Jan-Willem Dikkers: Over the past 25 years you’ve
developed several pretty solid bodies of work. How did
it all start, and what drew you to your subjects in the
first place? At what point did you say, “These
are going to be these different projects,” or did
it just end up that way?
Tom Wood: It ended up that way. I tend to photograph
anything that’s around me, and that’s lots
of different things, so I file them away in different
boxes. I’m traveling to photograph the shipyard,
and I’m going on the bus, and I photograph on the
bus with a small camera. And then when I get to the
shipyard I’m using a bigger camera and a tripod.
They’re different kinds of pictures but
they’re both done on the same day; they go in
different boxes. And then that night I go into the
nightclub and bring my camera along, and I’m
taking pictures with a flash and that’s a
different kind of picture again. But sometimes it can
be the same local people.
JWD: Tell me more about
photographing the shipyard and how it began.
TW: I lived alongside the river
Mersey in New Brighton for 25 years. The river is in
the middle of the area I photograph, Liverpool on one
side, Birkenhead and New Brighton on the other. The
river was fundamental to the growth of Liverpool as a
seaport and the shipyard in Birkenhead. So I’d
photograph the river itself, the docks and eventually
The main employer at
the time was this big shipyard, Cammell Laird. They
made warships—ships that went to the American
Civil War—pioneered the use of iron in
shipbuilding, built ships with famous names like the Mauritania and
I knew some
people that worked there, so I would ask if I could go
in to photograph. And they said no, because they made
Eventually, after a
long fight against its closure, as the shipyard started
to wind down, I was allowed go in, but security had to
accompany me, and these first pictures were generally
poor, of the riverfront, giant cranes, slipways,
construction halls, dry docks—all exteriors.
Later, in the final months of the yard, I was allowed
to move freely, wherever I liked, on my own. Many of
these pictures are of abandoned and closed-down work
spaces, private rest areas—separate or hidden—arrangements
of chairs and lockers, pictures on the wall, family
snaps next to pinups and graffiti on the wall. These
became the most interesting pictures. I would sometimes
photograph the men that were going to be made redundant
that day—you know, it was going to be their last
day—and I would take a portrait and then I would
maybe go on to the party and take pictures.
Liverpool is famous
for two things, its football team and the Beatles. The
cultural elements in the city, football and music along
with drinking and socializing. (That was the hardest
thing to photograph—middle-aged and older men
especially. A couple of years ago, I was made
“artist in residence” at a wild karaoke pub
in Liverpool city center. In the end I gave up
photographing and instead used digital video, but
that’s another story.)
Every Saturday I
would go to the football to photograph. The fans
arriving, mainly men, the chaotic streets, around the
ground. I’d done that on and off, every Saturday
for nearly fifteen years. But in the morning, on the
way to the game, there’s a wonderful open-air
market. It’s usually called Paddy’s market
because all the Irish used to sell second-hand clothes
there. There’s a big connection between Ireland
and Liverpool (300,000 Irish landed in 1847 alone, on
the way to America and Australia). Maybe this helped me—being
Irish born, many of the faces kind of seemed familiar.
They looked like my mother or cousins. Ordinarily women
would go there and they would bring their daughters
along. Virtually no men—because it wasn’t
in the town center, these women would be more
themselves. They have a different face on when
they’re in town, and it’s very crushed and
packed. I got to know the market traders that sell
stuff, often “off the back of a lorry” or
“seconds,” or whatever. It’s a bit
shady, but it was a great place to photograph. So that
was another project. And the football was another one,
and other things happen.
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.
My son was at school
where I lived, in New Brighton, and they wanted some
publicity pictures. I said, okay, but let me take
photos for myself as well. And again I went on to the
school for maybe three months. Opposite my house is the
park where everyone hangs around and things happen.
It’s by the river and it’s close to the
Chelsea Reach nightclub. I bring the dog, I bring
the kids every day. That became another body of work.
JWD: So essentially you have these
different things that seem quite specific but when you
end up going there and taking pictures it’s just
about the people and the environment and what all the
little details say about them.
TW: Yeah, it all kind of overlaps.
JWD: But do you think it’s
specific to where you’re located—the whole
Liverpool area? Or is it something more universal?
TW: To me it could be anywhere, but
it obviously is very specific to Liverpool. They are a
particular type of people—mixture of races—Lancastrian
(in your face), Welsh, Irish, and all the other
nationalities a seaport brings to a city, and a long
history, of “moraI disorder” and an extreme
sense of humor! I like them a lot. Undoubtedly
they’re more themselves on the street—less
reserved than in most places.
JWD: But you never have a set
TW: No. I don’t have agendas.
I go out and take the pictures and you figure out what
they mean afterward when the project’s finished.
The camera is asking questions. You put it all
together and you see what it adds up to. Whenever
I’ve gone out with something specific in mind, it
never works for me.
JWD: Do you think that with your
camera you are looking at a positive side of things,
just by nature?
TW: Yes. It’s probably just
JWD: Do you think that carries
through to the viewer?
TW: Don’t think about it. Not
JWD: That’s good. The other
thing that I found interesting is that your work covers
a large span of time, but you’re still getting
the same message across as far as what you’re
saying about the people. Do you think that’s the
TW: Well, I don’t think
I’ve got a message anyway.
JWD: Maybe not a precise message
but just sort of what you get by looking at the images.
You don’t sense a time lapse at all.
TW: Right. Well, people don’t
change that much anyway, do they? I mean generation to
JWD: It depends if you’re
focusing in on the fundamentals.
TW: Yeah, fundamentally life is a
recurrence of stock situations, stock characters.
Generation after generation. On that level things
JWD: But do you notice much change
around you in the last 25 years, apart from taking
TW: Yeah, the nature of the place
has changed. Less so maybe in England, but when I go
back to Ireland, the society has changed fundamentally.
I took pictures in Ireland first in the early
seventies. It was still as it had been when I was a
child. No electricity. Tractors were only just coming
in. Not many TV sets in the west of Ireland. When I
grew up in the fifties, you went to the well for water.
There were horses and carts and we had every kind of
animal on the farm: ducks and geese and horses and
pigs. Now Ireland, you just wouldn’t believe it.
The change is just incredible. The sense of old Ireland
is gone. And in Liverpool, the sensibility of the older
people, who went through the war and came from a time
of casual labor, and often appalling living conditions—all
those kinds of people have basically disappeared. But
I’m not articulate about these types of things. I
just assume that the pictures are going to record them
because that’s what photographs do. I’m
interested in interesting pictures now, but I know all
those other things are going to come into play
with the passing of time.
JWD: How about the interactions
between people—are they fundamentally the same?
TW: Yes and no. Less respect.
JWD: Do you think it’s
specific to that place, or do you think it’s the
same if you’re anywhere in the world?
TW: I don’t go anywhere else
really. I stay in the same place. That’s the
whole thing about
me. People are more conscious of
cameras than they were 30 years ago. Now everyone sees a
camera and they know immediately who you are and what you
might be up to. There’s an awareness due to the
media, a natural suspicion, and I don’t blame them.
On that level things have changed.
JWD: Do you take that into account
or do you just let that be?
TW: I take it in. It’s just
harder to photograph people when they’re unaware.
I could hide it better in the past. But you work out
strategies, ways to work. You don’t lift the
camera to your eye as much.
rather look through it, but a lot of the time you do
that and one person sees the camera and then the whole
situation is gone. If you have it at your chest or look
the other way, you might get two or three shots off.
Simply walking around (not photographing, but with a
camera over your shoulder) on many estates, or say, the
Dock Road, you’re noticed. People come up
and challenge you: “Who are you?”
“What you doing here? Fuck off.”
JWD: But with
“Photieman,” which is the nickname you were
given over the years, that means people must have sort
of accepted and liked the fact that you’re the
man with the camera.
TW: Yeah, but that related to my
own particular neighborhood in New Brighton. I’ve
got to know many people and I’m pretty open about
the whole thing and I live there amongst everyone else
and I’d always give them copies of pictures. In
the Chelsea Reach nightclub, drunk partygoers would
say, “Hey take our picture,” and you would
take it just to shut them up. And then I’d bring
it back and give it back to them and they’d be
made up. And then the next time I saw them I’d
say “Hey, how you doing?” and after a while
I could maybe photograph them freely without asking
them. And some people would always resent me. You
photograph someone when they’re a kid in the park
and you give them a picture and he lives up the road
from you, you see him, then he grows up and is in the
nightclub, and it’s okay. But I think that a lot
of the time, people just tolerated me. I don’t
think they thought I was exploiting them particularly
and I always kept a low profile. Maybe
that’s why I was happy never to be successful.
’Cause if I was really successful and wandering
around with this camera and had made a lot of money off
photographing these people, then my relationship to
them would be different. I feel guilty enough doing it.
So if I’m the same as them, just nobody, another
character, “the photieman,” and I’m
doing this out of love, because it’s my work and
maybe sometime in the future this body of work is going
to be important for the local community and wider
society, and that’s a fair exchange.
JWD: What is it about it
TW: I just don’t think about
these things at all. I think that’s going to
happen but I don’t pay any heed to it. Some
photographers here could give you a really interesting,
articulate answer, but I don’t think about it
all, only when someone like you asks me. And after
I’ve tried to explain, it seems futile. Just look
at the photographs!
JWD: Some people give a very
articulate answer, but don’t necessarily have a
sense of belief that it’s true.
TW: All I know is that obviously I
have a responsibility to my subject, that I’m
going to paint a true picture of them on one level.
’Cause I’m there all the time and
they’ve got to believe you. I want the
photographs to be authentic, but also interesting as
pictures. It’s me photographing what I’m
interested in, but it’s got to work as a picture,
separated from its context. So that’s the problem
for me. Going out and making the pictures is easy. The
only problem is getting out the door.
JWD: You don’t really seem to
have a problem getting the good ones.
TW: Oh I do. You wouldn’t
JWD: It’s all editing, then.
TW: Thirty percent anyway.
You’ve got to be just as open to possibilities at
that stage. I’m looking at contact prints now. I
moved to North Wales, which is about 45 minutes from
Liverpool, but I’m in the countryside and
I’m photographing what’s around me now. And
I’ve done lots of landscapes before. I photograph
in Ireland all the time and there are no people where
we live—the same fields and trees and hedges.
Nothing special, but it affects me, so I try and make
pictures out of that. So I’m looking at these
contacts now that I have been doing over the last few
months and it’s like when anybody gets their
pictures back from the lab. You flip through them,
you’re excited to see what you’ve got, and
you’re occasionally surprised by them. Suddenly
the pictures have a life of their own.
JWD: When your subjects see your
images of themselves, what are their reactions? And
what does this mean to you?
TW: When the shows have been in
Liverpool, let’s say, and people have written in
the comments book, the reactions are generally
positive. Like, “I nearly died when I saw myself.
Remind never to kiss again in public.” But
they’d say things about the pictures being real.
“These are my streets, this is my
childhood.” “Saw myself looking back at who
I am.” The word “real” would come
across a lot. That would please me. And they’re a
kind of self-portrait. I do tend to photograph the same
kind of people or even the same person. Sometimes I
don’t realize. They come up to me, “Hey,
you took a picture of me with so and so, then, with my
mother. You know, she’s dead now,” and I
say, “Oh well, I don’t remember.”
That happens quite a lot.
JWD: And do you pay much attention
to what’s going on over the years
photographically or not?
TW: Yeah. Initially when I was at
college I did fine art painting, and photography,
certainly in England, wasn’t considered an art
form at all. And there were no books of photographs. So
I worked away blind to other people’s work for
the first three or four years. But I enjoy photographs
so I started collecting, getting hold of books, and
looking at other people’s pictures and learning
JWD: Do you do assignment work?
TW: No, none at all. I did some
stills for a TV film recently, but it was about teenage
girls having sex for the first time. The producers had
seen some of my work, knew I was based in Liverpool, so
I was the person to ask. It was interesting because you
weren’t sure who was who. There were people who
hadn’t acted before mixed in with ordinary people
on the street, and a few professionals. All on
location. We were in an outlying council estate in
Speke, a kind of rough area, centered on a shopping
precinct. The film cameras are well away and I’m
able to move around this situation, photographing
freely. I couldn’t tell if it was a real picture,
whether it’s an actor or real life or both in the
same frame. There’s actually two included in
Photieman, done during that week. But no, I don’t do
JWD: Why is that?
TW: I’m just no good at it.
People would ask me because they like certain pictures,
and I can’t get a great picture when I’m
asked—can’t play that game. Most freelance
photographers kind of have to fall back on a formula
because they’ve only got an hour to get a picture
and they can’t work freely or experimentally. It
wouldn’t be worth it.
JWD: How about more documentary
type of work?
TW: Well, if one of these magazines
could say to me, “We want to something about this
council state in Liverpool. Would you go in and make
pictures?” I couldn’t do that for a
newspaper and then go round there the next week for
myself. They could get a photojournalist that goes in
for a day or week and then goes away, but I
couldn’t do that. And, of course, as often as
not, the subject is misrepresented. Probably use the
pictures in wrong contexts, the way they crop them,
captions or whatever.
I did work for a
couple of magazines. The Telegraph magazine used to give me a job. This
editor, Michael Collins –– he did the book Ray’s a Laugh by Richard Billingham.
He would give me
maybe one job a month, which paid quite well, but it
always had to be a simple, straightforward portrait
which I would go along and do rather than a bigger
project. But it never suited me to work that way. My
friend Martin Parr, who is a member of Magnum, has
suggested several times that I should apply to join Magnum.
JWD: And did you?
TW: No. I’ve met them, some
of the photographers. Some of them even knew my work!
It just wouldn’t have suited me. But on the other
hand I don’t make any money, so it would be good
to have someone to market the photographs. For me
it’s a fragile thing, being able to go out and
make the pictures—I don’t want to get
self-conscious about it or even too professional about
JWD: So how did the whole art
career kick in?
TW: It’s amazing to me.
Staying in the one place and making all these kinds of
images, and not doing anything with them because
I’ve got like five projects all up in the air at
the same time.
I’ve got all this material, the projects have
gone on long enough, the boxes are getting full, and
they’re getting edited a bit, and I still
don’t have a book out or anything. There’s
a group show of Liverpool artists with different
exhibitions all over Cologne. And I just had a show at
the Museum of Modern Art in Oxford, which was my first
major show in England. That was a big deal to me at the
time, but nothing came of it. And I have a little show
in a gallery in Cologne; they just pin my
pictures to the wall. And I went over
and I had a great time, met a lot of German artists. This
was in 1998. And I came home and thought nothing more of
it. Then I had a letter from a German gallery—Galerie
Thomas Zander—and Zander said he loved the work and
he’d like to do a show, and could he buy some prints
and he’d pay for a small catalogue. This had never
happened to me in England, ever. I’d been to see
galleries and been to museums. In England historically,
there was a lot of prejudice against photography anyway. I
thought my work should be shown in an art gallery, not a
photo gallery. In England they had been quite separate.
Photography was looked down on—you had to be an
“artist” who used photography. They would take
in German photographers like Thomas Struth or Thomas Ruff
or Andreas Gursky. They were clearly artists. They had been
students of the Bechers, whereas my work was seen ... well,
I don’t know. I brought the work to the ICA in London
once, and they said something like, “interesting
subject matter but not the kind of photography the ICA
shows.” Yet things change. Only four years later I
was short-listed for the Beck’s Futures award, at the
ICA, which is a prize for undiscovered artists.
People that are up and coming—it was ironic! A
big play was made that I was fifty years old. All the rest
were about 25. But it was good to see the way the
perception of photography has changed. One thing has led to
another. That initial small catalogue became a book (People). Some
well-known art people saw it and said some good things. At
the same time, the bus book finally came out (All Zones Off Peak)
and the same happened with that. I had a show before that
at the ICP in New York, and they bought some prints, and
MoMA in New York and the Art Institute of Chicago bought
some and collectors started to buy them increasingly. And
it’s gone okay.
JWD: And now Photieman’s
going to be a major book.
TW: I hope so. It’s the most
interesting book I’ve done as a layout.
It’s the only one I’ve worked closely with.
Well, the second bus book called Bus Odyssey, which
was going to be a small catalogue; it was designed as
something cheap to do, quirkier and more throwaway—pictures
that didn’t make a bunch
of sense. But as a layout it
started to be interesting. Photieman follows from Bus
Odyssey, but the selection
is much tighter, and the styles and approaches are more
varied. I worked with the Irish artist Padraig Timoney.
JWD: He’s the same person
that curated the show?
TW: The show in Manchester, yes. He
had written a review of my bus work for Frieze, the
only review which discussed how the pictures worked
visually, rather than the subject matter. This was
before I had met him. He had gone to Goldsmith’s,
was associated with Damien Hirst, the “Brit Art
coming from that scene, to me who’s always worked
in isolation so far from London, having a response from
him, was great. And there’s kind of a playfulness
in his understanding of photography and how pictures
can work. We worked really closely on the selections
and did it over many times. He’s designed a
wonderful cover. That came from when I told him a
story. On a train coming from New Brighton I met this
guy I hadn’t seen him for years and he called me
Photieman, the nickname local kids had given me. He
said, “You’re not living in New Brighton no
more, Photieman?” He was drunk with a mate, and I
said, “Yeah, but the train’s canceled so we
got to get off here.” And he said,
“Where’s your camera?” So, of course
I had the camera, the Leica, and I just pulled it
straight out of my pocket, right up to my eye. I told
that to Padraig and that’s where the sort of
aggressive-looking drawing, the sort of graffiti [came
from]. Padraig drew that on parcel tape. And later on,
there were drawings from Padraig within the sequence as
JWD: So who’s publishing Photieman?
TW: Steidl is going to do it in
January. I’m already working with Padraig on another
book about women, mainly older women in their
forties, fifties. Some from the market but also from
everywhere. And I’d love to do something with
these. So I’m trying to get them ready to show
them, so that might be another book. I’ve been
printing up a lot of the shipyard stuff that I never
printed before to look seriously at that. I don’t
think there’s a book there, but it’s
interesting piece of work.
JWD: And you’re still going
around shooting just as much?
TW: Yeah, but less so in Liverpool,
after 25 years of doing the same kind of routine day
after day, I’ve exhausted it. I can’t do it
anymore. But I travel to Ireland, to photograph the
landscape. I’d been coming out to Wales on day
trips on the train and I’d bring my bike and
I’d photograph. I moved to Wales to be in the
middle of the landscape, but I’ll continue to
photograph in Liverpool—it’s only 40
JWD: And when you travel do you
take pictures too?
TW: Yeah. I don’t travel a
lot, but I take pictures from the train window and the
JWD: When you went to Germany for
your show, did you photograph the people there too?
TW: It doesn’t work as well.
Different kind of people, different feel, different
everything. I’ve rarely got a good picture
wandering around a foreign town. More likely a good one
when I’m traveling, in a station, or from the
train window, or in the hotel. When I’m in
Ireland I relate to it very strongly, I can just shoot
like mad. I took some photographs when I was in New
York but couldn’t get beyond the Gary Winogrand backgrounds
Do you know, before
I ever used a camera I’d collect photographs (in
the late sixties). I used to go to junk shops, or
charity shops, and in those days no one collected
postcards, so there’d be these “real
photograph” postcards of anonymous people. Studio
portraits but also from snapshot albums. They were
often very revealing portraits, especially in the years
during the First World War and after. I would sort
through thousands of these, and I would pick four or
five and add them to albums and arrange them. Brothers,
sisters, family groups. Try and think, Is this picture
worth a penny or ten pence or is this one better than
this one? I like the humor in this one, sadness in that
one, often the contrast.
There must be
an instinctive understanding in seeing these kinds of
connections, seeing family resemblances, series of
similarities and dissimilarities you have to see to
understand, as opposed to any kind of theoretical
understanding. I knew nothing about art or photography.
I also collected anonymous landscapes, and would
sequence these, churches together and mountains
JWD: Did that work help define the
way you started taking pictures yourself?
TW: Not consciously. I didn’t
put two and two together when I began taking pictures.
But now, yeah, there’s
clearly lots of correspondences. All the time I looked
through boxes of prints and family albums, looking for
the interesting ones, you’re kind of learning:
Could this work? Could this be a good photograph? Even
if it’s in the “throw away” box,
nothing sorted or categorized. There’s lots of
lessons there on how pictures can work. I still do it.
Just spend a day going through those boxes. It’s
always a pleasure.
JWD: Is that the same way you go
through your boxes now?
TW: My own work? Yeah, kind of. A
friend of mine here at a local museum is helping me at
the moment. So for the first time I started looking
through my accumulated boxes of landscapes. I’ve
never shown anyone these before. And so I start
thinking, “Well, where’s this all come
from?” I used to photograph small gardens in
Liverpool when I first moved there. There’s very
densely packed housing with small backyards. But people
would do stuff in them with the nature. The idea of a
garden. And I used to photograph these gardens for many
years, before I even started photographing the people.
I photographed the park, the trees, the change of
seasons. There was a big park in Birkenhead. Central
Park in New York was based on it, but it’s
run-down now. And all the pictures I took of landscape
from cars and trains, trying to look at all this
material, trying to see the threads that run through it.
I’m looking through thousands of pictures, and
it’s the same kind of thing as rummaging through
those boxes of postcards in the shops. Picking out the
ones that would “grab” me, where did that
Did you know I used to work
in Butlins as a “happy snaps” camera
operator ... you know Butlins ?
TW: It’s a holiday camp. They
were all over England once. They still are. People go
and they stay in chalets and they have everything
organized for them, meals and evening entertainment and
stuff for the kids. They had photographers wearing
stripy blazers and ties. I worked there for one whole
season. You have to get what’s called a happy
snap: big smiles, people looking really happy. This was
in the early seventies. I’d go back and look at
the happy snaps I’d taken every day and buy
copies myself of the ones I liked. People looking at
the camera smiling, a big group of people drunk, or
kids with their teddy bears.
So, no question
about that. Photography doesn’t wear out.
It’s just as interesting to me now to look at a
bunch of pictures as it was then. It’s the same
as music. You can play the same piece too much maybe
and come back to it a couple years later and see why it
was great. And a good picture you should be able to
look at a lot of times without wearing it out.
what you’re aiming for.