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?”