Tag Archives: Tom Wood

Project 2 – The aware

With the exception of candid street photography all images of people involve some degree of awareness on the part of the subject. However, the degree of involvement does vary. It can be divided into 3 main types:

  1. The subject is having their portrait taken on one occasion either as:
    1. A deliberate choice on the part of the subject such as a formal portrait
    2. A choice on the part of the photographer such as a requested photograph of a stranger in the street. Examples of these are the June Street series by Daniel Meadows and the work done by Tom Wood see:  Project 1 – The unaware – 2 where he became the Photie Man.
  2. An ongoing portrait series of a person or a group of people either taken over several days or even years where the subject, although known to the photographer, is not emotionally involved. An example is the series in the face of silence (Agou, 2011) by Christophe Agou.
  3. An ongoing series of portraits of someone who is well known to the photographer such as family or a close friend. Examples here are Mother (Graham, 2019) by Paul Graham and Big Brother (Quail, 2018) by Louis Quail and the photographs of his wife Eleanor by Harry Callahan.

Another example of type 3 is Looking for Alice by Siân Davey in which she tells the story of the life of her daughter, Alice, who was born with Down’s Syndrome and the impact this has on the family’s life. In the foreword she says ‘the process of photographing this work has helped me shine a light on why I struggled to love Alice, which was essentially fear and uncertainty …. she is now in the middle of everything that we do as a family and is loved unconditionally’ (Davey, 2015).  Davey went on to produce a book of images about her older daughter, Martha, at her request (Davey, 2019). She talks at length about her life and motivation for taking these images in a podcast  A Small Voice – Siân Davey.

These categories can become blurred, especially the latter two, when a series continues over several years. This is very noticeable in the work for every minute you are angry you lose sixty seconds of happiness (Germain and Snelling, 2014) by Julian Germain, where he started off with an unknown subject Mr Snelling, who he got to know very well over several years, with the images becoming more intimate over time. Another example of the blurring between a subject and a friend occurs in Nina Berman’s book An Autobiography of Miss Wish (Berman and Stevens, 2017) in which she initially meets a stranger, a drug addict and a prostitute on the street and over many years develops a friendship that includes housing her for a time and being her sponsor. The final book is a collaboration between Berman and Miss Wish (Kimberly Stevens) and includes both photographs, copies of her medical documentation and drawings done by Stevens.

The skills needed for all portraits of aware subjects include (in no particular order):

  • The ability to make a connection and read the person and therefore show their feelings
  • Real engagement to build trust – possibly very rapidly in a one-off shoot
  • The need to keep separate your emotion and the subjects (they may be the same – or very different) – and the photo will depend on how you interpret them
  • Patience
  • The ability to think about the whole image, not just the person. Both the content and the framing are important.
  • The need to choose between either being an observer (neutral) or a participant (a director) – both can work well but probably not in the same image
  • Consider lighting – inside or outside, natural or flash, soft or hard – what will show what you need?
  • Get permission which may be explicit (in writing) or implicit (the person sees you pointing the camera at them and agrees by not turning away)

A useful reference book which discusses these points is on the Portrait and the Moment by Mary Ellen Mark (Mark, 2015).


Agou, C. (2011). In the face of silence. Stockport: Dewi Lewis.

Berman, N. and Stevens, K. (2017). An Autobiography of Miss Wish. Heidelberg: Kehrer.

Davey, S. (2015). Looking for Alice. Great Britain: Trolley Ltd.

Davey, S. (2019). Martha. Hertfordshire: Trolleybooks.

Davey, S. and Smith, B. (2017). Siân Davey. [online] A Small Voice. Available at: https://bensmithphoto.com/asmallvoice/sian-davey [Accessed 22 Oct. 2019].

Germain, J. and Snelling, C. (2014). For every minute you are angry you lose sixty seconds of happiness: portrait of an elderly gentleman. London: Mack.

Graham, P. (2019). Mother. S.L.: Mack.

Mark, M.E. (2015). on the portrait and the moment. New York Aperture.

Quail, L. (2018). Big Brother. Stockport: Dewi Lewis Publishing.




Project 1 – The unaware – 2

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.


Reference list

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.