Originally trained in painting at Leicester Polytechnic, Tom Wood became a recognized photographer when he was awarded an Arts Council of Great Britain Photography Grant in 1977. The photographs in his book, Looking For Love amusingly document the hedonistic nightlife of Merseyside, UK, while his later books, Bus Odyssey and All Zones Off Peak chronicle his otherworldly journeys on Liverpool public transit. Wood’s work was shown in 1996 at the International Center of Photography in New York, and his work is part of the permanent collections of New York’s Museum of Modern Art and the Art Institute of Chicago. His forthcoming book Photieman, will be released by Steidl early 2005.
Jane Fletcher is curator of The Royal Photographic Society Collection at the National Museum of Photography Film & Television, UK. She has taught extensively in higher education and contributes regularly to photographic and art journals. She is co-editor of I Spy: Representations of Childhood (I B Tauris, 2000), and is currently curating an exhibition entitled “Faking It: Between Photographic Art and Advertising,” which will open in October 2004.
Tom Wood might easily be categorized as a documentary or street photographer. His photographs fit comfortably within the finest tradition of a certain kind of “straight” photography: incisive, decisive visual moments extracted from the chaos of life and transformed, by the medium, into compelling images. To claim, then, that his photographs are receivers of sensations, ciphers for that which is intangible (not to mention invisible), could be deemed extraordinary. It is certainly ambitious. Photography, inherently, deals with what can be seen. Its mechanical attention to detail, its dependence on the referent—the object of its scrutiny—is what marks it as totally different from the other arts.
And, yet, to confront Wood’s photographs is to see the world and to feel the world. It is akin to reading a good novel. The comparison between realist fiction and Wood’s photography is useful. What is storytelling but an attempt to make sense of the world, to organize the fleeting impressions that constitute life, and to render them meaningful—or at least memorable? A photographer of Wood’s caliber aims for—and achieves—the same. Wood records a version of the world, not in its entirety, necessarily, but in its essence.
Take, for instance, his series of photographs in the book All Zones Off Peak (1998). It focuses on the people who use public transportation in Merseyside (where he was based for many years): specifically, those reliant on the buses. These commuters are generally pensive. Lost in thought, they wait quietly for the bus to arrive, for their journey to end. The myriad reflections and the intersecting planes that make the photographs so stimulating and satisfying to look at also suggest the workings of the mind: partial, overlapping thoughts.
Wood’s more boisterous Looking For Love, published in 1989, depicts the drinking, dancing, reveling crowds at the Chelsea Reach—a now-defunct night-spot in New Brighton. Mostly shot in color, the photographs are brash and garish. What they portray tends toward the vulgar. Significantly, they manage to conjure what they cannot show: the noise, the heat, the smells.
Both Looking for Love and All Zones Off Peak took many years to complete. In each case, Wood returned to his subject persistently, and studied it exactingly. To imagine, however, that Wood systematically completes one project before beginning another would be wrong. His practice is constantly varied; his working method appears to be characterized by a compulsion to walk and watch and photograph.
Last summer, an exhibition of Wood’s photographs opened at the Castlefield Gallery in Manchester. Entitled “Photieman,” and curated by Padraig Timoney, the show comprised diverse images made in several different photographic formats. It included “old” and previously unseen work, some of which was framed and some not. Most strikingly, the photographs were hung in such a way that they almost covered the gallery walls: from top to bottom and side to side. More “work in progress” than “retrospective,” “Photieman” revealed Wood’s commitment to photography, and to the places in which he operates. It showed him to be an empathic, if keen, observer, and it made manifest what everybody should know: Wood is first and foremost a photographer of people. Sometimes they pose for him, and sometimes they seem unaware of his presence. Sometimes they are shot in close-up, and sometimes from afar. But, most of the time, Wood’s photographs convey much more than they literally depict. He not only shows us the people who make up the fabric of his day-to-day existence, but his manner of photographing forces us to recognize his subjects as sentient individuals. As a result, we are asked to contemplate their difference, the thoughts and emotions that inspire their actions and make them who they are. Tom Wood sets out to capture the complexity of being. His photographs succeed in isolating fragments of the sensual world, and exposing the human impulse to both negotiate and make sense of it.
INTERVIEW WITH TOM WOOD
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.