Tom Wood's men and women

Seacombe Ferry, 1985

How long does it take for a body of work to be ready? A decade, more? Well, for photographer Tom Wood it seems that 40 years is about right.

Men and women is a new show at the Photographers' Gallery in London which brings together Wood's pictures of the everyday lives of the people of Liverpool and Merseyside between 1973 and the start of this century.

Wood's method of working was simple. For five days of the week he'd shoot on the streets, or from a bus, and was soon known by those he saw regularly as Photieman.

"I was making pictures, with people that allowed me to photograph them," says Wood. "I was just going out and making pictures every day on loads of things all at once and never finished anything. Lots of the projects I didn't want to finish or to put in to the world at that time."

The resulting pictures would be filed away, each one contributing to different projects that over the years built in to substantial bodies of work.

Not Miss New Brighton, 1978/79 Not Miss New Brighton, 1978/79 was shot on an old Rolleicord with a slightly soft lens on Kodak VPS film - all of these elements combine to give it a wonderful quality, something Wood says was not matched when scanned and printed digitally

Some were of course shorter term projects, for example his insightful pictures of the Chelsea Reach nightclub which featured in his 1989 book Looking for Love. An outstanding piece of work that captures a generation coming of age, each picture a visual delight.

Other books followed, All Zones Off Peak in 1998 and Photieman in 2005.

Start Quote

I think of a photograph as a receiver of sensation. Sensations are intangible, I try to organise them through the act of photography”

End Quote Tom Wood

Yet despite this Wood has never sought publicity, indeed a quick search of the web yields few articles, at least prior to this show. "I have always kept a low profile, never pushed it, and that was on purpose, I haven't even got a website," he says. "I never felt I had the right to do that, taking the images felt like an exchange somehow, but now so much time has passed. Though I'm still not putting it online, though you will of course.

"There are a lot of portraits in this show, and you ask people permission for those, but you can't jump off a bus to ask permission. But then there are plenty I would not show, pictures from the Chelsea Reach for example. I have a responsibility to the people I photograph and have never sold them for advertising despite offers."

Indeed Wood did not make a living out of his photography, he did that by teaching at the local college, and as he notes, living fairly simply.

To many in the business Wood is a true photographer and held in high regard. One that has dedicated his life to his art and has cut no corners nor bent to prevailing trends. He is often classified as a documentary photographer, but he tells me quite forcefully that is not the case. "I am not trying to document anything, I am asking a question. It is more about deciphering and transforming. You don't call a poet, a documentary poet, because they write about life, so why a photographer?"

It is that exploration of the subject and what stimulated him to make a picture that is of such interest, a contest between the form and the content. "When the stuff is too journalistic and documentary then it is journalism, if it is too conceptual and arty then that is another thing, but where the two meet - that is interesting."

Maryhill, 1974 Maryhill, 1974

"You are after this intangible thing which is not a document. You can photograph the same face 50 times and 49 are not interesting, but one is and it goes to another place.

"I wanted to allow that time as a gestation period, each picture should be a discovery. It is about asking a question, you don't know which are the great pictures just like that."

For this show Wood collaborated with artist Padraig Timoney who helped collate the work to fit the men and women theme, removing the constraints of time and balancing the pictures to each other. The result is a visual poem and one that helps remove the nostalgic trap one could fall in to.

Mrs Coulson, 1973 Mrs Coulson, 1973, is one of the first pictures taken by Wood

Yet even after so much time taking pictures Wood is keen to stress he is still learning about photography. His enthusiasm for the medium comes through and you know that is something he will never lose. "It is the easiest art form, but in many ways the most complex," he says. To stress that point one of the pictures on show was taken by Wood on the first roll of film he shot and shows his landlady resting on the grass.

"You could never get that if you were playing the violin, or a footballer. On your first day there is no way you could do anything meaningful, but as a photographer you can. It is easy to become quite good, quite quickly, but to create a real body of work is like pushing a rock up a hill."

Right Here, 1990 Right Here, 1990

The pictures on show are all analogue prints, as though Wood initially had them printed digitally he found they all looked the same, which in some cases is what you are after. In this case though Wood wanted to reflect the fact that he had shot on a wide range of film stock, sometimes using amateur or out of date film for financial reasons, and many different cameras.

"What happens is the actual film characteristics come out. They look great. When you put them beside the digital which you thought was good, you see the film ones have more depth and range."

Wood is still shooting landscapes in North Wales where he now lives, something you will not be surprised to learn he has been doing for 40 years, with plans to show the work next year. On top of that there are a number of books in the pipeline and other bodies of work that have been in progress are also now coming to fruition. I for one, can't wait to see them.

Kegs, 1989 Kegs, 1989
Mirror Mersey, 1989 Mirror Mersey, 1989
Ladies' Toilet Attendant, 1985 Ladies' Toilet Attendant, 1985
Mad Max, 1993 Mad Max, 1993
Rag & Bone owner, 1986/87 Rag & Bone owner, 1986/87

Men and Women by Tom Wood can be seen at the Photographers' Gallery in London from 12 October to 6 January 2013. To run alongside the exhibition a book of the work, Men and Women by Tom Wood, is being published by Steidl.

All photographs © Tom Wood, Courtesy of the artist and The Photographers' Gallery, London, 2012.

Phil Coomes Article written by Phil Coomes Phil Coomes Picture editor

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  • rate this

    Comment number 55.

    They are what they are, he has been at this for 40 years so the bitchy comments re commercial exploitation hardly ring true. The article makes very clear the point that this assemblage is neither Art nor Photo-journalism but is what it is. I will make the effort to see these simply because there is no agenda. They are "snapshots" of his personal interest. A national archive of "snaps" please.

  • rate this

    Comment number 54.

    That's the word - understated. Simply get the subject to think "You can photograph me if you want. I couldn't give a damn, one way or the other."
    In most of our usual 'snaps' the subject is self-conscious, putting on an act, adopting a pose, saying cheese.

  • rate this

    Comment number 53.

    44. 'krokodil'

    Hardly advertising. The BBC doing what they're supposed to; in this case covering news of an upcoming cultural event at a major gallery. Fits very nicely in with "to educate, entertain and inform" don't you think?

    Or do you consider coverage of the Syrian uprising a deliberately placed 'free' recruiting ad for the rebels? Lighten up, really.

  • rate this

    Comment number 52.

    These I'm afraid are extremely average photos.
    Dull, uniteresting and unimaginative. You sir I think have wasted 40 years iof your life on this. Best advice, just stop now and find something to do that tis more fulfilling.

  • rate this

    Comment number 51.

    I think you've completely missed the point of these photographs noel. Can you advise us all where we might be able to find your body of work as by the sound of it, it should be mind-blowing.

  • rate this

    Comment number 50.

    44 - you haven't a clue.

    Tom Wood is a well known and respected photographer, those who know their photography know about Tom Wood, just try and get hold of a copy of his book 'all Zones Off Peak' as it will have a price tag of over £150.

    He's a great photographer and this exhibition will be well worth a visit. Do so in the knowledge that you won't bump into 44 there.

  • rate this

    Comment number 49.

    Fabulous slices of days gone by. I've also been filming for 5 years (mainly moving images) of the same two areas, a small pond/copse that I marvel at how it changes through the seasons, & graffiti around Tower Hamlets in London, again, amazing how fleeting it is. I like most, don't like being captured on film by strangers, but some of us do respect peoples privacy, we're just documenting the era.

  • Comment number 48.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 47.

    A bunch of unremarkable snaps no better than those from your average tourist - some worse - the only exception being 'mad max' (a lucky shot?). If this guy thinks he has a gift for photography, he is sadly mistaken.

  • rate this

    Comment number 46.

    The rag and bone owner picture is really funny - set my day up with a smile.

    Check her out : she knew she was going to be photographed and prettied herself up - which in the context is funny

  • rate this

    Comment number 45.

    For the first time in a long time, I am in love, with Mad Max. It is very difficult to distinguish him from the boiler behind him, it's the eyes, just like Tommy Cooper and the costume, what taste, what elan.

    What wonderful pics.

  • rate this

    Comment number 44.

    39. Soap

    So some obscure snapper has a few pics put on the BBC news front page, has a handy link to his exhibition, and a mention of his new book and your telling me it's not an infomercial?!

    I say it's nice advertising if you can get it. I can only imagine its a case of who you know.....

  • rate this

    Comment number 43.

    I wonder what they all look like now

  • rate this

    Comment number 42.

    What great uncontrived, interesting pictures, all very understated. Realy enjoyed looking at them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 41.

    Wonderful stuff. I don't think the naysayers appreciate just how difficult it is to take 'candid' shots and how much time and dedication it takes to build up a portfolio like Wood's.

    To the 'free advertising' carpers, most of us who appreciate art and photography are grateful for information about how to follow up something that has caught our eye.

  • rate this

    Comment number 40.

    Sorry for the typos earlier. People criticising the image quality and lack of focus should remember that these photos were taken using film cameras which were not even as sophisticated as the modern day point and shoot cameras. Not everyone is obsessed with image sharpness and subject focus. See how beautiful this bokeh looks.

  • rate this

    Comment number 39.

    @28. krokodil
    This is a cultural story is about the photos and photographer, showing the reader where/how the full set of images can be viewed and enjoyed is hardly advertising, it's integral to the piece.
    If you want to see the BBC hosting adverts proper, log on to this site from another country. Then maybe you'll understand what advertisements actually look like.

  • rate this

    Comment number 38.

    Brilliant stuff. I remember being inspired from shots of Toms shooting from a bus while doing an A-level in photography at night school a few years back.
    Will be going to see the exhibition. Even better, looking on the website site the admission is free :-)

  • rate this

    Comment number 37.

    X-19 sexy?? Never! Those two young lovelies could have posed on my TR7! and you can tell its kodak. As for the man with the boiler behind him, it exudes colour negative film, again Kodak to print processing, you would have to work hard to get the same using digital

  • rate this

    Comment number 36.

    Great images, very enjoyable.

    Oh, and the woman on the left on the car bonnet? Well, I wish I'd known her.

    By jingo.


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