take. “It’s a big and heavy camera so it’s a slow-paced process. You really have to make sure everything’s all right before you press the button,” says Bever. Adding that, “It means you can can have a chat in-between shots.”
Of the candid-looking results, he says: “If you’re an individual sitting in front of [the lens] it doesn’t really look like a camera, so it’s less nerve-racking.”
This love of a chat and affable nature means Bever stumbled upon a celebrity shoot opportunity last year, which helped his following to soar. After meeting Sex Education’s Asa Butterfield at a house party in Shoreditch, they got talking about football and went to get beers. “We got on like a house on fire. I had no idea who he was,” says Bever. “I asked if he did sport and he told me ‘a bit of acting.’”
Later, Butterfield invited Bever over “for a cup of tea to take some pictures”. He shot the actor in a series of Arsenal shirts and Butterfield shared one on social, putting the pieces in front of a whole new audience.
Now the portrait series is the longest running one Bever and his mates reckon they’ve seen. But he’s not daunted by the longevity — it’s a challenge he relishes. “I’ve recreated hundreds of paintings by this point,” he says.
Bever grew up going to galleries in France with his mum but, to keep the inspiration flowing, he has a tonne of art books he procures at Oxfam in Hoxton, and also gets ideas of what to emulate next from Pinterest (“I can spend hours sifting through the related images to an art piece to find the perfect match”), as well as, more traditionally, the National Portrait Gallery. “It’s more about similarities rather than you know who painted it and when. It’s a game for me,” says Bever.
And there are no rules. Sometimes he starts with a shirt, sometimes the painting, sometimes a model he’s picked out for their striking brows or eyes. Then he procures the props, from eBay, charity shops, the model’s jewellery collections, or from his professional football player friend’s kit.
Nor is Bever an art snob. The finished result could be based on a “niche 1700s piece” or it could be a modern version of Vermeer’s world-famous Girl with a Pearl Earring.
Picasso is one artist he’s always coming back to, however. The Cubist has many paintings featuring a colour palette that matches some of his favourite shirts perfectly. Plus, Bever says, “he’s great for couples, because he did so many of these like ‘single man’, ‘single woman’ paintings that look like two people kissing.”
The couples’ portraits are mostly of two rival team shirts and have become a major sub-genre from Bever. “I like to make it a bit awkward and teenage,” he says. “I ask them just to place their faces together, but I’ve had an Italian couple get increasingly more passionate in front of the camera. Though most British couples breathe a sigh of relief when the image doesn’t involve, you know, a tongue going in someone else’s mouth.”
While it’s all love between these real-life partners, the portraits get lots of traction from the fans on opposing teams. “They rinse each other in the comments,” according to Bever.
It makes sense then, that it was a picture of a couple kissing in rival AC and Inter Milan shirts, which he posted in January, that gave him his biggest viral moment to date. It has now hit 32K likes.
Bever always has an eye on real-life football drama to reference in his portraits — be it the Beckham documentary, a derby, or a bad run for Manchester City. It makes sense, then, that he says the project could go on “indefinitely”. As long as “there’s art and as long as there’s football shirts”, or if he finally “gets bored”.
Being a photographer 100 years ago was only for people who had money to open up a gallery and fund it and make prints. The great thing about Instagram is... anyone can use it
Bever’s plan is to create a series of coffee table books of the portraits, but for now he’s happy with Instagram as a medium to display his art to the masses. “If you’re a photographer, I think social media is fantastic because it’s a visual gallery,” he says. Bever feels it’s helped to democratise art. “Being a photographer 100 years ago, it was only for people who had money to open up a gallery and fund it and make prints. The great thing about Instagram is you don’t have to pay to go and see the work or to create it. Anyone can use it.”
And he’s open to any feedback on his work. “I don’t care if I only get one like,” he says — just don’t ever (incorrectly) call one of his shirts a fake. “That’s the only time I’ve ever blocked someone!” Bever says.