Tom Wood photographs show the men and women of Liverpool on buses; they show the men and women of Liverpool waiting for buses and they show the men and women of Liverpool, simply waiting…. for a friend, for a kiss, for something to turn up. Nicknamed by locals “photieman”, Wood photographs men and women in nightclubs; in pubs; out on the town and has been doing so since the 1970’s. Little is seen of people at work…. Perhaps because one of the stories his photographs tell is the story of a city long fallen from the grace of its prosperous ship-building past; a city where there is no or little work, except possibly in the rag and bone trade. In the artworks of Tom Wood, there are plenty of photographs of people sifting through rubbish or selling it, as if rubbish were all that was left.
In this way, Wood’s subjects are the numbers, the crowds, the masses of the formerly-known-as working classes, now labelled as chavs and scroungers. And so the irony is not lost of a teenage mother in plastic white sandals and mini skirt, baby tucked beneath her sweatshirt, wild ginger hair blowing in the wind as she tramps across a waste ground littered with odd shoes and boots, behind her a bottom of indiscriminate sex roundly presenting itself to the camera as its owner bends to sift through, well, more rubbish.
Waste among waste in the eyes of some, a waste of a life in the eyes of others, the fierce capacity of the human spirit to thrive in a wasteland, perhaps in the eyes of Tom Wood. If Tom Wood’s photographs do one thing, they give this overlooked, marginalised “human waste”, faces and the anonymous masses, stories. His subjects are not statistics but real “men and women” (the title of his exhibition at The Photographer’s Gallery) with their own feelings, lives and dramas.
Dolled up to the nines, the plump red head grinds her behind at the disco, a broad smile on her face, as if she knows exactly the thoughts going through the heads of her male onlookers, leering from the side lines, bottles of “Boddies” in hands. Equally dressed up in a smart plaid shirt, with blow-dried hair and kitten heels, the female proprietor of a rag and bone business, pertly sits in her cart, her empire of cast offs towering behind her. An old man in a smart navy overcoat and camel scarf resignedly sits on a bench in front of a wall of graffitied tiles, staring out at the camera with watery blue eyes that seem to tell a thousand tales, none of them particularly happy.
These photographs show the two halves of working class culture. They document both the listlessness and lack of ambition among those ground down by lack of opportunity . But they also reveal men and women with a fierce sense of pride and identity, who belong to a community, a city, a place, characterised by a shared sense of humour, alongside the shared fate of living in an industrial city in a post-industrial age. So Wood shows the parts but also the sum. All in their way, evidence of the society that Thatcher famously said there was “no such thing as”, a mantra all the more resonant in a country living under a present-day Tory coalition.
But Wood’s photographs are more than social documentary. When we step back to examine ourselves – especially when we step back to examine ourselves through the lens of a camera; especially the lens of a photographer as gently astute as Tom Wood – what we all too often see is that there’s n’owt as queer as folk. With a keen eye not only for narrative, but both the bathos and profundity to be found in people getting on with the business of living – of making the most, of shit happening, of carrying on – this is the photography of soap opera; of “him on the bus”, “kids these days” and “her next door”. Of pensioners, arms folded, caught in a mindless grimace, of chubby children mooning distractedly out of bus windows and of young girls checking their lippy in the mirror as the wind whips their hair on the ferry.
Tom Wood’s men and women do not always look their best. But nor do they always look their worst. They are simply getting on with the business of inhabiting their own skins. It is the comedy of the human species and the way that it behaves when it thinks no one is looking. A form of comedy that asks us not so much to laugh at the lives of others, as much as it invites us to laugh at ourselves.
While if much of Wood’s photography is of the candid kind, in his more formal portraits, his subjects almost seem to talk back; gestures, poses, facial expressions and eyes, are all given a voice through Wood’s photography, which he describes as a “receiver of intangible sensations”.
Apart from the odd teenage girl self-consciously draped in a fur coat, no one ever really smiles and no one really poses in these photographs. Pre-dating social media and reality TV, this is a document of a generation who has not yet learnt to adopt and adapt multiple personae for constant public show. Instead, Wood’s subjects look past or through the camera, while we in turn have the privilege of looking not so much at faces, as souls. So these photographs shows a disappearing world before facebook where the visual anthologisation of everyday life was only for eccentric photiemen like Wood.