Girl holding baby, Scottie Rd. 1990
Birkenhead North, 1979-80
Rachel, aged 17, 1985
Cowley, Oxford, 1973
Furcoatsisters, New Brighton, 1985
Couple Entwined on Beach south coast of England, 1974
New Brighton Beach Looking towards Liverpool, early 80s
Cammell Laird Lunch hour, Birkenhead, 1993
Cammell Laird Shipyard, Birkenhead,1996
Cammell Laird and river mersey, Birkenhead, 1993
“The Lion,” Moorfields, Liverpool 1992
Everton Football Ground, 1997
Pink girl, Chelsea Reach, 1983
Chelsea Reach, 1985
Last Dance, Chelsea Reach, 1985
Chelsea Reach (tits out), 1986
Girls and Mirror, Grand Hotel, 1990
Chelsea Reach, 1982 – 85 (collage)
Staff After Work, Butlins Holiday Camp, 1977
Same girl different night, Butlins Holiday Camp, 1977
Same girl different night, Butlins Holiday Camp, 1977
Sailorboy on Hip, New Brighton, early 90’s
Sisters (sweet dreams), Pier Head, 1985
Vauxhall Circular, 1989
Toward Netherton, 1989
Stanley Road, Bootle, 1989
Linzyluvspointy, Whitechapel, 1994
Gangolads, Anfield Football Ground, 1994
Boy and Fish, Seacombe Docks, 1980
Ron Formby, Scottie Press, 1991
Tongueout, Party, 1980s
Strand Shopping Centre, Bootle, 1989
Tired, Grand Hotel, New Brighton, 1986

TOM WOOD: MAKING SENSE

Text by Jane Fletcher

Interview by Jan-Willem Dikkers

 “I think of a photograph as a receiver of sensation.

Sensations are intangible, I try to organise them

Tom Woodthrough the act of photography.” — Tom Wood

Tom Wood
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
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.

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 shipyard.

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 Ark Royal.

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 nuclear submarines.

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 agenda.

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 my nature.

JWD: Do you think that carries through to the viewer?

TW: Don’t think about it. Not at all.

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 case?

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 generation.

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 don’t change.

JWD: But do you notice much change around you in the last 25 years, apart from taking pictures?

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.

I’d 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 that’s important?

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 believe.

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 from them.

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 assignments normally.

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 it.

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.

So eventually, 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 Pack” generation.

So, Padraig 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 well.

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 minutes away.

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 car.

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 everywhere.

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 together.

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 come from?

Did you know I used to work in Butlins as a “happy snaps” camera operator … you know Butlins ?

JWD: No.

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.

That’s what you’re aiming for.

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