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 75.

    Outstandingly enjoyable. The dedication to photography and some interesting and entertaining images makes Tom a legend.
    He has a gentle perceptive eye that is beyond just pointing the camera as some suggest. His relationship with his subjects is warm and often intimate, providing an insight to people, place and time.
    Is it art? Who cares, decide for yourself. I love it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 74.

    Everyone is entitled to their own opinion and I like them. Might even have a trip to see them.
    Who has watched THE ONE SHOW? Every week there is some guest promoting their new film / book / exhibition. That is acceptable when the BBC promoting this is not. What is the problem?
    Definitely a Fiat X1/9 which was the mid-engined Italian competitor for the Triumph TR7.

  • rate this

    Comment number 73.

    How do you know #71? Or do you mean no ethnically noticeable immigrants? I'm sure though that his 40 year project spans more than 10 photos.

  • rate this

    Comment number 72.

    Love the toilet attendent,"Men Shall Not Pass",a fearsome looking guardian of the ablutions.Mad Max,is great also used to work with loads of guy's who looked like that.Filthy,rusty and hard working,with big gnarly fists,who would rather tie their belt than fasten it,literally girding their loins for a days work,and full of humour,that was dryer than the desert with a fag that was forever going out

  • Comment number 71.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 70.

    They are undeniably great pictures, there are some real awesome shots that say a lot about the era they reflect.
    But I do agree with the other comments in here about advertising, why out of the many photographic exhibitions no doubt taking place around the U.K, does this one warrant a public announcement on BBC news ?

  • rate this

    Comment number 69.

    I pity these jealous little people especially sparts. I imagine watching someone else achieve something in their life must be hard for you to stomach. This guy applied himself and created something that is impressive and important. Your comments just look awfully sad in comparison

  • rate this

    Comment number 68.

    As a teenager in the 1970's I have good memories of Britain at the time and the British way of life. It is heartening to revive some images of the times and not deprecate and disparage the period. It has become increasingly fashionable to rubbish bygone generations particularly by the Human Rights PC crowd who like to re-write British history in a bad light.

  • rate this

    Comment number 67.

    There seem to be a lot of very small-minded people denigrating these pictures.
    They are a slice of life...and 100 year on will be exactly the kind of photos people will want to see.

  • rate this

    Comment number 66.

    I think this is fantastic. A study of real people over the years in photos speaks volumes. Get a website Tom so I can keep up with you!!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 65.

    Chill people, it is what it is, a huge body of pictures over 40 years in the making, if you can't find something of interest here then go to an art gallery where you know what you are getting.

    Beauty, the eye and all that?

  • rate this

    Comment number 64.

    the interest in this collection is the people, I don't see the photographer did any more than record not create unique seen images.

  • rate this

    Comment number 63.

    60. 'krokodil'

    So which is it? Are they advertising or not? Or have you lost track of your own non-argument. Lets get rid of the Beeb and we can all watch sky. Cor yeah, what a bargain that would be...

  • rate this

    Comment number 62.

    Beauty is in the eye of the beholder..

    If these pictures help a few people to stand and stare it would remove so much stress from modern life.

    Please all of you stand and stare just once a day .and encourage your children to do the same., It will transform your life.

  • rate this

    Comment number 61.

    And you Jon evidently are not a photographer. On a week's expedition to rainforest I typically take 5000 shots - not because I like to waste my time, but because live subjects demand extreme concentration to get the one shot that glows. These shots show nothing more than the ability to frame a photo. The subjects and effort taken to capture them are average, and so is the result.

  • Comment number 60.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 59.

    #58 Colin Harrison. Totally agree Colin, one or two jealous comments here. At least Tom has actually achieved something that hopefully find its way into the history archives. My biggest concerns are digital photos as they will be lost to time simply because if you cant see them the media will be thrown away. At least these photos will be there for future generations.

  • rate this

    Comment number 58.

    It's amazing watching some people crawl out of the woodwork and criticise the photographer or the photographs.

    Are you jealous that he is on the BBC website?

    Why be so negative? I don't see any of your photos here!

    If he enjoyed taking the shots then nothing else matters actually.

  • rate this

    Comment number 57.


    have you ever heard the expression "he knows the price of everything and value of nothing"
    I loved the depth of the images and fully understand his remarks about losing something in digital. There is something about "analogue" whether it be tape or film.
    Wonderful stuff.

  • rate this

    Comment number 56.

    Clearly there's no consensus here over these pictures as "A record of social hstory" or "Art". For the former these snaps are invaluable but as to the latter... - I guess it is a matter of opinion. Personally I think most are unremarkable as "Art" but I'm sure others will say otherwise.


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