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 95.

    Hope these photos will encourage others to go out and about with their camera taking photos of everyday scenes which take time to mature to become historically valuable.
    That boring picture of an supermarket check out girl will be historic in 40 years time when we are all shopping on-line or using self service tills.

  • rate this

    Comment number 94.

    Slightly off the point but Im thinking that some of my 'I could do that better' view to some of these pictures comes from a standpoint of owning a lovely modern DSLR with ISO adjusted with a button, and software balancing colours.

  • rate this

    Comment number 93.

    the great thing about photographs is they are a still object, the meaning and message is for the looker to find. The reaction of some of those commenting today says way more about them selves than the photos. Why do they bother you so much?

  • rate this

    Comment number 92.

    These are excellent pictures. A random but worthy glimpse into the life of a community. I'm not sure there is enormous value in them, but they are certainly interesting to a group of people.

    There is something similar focussing on the lives of people in South Wales - Google for "cardiff before cardiff" - or go here

  • rate this

    Comment number 91.

    Good idea and the interest for me is the instruments used and look of these photographs as you go through the years.
    However, for me the only good shots here are the posed portraits. The candid stuff is not done well.

  • rate this

    Comment number 90.

    Lovely shots of bygone eras. Artistic. You can feel the love he has for his photography and his subject matter. Can't wait to see his exhibition. Every time I go out with camera I feel like he must feel. A great sense of impending discovery.
    People do not have to be the 'beautiful' people that we are so obsessed with these days. There is so much beauty in ordinary folks faces.

  • rate this

    Comment number 89.

    I love shots like this - real world, not that posed. They also act as history documents to show how things have changed over the years. I've recently started taking photos like this myself and have a couple of years stuff now, although not as good as these and digital camera helps a lot - 1 in 50 is ok!

  • rate this

    Comment number 88.

    I get a funny feeling when I look at #2 for too long...

  • rate this

    Comment number 87.

    re 71...all the people in the photos are immigrants, all our ancestors came from elsewhere, the only issue is when they came not what they look like. re may dislike his work but the put-down about his wasting his life is just arrogance: perhaps you would like to share your CV so we can judge whether you have wasted yours? re the photos.. touching, rather melancholy

  • rate this

    Comment number 86.

    These are great!

  • rate this

    Comment number 85.

    I'm afraid you've fallen into the usual stereotype trap.
    How do you know the lady toilet attendant wasn't South African? Maybe the bloke with the goggles was French?
    In this particular case, I don't see the relevance.

  • rate this

    Comment number 84.

    Watched the Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour at the weekend.
    Ignoring the merits of the film, it was fascinating to look at the detail; the background of cars, people, and what was taken for granted at the time - all in colour.
    Quite a socially interesting piece of nostalgia.

  • Comment number 83.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 82.

    With the greatest respect to Martin Parr, whose work I'm a fan of, it's great to see his contemporary, Tom Wood, have his work deservedly appreciated. For too long, he's been underrated. For colour work, he is probably the most masterful UK photographer working in non-staged settings. For street photographers, portrait photographers, and anyone interested in photobooks, he's required reading.

  • rate this

    Comment number 81. that I could take myself are not impressive.

    Sorry...I really cannot understand why anyone would want to look through these.

  • rate this

    Comment number 80.

    61 tells us exactly how today's photographers work, I think it's called the scatter-gun system. I don't think that Tom Wood had that facility availble to him.

    If you can't come back with a few decent pictures from 5000 exposures I would think your photographic credentials are somewhat 'iffy'.

  • rate this

    Comment number 79.

    In any home you could find a photo album, but with the digital world now they are on a hard drive some where, lost and probably never seen again. I love theas pictures. A proper snap shot of a moment in time which will last considerably longer than a dongle.

  • rate this

    Comment number 78.


    Yeah good times. The 2nd one looks like the 80s and makes me feel quite nostalgic for a time when everything seemed more simple.

  • rate this

    Comment number 77.

    Great patience and dedication has produced a view of social history which is informative and valuable.
    So a job very well done in my opinion.

  • rate this

    Comment number 76.

    These photos are wonderful. I get a feeling of overwhelming self provocative bibbage when I sped a few minutes just scrolling up and down. They truly are an example of the enlightenment that can be found through outer participation in general sectionalisation, photography. Thank you Tom Wood.


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