My favourite image by Tom Wood is of a woman sat at a table, bored, in a bar. She’s completely detached from her surroundings, face in one hand and cigarette in the other with a couple to the left side of the table. If you’re not familiar with Wood’s photography, the artist documents genuine candid moments of unsuspecting, ordinary people. Even without a camera obviously pointing in your direction it’s difficult to guess whether scenes like Tired drink picture (1986) could be authentically created nowadays.
Beyond his infamous 1980s Looking for Love – Chelsea Reach series, Wood also documented his almost daily commute across the river Mersey. This journey amassed in thousands of photographs of which a cross section from 1978 – 1993 is being exhibited at Open Eye Gallery. Some subjects are looking head-on into Wood’s lens whilst others are walking quickly to reach their destination. Some are on the ferry and some are waiting for it, caught in conversation or in their own daily routine. From a young boy stood staring into the camera smoking and holding a pigeon, to people in photo booths at the terminal, and one child with his family carrying a Netto plastic bag, Wood captures Liverpool within a changing socio-political climate without making that the focus of each picture.
Liverpool in the 1980s had some of the highest unemployment rates in the UK and the city was gripped by economic decline. Wood skilfully navigates perceptions of deprivation by steering clear of voyeurism. Born in Ireland and based in the UK, he documents Liverpool as an outsider yet still captures the city with an intimacy for his subjects and surroundings. His soft reflected outline appears in only two images in the exhibition, but other than that his presence isn’t noticeable; it’s his subjects’ personalities and personal lives that frame the images.
Photography has evolved in the years since the 1980s. Purists will say that the democratisation of the medium has led to its death as an artform. Now so easily accessed by everyone, they justify their negative assertions by stating that daily life has become ‘plagued’ by imagery. It’s true that this increased accessibility has marked a change in the purpose of photography, but this does not make it less credible. Now more instant than ever it is a means of communication and whilst this may inspire less candid imagery, people will continue to use it creatively.
Although the loss of candid charm marks Wood’s practice from modern photography, its standout feature will always be its unique ties to the social history of Merseyside beyond the outside negative stereotyping of its 1970s-1990s inhabitants. Wood frames sincere portrayals of his subjects as a true fly-on-the-wall photographer and Open Eye’s exhibition is a considered tribute to his stretching Pier Head collection, positioned only a couple of minutes from the terminal that inspired it.
Aoife Robinson is a writer interested in feminism, representation and socially-engaged art.
The Pier Head – Tom Wood will be on display at Open Eye Gallery until 25 March.