Issue Archive

Any Answers: Tom Wood

Portrait by Michael Grieve

The self-trained photographer moved to Liverpool in the late 1970s, gaining the moniker of the “photie man” as he obsessively recorded working- class life

This article was published in issue #7889 of British Journal of Photography. Visit the BJP Shop to purchase the magazine here.

Born in Ireland in 1951, Tom Wood moved to Liverpool in the late 1970s, gaining the moniker of the “photie man” as he obsessively recorded working- class life in raw and colourful close up. He’s best known for his photobooks, from his outstanding 1989 debut,Looking for Love, to his most recent, Mère, fille, sœur, published alongside his exhibition at Rencontres d’Arles this summer, and showing at Jimei x Arles in November. Meanwhile, in Paris, Family Likeness can be seen at Galerie Sit Down (05 November – 14 December), drawing from the same material featured in last year’s book, Women’s Market.

My earliest memory? Being told off as a toddler for walking under the legs of my father’s cattle. This was in the West of Ireland. At this time there was no electricity. It was candles and Tilley lamps and going to the well for water.

I can’t remember any advice from my parents. My mother was Catholic and my father was Protestant. He had to move to England due to religious intolerance. Mostly they were working all the time leaving us kids to look after ourselves.

I wasn’t a rebel at school. In fact, I was the captain of the football team. But I was suspended for not getting my long hair cut!

I didn’t get to do art until the final year of sixth form. I’d always made elaborate drawings and gave them to my girlfriend who collected them in a scrapbook. My friend Brian Perks said, “You can get into art school with these Tom – lots of girls and parties, get you away from home”.

I was inspired by a small painting by Matisse. I was totally knocked out by the colour. Later that day I bought a set of oil paints in a charity shop.

My first camera was a Rolleicord 6×6 twin lens. I went out and photographed people, and on the second roll of film was ‘ntleman [one of my best-known images], of two young women standing outside a men’s toilet. Even on the first roll, there is an image that has ended up in my Women book, 40 years later.

I had always collected found photographs. Mainly postcards from the turn of the century and old family snapshots. I knew nothing about photobooks.

I didn’t discover photo books until the early 1970s. Paddy Summerfield sent me to see Peter Turner at the Creative Camera office in London. It was a tiny space with shelves of books, none of which I’d ever seen before. I visited several times, up to three or four hours at a time, until I’d gone through everything. And afterwards I decided I had to at least buy one book. I thought, “If I don’t buy the books, who’s going to?”

I don’t have a method when I photograph. I don’t think about it. The whole point is not to think – but more to feel, to be open. As Luigi Ghirri once said, “The photographer is the receiver of sensations. Sensations are intangible, and I try to organise them through the act of photography.”

Quite early on, I made a kind of conscious decision. All I wanted to do was to photograph, and not have any kind of ‘career’. If I had been successful, had made some money, people would be able to tell. And maybe they wouldn’t be so open.

It was acknowledgment and support from fellow photographers that kept me going. Peter Turner was very encouraging early on. Martin Parr and Chris Killip were supportive to me in the 1980s. And praise from Lee Friedlander and John Berger kept me going in the 90s.

I get my enthusiasm and energy from the streets, the pubs and shipyards of Liverpool. I’m just tapping into that energy.

Just outside the city centre is a road called Kensington. I would get on the bus at the start of the road and photograph continually from the window as everything was changing. Then I would jump off the bus, and jump onto another one going in the opposite direction. It’s an area so abundant – what Kurt Schwitters described as “material pregnant with its own content, history and memories”.

I don’t drive. I’m exploring what’s around me. I was lucky to end up living across the water from Liverpool. Its a special place.

Music is a source I always go back to. Especially when I have been photographing all day. It kind of feeds me, and perhaps more than any other art form, it transports you out of yourself and connects you emotionally.

Teaching full-time and photographing seriously are not compatible. It’s not for me. So I have always worked part-time, teaching by example whenever possible.

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