“NTLEMEN”, Cowley, Oxford, 1973, © Tom Wood
Bio : Thomas “Tom” Wood (born Ireland, 14 January 1951) is a street photographer, portraitist and landscape photographer based in Britain. Wood is best known for his photographs of Liverpool and Merseyside from 1978–2001, “on the streets, in pubs and clubs, markets, workplaces, parks and football grounds” of “strangers, mixed with neighbours, family and friends.” His work has been published in five books, been widely shown in solo exhibitions and received awards.
The critic Sean O’Hagan has described Wood as “a pioneering colourist”, “a photographer for whom there are no rules” with an “instinctive approach to photographing people up close and personal” and quotes photographer Simon Roberts saying Wood’s photographs “somehow combine rawness and intimacy in a way that manages to avoid the accusations of voyeurism and intrusion that often dog work of this kind.” Phill Coomes, writing for BBC News, said “wherever they were taken or made, his pictures seem always to have a trace of human existence, and at their centre they are about the lives that pass through the spaces depicted.” The New Yorker’s photography critic, Vince Aletti, described Wood’s style as “loose, instinctive and dead-on” adding “he makes Martin Parr look like a formalist”.
End of Bio
Sample images from “Looking for Love: Chelsea Reach” (Wood, 1989). All the images were taken in Chelsea Reach Nightclub over multiple visits.
Tom came to the art world relatively late having first spent a period of time in industry in a variety of jobs, he then took a fine art degree and originally trained as a painter but then discovered photography when it was still not really considered art, he initially thought it was “easy”. The photograph at the top of the blog being taken in Cowley, Oxford circa 1973 on his 2nd ever roll of film, although he now says he has never stopped learning about photography indicating that initial simplicity is deceiving. Pointing out that you could never do something meaningful in another art form e.g. as a violinist without the years of dedication to acquiring the necessary skills but you can with a camera citing the example of the “ntelemen” image—at the top of this page—being captured on his first ever role of film.
Tom’s lecture outlined his work from the early days but I felt more importantly his approach to his work which can be summarized in this quote from an interview about the opening of his “People” exhibition at the Photographers Gallery in 2012.
“I just felt that I never had the right to exploit them in any way. On the cover of Looking for Love, it was my first book (in 1988), it was about nightclubbing. So the 2 girls on the front cover saw themselves in the book shop and they thought I was making loads of money and they came around to the house; I showed them the accounts and how I was making a loss every year, so I gave them a print and they were happy, you know?
When I went to the women’s market every Saturday morning for all those years, and I finally got a book out called People, there were a couple of pictures in there from the market. The market traders bought a couple of books off me to help me along, cause they were pleased. I would never sell any of the pictures for advertising, I mean I was offered lots of money for some of the nightclub pictures, it wasn’t easy walking down the Dock road and taking those pictures; I felt guilty anyway, I didn’t want to exploit the people… “(Paper-journal.com, 2016)
I think an essential element of his approach is that he becomes part of the landscape of the environment he is photographing, so that although his photographs are candid moments he was a familiar figure to the participants and thus not regarded as a threat. Additionally this respect for his subjects continues after the moment of capture, as he indicates above he never either wished to nor felt it would be right to exploit his subjects.
The affection he was held in is reflected in the nick name “Photieman” – also the name of a 2005 book – that he acquired in the years he spent on Merseyside. He is a great fan of prints and especially when made from film negatives and makes a point of giving subjects prints as as part of the unspoken contract between subject and photographer. He believes this approach has paid dividends many times, in the acceptance of the communities he has photographed and the friendships made.
Early in his career he made a conscious choice to “live simply” in order to make time for his art. A house husband for many years he worked two days a week lecturing in order to create space in the week to take photographs. Another aspect of his work is the sheer volume of photographs taken, never without a camera he constantly takes photographs in the certain knowledge that the vast majority wont make the grade but every now and then there will be a gem. As his preferred medium is film this was expensive in terms of film purchase and processing.
With a career of over 40 years to date he has amassed a vast archive, a lot of which has never been published. A situation he is in the process of correcting with a number of photobooks under development on specific themes. In his books “Men” and “Women” which were the basis of the show “People” he collaborated with Irish artist, Padraig Timoney finding that the independent view of the work extremely helpful. Showing examples where Padraig had paired examples of his work to create something greater than the individual images.
He is also working with a french designer on a number of other works for potential publication. As he said in the interview regarding the “People” show. “Well the Football could be a book on its own, the Ship Yard could be a book on its own, the Mental Hospital could be a book on its own; the pictures of my own family could be a book. There’s also the landscape stuff I’ve been shooting for over 40 years; I’ve shot more landscape than I have people. I moved here [to Wales] to continue shooting landscape and that’s been 10 years work”.
It is interesting to see how he ties all these images together methodically archiving them by subject, to this day he doesn’t drive and so became very efficient at combining different projects shoots on the same day a process he describes in an interview with Issue magazine.
“There was a mental hospital closing down on the outskirts of Liverpool—Rainhill. Someone asked me if I’d like to photograph that, and I said okay. That was complicated. For me it’s hard to go into a place like that and just take pictures. I’d end up talking to these people, getting to know them, having lunch with them, even staying overnight. It was a privilege—it made me realize that could be me; we can all be pushed to the breaking point. A project that was six weeks became, like, two years, but it was a long way away so I had to go there on the bus. I’d photograph on the bus all the way there and all the way back. The bus kind of tied all these projects together, because I always went places on it and I’d go across the river on the Mersey ferry, and photograph there. The bus terminus was at the Pier Head, where the boat docked. This was a hanging out point for retired sailors, dock workers, teenagers, as well as passengers traveling to all kinds of destinations throughout the city, so I’d always spend half an hour or so checking out the area. And this became another box of prints, work in progress. ” (Issuemagazine.com, 2016)
As a result rather than going out to take photographs to a theme – as our degree work tends to be – he is now trawling his archive for images suitable to the theme that has been decided for the project. This is also an interesting process in that he will send around a 1,000 images to the designer as a rough edit and then by a process of elimination this will be whittled down to a number of for the final book of probably not more than 150 – 200 images. This is an iterative process as Tom will discuss with designer why certain images have been included / excluded for publication.
All his projects have had a long gestation partly because he had work he didn’t want to publish at a particular time or that he felt he didn’t have a sufficient body of work to make a selection from and hence his continual revisiting of the same subjects, places and events. This is definitely reflected in the universally high quality of the images in his published work to date.
Sample Shipyard Image
Mad Max, 1993 © Tom Wood
Sample Football Image
Goodison Park, 1997 © Tom Wood from “Photieman” (Wood and Heiting, 2005).
Tom had spent many years photographing the detritus of the football mad city, for a period using a panoramic camera that produced a 17 by 5 negative – enabling huge prints.
Sample Mental Health Image
© Tom Wood
In addition to his lecture to all members of the course he also gave one on one tutorials to a small number of nominated students. I feel fortunate to have been one of the nominated students and found the tutorial both informative and enjoyable.
The format of the day was firstly a group discussion with Tom and Kellie where Tom went into more depth about his approach, experiences and style of photography. He is a strong advocate of film particularly for making of prints and spoke a number of times about seeing the quality of hand made prints from some particularly iconic photographers as being influential in his own work and dedication to the film format. This was followed by individual discussions.
It is fair to say that timekeeping is probably not one of Tom’s strengths but is actually a reflection of his generosity of spirit and interest in students work to spend as much time as possible with them. The personal work I discussed with him were my book on football in Liverpool “Through the Wind and the Rain” which is a line from LFC’s iconic club anthem “You will never walk alone” and my photographic practice project on portraits of people with coloured hair.
Feedback – Through the Wind and the Rain
Tom liked the concept and style of the football book and felt it had much potential to be improved as a 3rd year project which isn’t something I had considered. He had some comments about the design and of course some of the content. In terms of layout he liked the large pages but felt this introduced its own challenges and also (much) preferred that the images be larger on the pages as he felt there was sometime too much white space on the pages.
In terms of content he gave some feedback on a number of the images. For example my photograph of a program seller.
Program seller, 2016 © Steve Edwards
Disliked the use of long lens because of the tendency to have shallow depth of field so that only part of the image is in focus. Suggested I look for examples of good use of long lens in the street. His other comments were basically about getting involved with the subjects so that rather than photographing them anonymously from behind or distance speak to them, get them involved and get closer !
He also stressed the need to have interest in all areas of the photograph so felt for example the image of people queuing in front of a litter bin was only partially successful as there was insufficient interest beyond the litter bin although he understood that was the point of that particular image. His favourite images were the cover photograph of supporters at the statue of Bill Shankly and the image of a block of supporters waving scarves.
His final suggestion was to follow his own mantra of go back again and again until you obtain images that are of consistent quality right across the project. He recommended I look at the work of Saul Lieter for technique and Ken Grant for topic as he has a book on football due out soon.
Feedback – Portraits
Tom liked the portraits generally, considering them technically proficient, well lit and suitable composed. He did however feel there would be a noticeable difference – and improvement – if they were taken on film as this would give a different texture and impression of the final prints.
We then had a discussion about the research undertaken for the portraits starting with Bettina von Zwehl, August Sander and Bernd and Hilla Becher in particular the latter’s book Typologies, he also suggested some additional sources – also German and clearly inspired by the same roots – of Karl Blossfeldt, famous for photographing plants and flowers pre-WWII and Thomas Ruff for his expressionless portraits of students created in the early 80’s.
In fact Tom suggested that a similar treatment of the current year group would be a useful exercise to undertake before the term end and additionally explore the use of film.
I think using film at this point is too risky in terms of time for the current project but is perhaps something to look at in future either over the summer or for the 3rd year. However the suggestion of a of a series of Thomas Ruff inspired portraits is both intriguing and achievable and I will make a proposal to Stephen V as to how this could be done.
All in a thoroughly informative and hugely enjoyable discussion. I purchased a copy of his book “Photieman” and Tom kindly included a signed print of one his famous Liverpool images – “Lads at Railings” from “Photieman” (Wood and Heiting, 2005).
Lads at Railings, 1987 © Tom Wood from BSU“Photieman” (Wood and Heiting, 2005).