Tom Wood (born 1951) is an Irish photographer who spent much of his life in Merseyside, and who now lives in Wales. He was photographing in New Brighton at the same time as Martin Parr and Ken Grant, but the three photographers produced very different work. Wood is an obsessive photographer, never going anywhere without his camera and constantly taking pictures. He works in series, but the series are not separated by time, rather than by how and at what time of day he takes the images. He travelled widely by bus and took pictures on the bus. He also took images at the local shipyard, and, possibly most famously, the images in the Chelsea Reach nightclub – which became the book Looking for Love (Wood, 1989). Wood returned week after week to the nightclub (and all the other areas he was interested in) and having taken pictures of the people there one week would offer them copies of the images the next week. He was extremely well known in the area and became their ‘Photie Man’.
Wood photographed people close-up. He said in an interview with Sean O’Hagen “I’m not trying to document anything. It’s more about deciphering and transforming. I make what you might call real-life photographs” (O’Hagen, 2015). Wood’s work is taken over years, usually with no specific plan in mind. He said “I take pictures all the time, if did a project, had a plan, it would be self-conscious. It’s very different to go out looking for something. All that stuff can get in the way, whereas if you take pictures all the time, it’s no big deal because that’s what you do all the time. And because I was always doing pictures, going to the same places year after year, I became part of the scenery. I was just the guy who takes pictures.” (Smith, 2018). Wood does not describe himself as a documentary photographer, even though most of his series tell stories about the place they are taken in. He works long term, over years rather than weeks and makes images that are enjoyed by the local people. His pictures do explore the place, and the time (both time of day and the era) but he was more interested in taking a good photograph than in documenting a specific event. The is an interesting detailed interview In Paper Journal that was done alongside an exhibition at The Bradford Media Museum (Manandhar and Karallis, 2013).
In Photie Man (Wood, 2005) – he said, ‘I’m interested in good photographs, and if they document something, so much the better’. This statement is very different from the one by Parr ‘I am a documentary photographer, and if I take a good photograph in the process, that’s a bonus’ (quoted in OCA manual, Identity and Place, p.46). The same words (or very nearly) but in a different order and with a completely different emphasis. A good picture – or an accurate document. What takes priority? It is fascinating that two people, working in the same place, at the same time can produce such different images. Wood’s images are kinder, more caring and less satirical than Parr’s. Even the images in Looking for Love, which show people often at their worst, drunk, tired and often being groped have a sense of good humour. He was there. He was close up, and he went back time after time, so the people knew him. He did not want to exploit the people and says he made very little money from his photography at that stage. Parr’s images are harder, they are often funny, the colours are harsher, and, of course, he makes a substantial living from it. Overall, I prefer Wood’s images, although I am very aware that I was familiar with Martin Parr’s work while only came across Tom Wood when researching for this topic.
My personal preferences aside, the two photographers have a different style of work and a very different way of thinking about what they are doing and why they are doing it. At this moment, and this might change over time, I feel I am more in tune with Wood’s way of thinking. My experience is that I am looking for a ‘good’ photograph, and hopefully that will also say what I am trying to say. What is ‘good’ is, in itself, an interesting concept. Does it mean sharp, correctly exposed and so on? Does it mean truthful (itself a slippery concept)? Does it mean something that people will like and respond to (and, if so – is it the proverbial ‘man on the street’ or a population of informer viewers) ? That will depend on your planned purpose for the image or series of images, what story you are trying to tell and who it is for.
Manandhar, N. and Karallis, P. (2013). Interview: Tom Wood – Paper Journal. [online] Paper Journal. Available at: https://paper-journal.com/tom-wood/ [Accessed 1 Oct. 2019].
O’Hagan, S. (2015). Girls (and boys) just wanna have fun: smoke, sticky carpets and snogging in the 80s. [online] the Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/may/08/gareth-mcconnell-tom-wood-looking-for-love-80s-photos [Accessed 1 Oct. 2019].
Photography 1 – Identity and Place. (2015). Open College of the Arts.
Smyth, D. (2018). New Brighton Revisited by Martin Parr, Tom Wood, and Ken Grant. [online] British Journal of Photography. Available at: https://www.bjp-online.com/2018/07/new-brighton-revisited/ [Accessed 1 Oct. 2019].
Wood, T. (1989). Looking for Love. Manchester: Cornerhouse Publ.
Wood, T. (2005). Photie man. Göttingen: Steidl.