all pictures Tom Wood
I've been writing the text for the New Brighton Revisited Show (opening July 14th at the Sailing Club Gallery, New Brighton). It's one of the most enjoyable commissions I've had because I get to speak to Tom Wood, Ken Grant and Martin Parr, all of whom lived, worked and socialised there. This is the Tom Wood interview...
Tom Wood has been unwell when I call him. He’s got 18 photobooks in various stages of publication, three exhibitions and he’s been looking at contact prints of his football pictures in preparation for an exhibition with Ken Grant and Tabitha Jussa at Liverpool’s docks. He’s distracted to say the least.
But once he gets going, there’s no stopping him. It’s the first time I’ve talked to Tom and it’s a whirligig of memories, references and enthusiasms packed into two hours. It’s the longest interview I’ve ever done, although halfway through I turn the voice recorder off so by the end of it feels like more of a conversation. This is the half I recorded…
“I moved to New brighton in 1978. I had a job at the art school and there was the glamour of the football team and the Beatles and we had a flat looking over the river. It was pretty amazing. I made work on the river, on crossing the river, going on the ferry, and the Pier Head, and that’s going to be a book.
Everything was cyclical for me. I didn’t drive, so I’d cross the river, get on the buses and then come back and I’d photograph in the Chelsea Reach (night club) and in the parks. I’d photograph in the streets in my local area. In those days I’d get pestered to take people’s photograph. And people would call me David because David Bailey was the only photographer they knew.
I’m a photographic artist and I’m exploring the medium by photographing what interests me. I photographed where I lived. I stepped out of the door and I would ask questions. Lisette Model said, "I have often been asked what I wanted to prove by my photographs. The answer is, I don't want to prove anything. They prove something to me, and I am the one who gets the lesson."
What was I trying to do? There is no answer in words because I’m working with visual poetry. I certainly wasn’t trying to document anything. I spent five years as a painter and when you paint you don’t document something, you try to make an interesting painting. I use black and white, colour, different formats and it’s the same. I’m not documenting anything, I’m trying to make interesting pictures.
You photograph something a hundred times and most pictures are boring. But some pictures have a life of their own. It’s not just the subject. And you don’t know when this will happen, you just get pictures that will surprise you.
There’s no question that I could make the same pictures in another place. There’s something special about the people for me. I’m Irish and I came to live in Liverpool. I’m not as separate as Martin was, I’m not as close as Ken is. But there’s so much material here. I’d photograph from the bus in Kensington, getting on at one end and photographing the people and the shops, then get off the bus and go back and do the same thing again again. It was that rich.
New Brighton is a very small place so you end up knowing everyone really, by name or by sight. I’d go in local pubs and it would take me 10 minutes to get to the bar because of all the people I’d say hello to. In New Brighton itself, that’s the place where I’d photograph people and give them a print. That’s the place where I was Photie Man.
It wasn’t like I came in and photographed and left. I lived there, my kids went to school there, my friends were there. And they’re in the book Photie Man. People were very generous with it. They liked it. Every hairdresser in Wallasey for sure had a copy. We had a show at the Bluecoat and 1,000 people came and there wasn’t a single bad comment from anybody apart from “we thought you were a pervert” and “remind me not to kiss again in public.”
At the same time there were very personal stories attached to the pictures. A friend just had a meal with someone whose sister is in one of the pictures, it’s pink lipstick, and she tragically died at the age of 26.
There were not so nice comments when it showed in London but in Liverpool it was very generous. Some of the people in London thought I was being more patronising or whatever.
Martin got it more than me because I was seen as more compassionate whereas Martin was seen differently. I’m closer to the people clearly,but there is a lot of humour in Martin’s pictures.
The Last Resort was originally a joint show curated by Neil Burgess at Open Eye. But somewhere along the line the story became that the show opened at the Serpentine in London. But it didn’t. It opened at the Open Eye. I’ve still got the poster on my wall. I’ve still got some of the original rock with The Last Resort written into the rock.
Neil recently said to me, “At the time, we didn’t know what you were doing, Tom.” I was helped by Alex Laing so in the exhibition I had colour, black and white, large format, 35 mm, portraits, all arranged in different groups, with this cluster here and that one there, whereas Martin’s was a traditional series of pictures in a line. I was exploring the idea of what photography can be, of how to make it interesting. It doesn’t have to be restrained by one format or one idea.
Alex died in a traffic accident on the Dock Road, so now the artist Padraig Timoney has taken on that role of freeing me up and making the pictures work in a different way. Now I can do that and the pictures go out into the world of books.
People didn’t understand photography in those days. I’d go to art galleries and they wouldn’t get it. It wasn’t because it wasn’t good, it was because they wouldn’t get it. They would look and say it isn’t art or it’s not the kind of work that we show at the ICA or whatever. I met the director of Tate Liverpool who knew about photography but in those days it wasn’t allowed. He said that the Tate buys works by artists, the Victoria and Albert Museum buys photographers.
But then you got people like Padraig (Timoney) who is an artist in his own right who went to Goldsmiths and has an incredibly successful career. His paintings sell for thousands. He wrote a review for Frieze. He wrote about how they worked visually while all the other reviewers were talking about the subject matter and the legacy of Thatcher so that changed everything and showed that the younger generation of artists understood photography while the older generation, the art history generation of the Courtauld Institute, didn’t know how it worked. I don’t think they were against it. They just didn’t get it.
I used to go to parties at Peter Moore’s house and all the gallery people and artists would be there and they’d say, what do you do? And the first thing I’d say is what photographers do you know and they’d say Bill Brandt and Faye Godwin. No Josef Sudek, Lee Friedlander or Robert Frank even. We didn’t have any great photographers here, that was the problem. You only had the photojournalists .
We had Bert Hardy, who was a great photojournalist. I could show you ten pictures and you wouldn’t know which was Bert Hardy and which were Robert Frank, but Robert Frank had the label of an artist and Bert Hardy didn’t. Britain had a different sense of what photography could be.
It was different for me because I came from art school. I actually went round to see great people like Ian Berry and Raymond Moore. You could go and see them, they were very welcoming. But there weren’t that many. There was Chris Killip. But there weren’t that many. And nobody with the authority of Lee Friedlander or Robert Frank.
I enjoy photography. But I like a lot of things. I used to enjoy the Dadaists and make collage. I was a big fan of Kurt Schwitters, I was a big fan of Jackson Pollock’s early work, I went to Venice for the first time and saw a whole room of Joseph Cornell’s collages which I thought were incredible.
I’d always collected photographs from charity shops, which was something Martin and I had in common. But Martin collected postcards, and I collected family album pictures. They had that snapshot aesthetic of bad colour and all that kind of stuff; that informed the way I worked. Only later did I get to understand about what photography could be. It was during my foundation course when I was developing my first roll of film, and there was a pile of Swiss magazine Camera, and one of them was a whole issue dedicated to Josef Sudek. I knew nothing about his photography, and if you see his pictures it’s nothing to do with my work you’d imagine, and I knew nothing about photography, but I just got him straight away. That sense of understanding is something innate. It’s just there.
I went to see the prints, 10 by 12 contact prints, and I nearly wet myself. Sudek was a really big influence straight off.
The other book I bought early on was by August Sander because his pictures looked like the ones I collected from charity shops only better. I’d look at one thousand pictures in a charity shop and there’d be one great one. With August Sander, they were all great.
Then I met Paddy Summerfield who knew Tony Ray-Jones who was in this British magazine called Album. And Paddy had been in Creative Camera and gave me all his old copies of Creative Camera. He’s had a couple of books published now and it’s changed his life. The stuff he had in Creative camera in the 1960s was like Ralph Gibson.
There was no one to see or speak to back then. Pre-Photographers Gallery there was no book shop. In the early days I had to buy them from America. Postage was $2.50 overland and it would take three months to come but the books were the same price in dollars as they were in pounds and the exchange rate back then was 2 to 1, so even if you could find them in the UK they’d be half the price in America.
I got taken on by the Approach Gallery and that helped, and then another big gallery in London took me on (Gallery 52) so I was getting seen by the art world. Thomas Zander took me up in Germany. They published my first book.
It was slow. I never made any money. Most years I’d lose money. The only times I made money was when Thomas Zander had a show and at Paris Photo last year. But most years I didn’t make a thing.
Martin asked me to apply to join Magnum. I went to meet some of them. They had a print sale to raise money to buy computers. Magnum London was just starting and they had an exhibition with all the prints made by the same lab in Paris. You couldn’t tell which was Cartier-Bresson and which was Rene Burri because they were all printed 12 x 16 and they were all decisive moment kind of shots. And I thought, oh this is nothing to do with me. But of course Martin wanted me in there to try and change Magnum. And of course now it has changed. Martin’s always been very supportive of me.
I’m jealous of Padraig who gets to work over a range of media; painting, collage, video. The thing I have always done is video. I have an enormous amount of video material that probably amounts to 25% of my career output. My other side, my academic side with my degree in fine art, is that I studied avant-garde cinema in college. I watched underground film every week in a darkened room. These 16mm films would be sent up from London, we’d watch them, and then they’d go back. It was amazing. But at the same time I was really aware of what was boring, of having to sit through this mass of material with no fast forward button. So when I shot, I would be really specific, as though I was shooting with super 8 which was really expensive.
You ask about what photographers influenced me, I was far more crazy about all these underground film makers and for years you couldn’t find that stuff, but now it’s available on dvd. I remember one film by Peter Kubelka called Our African Trip which is edited in a way that is almost bad, and that’s stayed with me or the one Stan Brakhage made of the autopsy place. It’s beautiful in its colours but it’s unwatchable. We used to watch 2 or 3 flims every week and I’d say that influenced me more than photography in the beginning. All the time I’m trying to get back to that. I didn’t know anything. I was naïve and I liked photographing.
When I was in Ireland I was lucky that I’d come home from school and the bus stop was outside this charity shop. Inside would be all these Life magazines and Vogue with all these beautiful colours. I’d see Erwin Blumenfeld who went back to the Dadaists and collage, and that’s what I started making collages with. The whole wall was plastered and the ceiling. I wasn’t conscious of doing anything. I had pictures of bands and girls and then you’d fill in the gaps. I had a picture of Bill Brandt but I didn’t know it was Bill Brandt, it was just a great picture of this viaduct with these kids running up.
That’s when I was still at school in the west of Ireland. Where does that come from? It’s innate that some people really like pictures, really go into them. You edit pictures and you go through thousands and you see ones that just work. You don’t know why that one’s special except it’s alive. You don’t know why it’s alive, but it is. I like that mystery. That’s why I’m interested in good pictures. I know it’s a document as well with the way the people dress and the time and place but it’s what makes them alive that interests me.
There’s stuff in Wittgenstein where he talks about faces. I’ve just finished doing this book on Great Homer Street Market and there would be all these women there, there’d be 3 or four women there with their mothers, and they’d all have the same face. Wittgenstein tried to analyse what that was, what the meaning and significance of those faces was. It is something you can’t put into words, but you can understand.
I was thinking of Richard Feynman the other day. He said that he did experiments to find out what he didn’t know (Later Tom sends me this Feynman quote: "Our imagination is stretched to the utmost not as in fiction, to imagine things that's not really there but just to comprehend things which are there"). Which is the same as what Lisette Model said. He’s looking for something that surprises him, that he doesn’t expect. He’s not trying to prove something. You read about why he’s trying to do what he’s done and he can’t explain it. He’s a physicist but what he said made sense to me, going over the same thing in the minutest detail over and over again – which is what I’ve done. I’ve photographed the same thing over and over again until you end up with something that says something to you.
Another thing I was thinking about was how people look at you or don’t look at you when you’re taking pictures. When I used to take pictures of the market I was youngish. A lot of women were there and they’d look at me. I was a not-bad looking lad and I’d always smile so you’d have this male-female thing going on. I’d still try to photograph people without them seeing me, but often I felt that they could tell I was doing it even though they hadn’t seen me. They could sense it, and I could sense that too. Some women don’t want to be photographed. It can be because they’re not photogenic or it’s subconscious or whatever, but some women did want to be photographed and were aware of the camera but tolerated me, they allowed me to do it, they were giving me something. If you ask somebody for permission, and then take a picture, you get a different picture. It’s something very subtle but it’s really visible and everyone recognises it straight away.
There’s this look where they know they’re being photographed but they’re not showing that they know they’re being photographed. It’s connected to the idea of waiting. In the old days, you had to wait for the boat, you sat there in a state of grace. You’re waiting for the boat, or you’re on the boat and you’re there in yourself. And the photography is a connection to that state.
I’m doing an exhibition later this month on football (Common Ground) as well. I began photographing the football pictures in 1985, photographing the people going to the game. I‘ve been sick for the last month, too much stimulation and too much excitement. I’ve got 18 books coming out. I’m turning things down now. There’s too much.
What really interests me is the contact sheets – not the whole sheets, but each frame. That’s what I was looking at when you phoned me. I didn’t know you were going to call. That’s why I was distracted. To photograph all 36 pictures on the contact sheet takes about a minute and a half, and each picture is full of information.
The problem with the contact sheets is I didn’t have any money so I’d use the wrong paper. I’d use lustre paper which has a stipple effect on it. Then I’d do too many contact sheets at once, so some are too light, some are too dark. You can’t really see what you’ve got because you haven’t got the full range of blacks and greys because it’s been pulled out of the dev after a few seconds.
And these are the contact sheets I’ve been trying to judge pictures from over the years. Now from the contact sheets they’re very impressionistic. They’re very abstract. They capture the mass of men, the energy of the football, the walk down to Anfield where you get that knot in the stomach. That sense of abstractness, that feeling is there in those contact sheets.
That’s why Padraig Timoney was so good for me. It was like going back to art school after being so long in photography. I’d love to do it as a book with all these all these people moving across the gutter. It was only when I went to Steidl that I was able to do a book exactly as I gave it to them, no matter what the cost. That was Photie Man and that was designed by Padraig. Photie Man is my best book.”