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 215.

    what is art anyway, something that stops and make you think/cause a reaction? these pics on the whole do that for me. all good fun!

  • rate this

    Comment number 214.

    Tom Wood is one of my lecturers in college and although not many people GET his work, you have to admire his skill! He has been photographer for so long you have no idea how much he can teach you just by talking to him. He's got such a unique and skillful (yet natural) eye for great photography. I've learnt to admire his work and can see how influential it is!

  • Comment number 213.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 212.

    Very nice documentary photography. The impressive part of series like these are the sheer numbers of photos, and the timeline that it constructs.

    People can argue about art all day, is it or isn't it? It doesn't matter, and there will never be an answer as art is about as easy to define as other abstract perceptions like infinity. Our definitions are deceiving.

  • rate this

    Comment number 211.

    I wonder whether SR can enlighten everyone by explaining why photography is not art. I notice he agrees with fingeronthepulse who believes digital is better than film! - stop it you two, my sides are aching.

  • rate this

    Comment number 210.

    For those of you who think the BBC don't do advertising have you ever watched "The ONE Show"? Every night they have some guest on who for no other reason is appearing to plug their latest book / CD / film / play / tour*.

    *Delete as appropriate.

  • rate this

    Comment number 209.

    "Forty years photographing the same streets"

    Sounds thrilling. Pictures of a Ladies' Toilet Attendant are exactly what the BBC news website needed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 208.

    It is interesting to see the juxaposition of the elderly market ladies in the first photo, opposite the two young women so insouciantly posed on the hood of a sports car. As this photo is decades old, one would like to bring it forward to peer into the aspect of what time has wrought in the organic realm, and how the chimera of youth on the wing so quickly, yet virtually imperceptibly, unfolds.

  • rate this

    Comment number 207.

    It is sad to see comments about the value of these photos and whether they would be material had they not been 'past times'. They are a serious body of personal documentary work and not an entry for the local camera club weekly competition. Yes individual images will be better or more eye catching (mad max) than others, yes others have done Liverpool life differently... But thanks for this piece.

  • rate this

    Comment number 206.

    I now have picture two as my desktop background, obviously just for the car, i wonder how many others have saved it?, i won't repeat what my wife called me, but my favourite is mad max, that is such a striking image.

  • rate this

    Comment number 205.

    Something tells me he should have been checking Mrs Coulson's pulse rather than taking her photo.

  • rate this

    Comment number 204.

    The ugly side of reality is always beautiful.

  • rate this

    Comment number 203.

    #200 read what I wrote - not what you think I wrote. Yes they provide a record - I said they were interesting;but they don't stand out artistically and age doesn't equal artistic - photographs do not become artistic just because they age.

  • rate this

    Comment number 202.

    Seems the critics here think that you have to be a technological and software wizard to be a good photographer. Frankly, that is boring and not art. A good photographer captures a moment and this guys done it well. An analogy is Punk music - basic, yes; but it captured a time and spoke far more about the 70s than the technical showing off of Prog music. And it will always be more respected for it

  • rate this

    Comment number 201.

    I was going regularly to the Chelsea Reach around the time of his Looking for love book and grew up in the area of where most of his pictures where taken,
    so for me its fantastic and very nostalgic

  • rate this

    Comment number 200.

    #199. Listen to Joni Mitchell's Big Yellow Taxi, live for today, judge everything by it's current artistic or fashion value. Regret later. However unremarkable these individual photos may be, they provide a valuable record especially for locals who know these streets. You might not see anything in them yourself, but respect those who do.

  • rate this

    Comment number 199.

    If most of these pictures were taken today, they would sink without trace. The fact that they are mainly of a time gone past makes them interesting from that perspective, but age doesn't make them art. Too many people seem to confuse their age with their artistic worth - which to me is very little.

  • rate this

    Comment number 198.

    Wow, wow, wow. Utterly fabulous! The photo titled "Mad Max"-brilliant. That's a shot that is informed by a photographer shooting with film, not digital. And he's dead on when it comes to printing traditionally as opposed to scanning & outputting, they are not remotely the same, & a digital version can never have the subtlety & richness of a c-print, not even close. I miss the darkroom. Well done!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 197.

    I have not read all of the comments but just to add the two girls sat on the car are from Wigan not Liverpool

  • rate this

    Comment number 196.

    Brings back memories - the clothing, the cars, no mobile phones, no internet hotspots, no social media. Life was simpler then, but relying on phoneboxes for communication and libraries for information was a burden.


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