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Article: Photobook Bristol Interviews: Tom Wood

Photobook Bristol Interviews: Tom Wood

Tom Wood speaks to Photobook Bristol's Jessa Fairbrother



What was the first photobook you bought?

As a teenager I used to collect old magazines like Lilliput and Illustrated, cut them up and make collages. Later, I began collecting ‘REAL photograph’ postcards. Fast forward several years and I’m at art school on a Foundation year in art, and at the end of the course they gave me a Rolleiflex camera to record my paintings. The next day, I was in Oxford and in the window of a chemist shop I saw a Rolleicord camera, which I bought for £30. In the window of an antiquarian bookshop next door, was a review copy of August Sander Photographer Extraordinaire. I bought it for £2.50 the images were just like the postcards that I had collected and great portraits!

Ask me what the second book I bought was.

What was the second book you bought, Tom?

In 1974 there were few photographic exhibitions around but Paul Strand was at the National Portrait Gallery and I went along to that. There were two books available – A Retrospective Monograph: Volume I and Volume II, published by Aperture. I ordered them and they arrived as one complete volume costing £30! I was only making about £40 a week when I had been working. I still have that. Good quality for the time, great pictures, especially the early ground-breaking work.

You started out by training as a painter, and I would really like to know if this still influences you. 

My father worked in the car factory, so at 13 I was put in the technical stream [at school] doing metalwork and engineering. So, I never thought about doing art when I left, somehow I ended up as a tax officer. Later I worked in the car factory alongside my father on the production line in Cowley, Oxford.

While in the tax office I would always be doing complex drawings while on the phone to tax payers. Then in the car factory, when I was free  - the line was always breaking down in those days - I’d do drawings of the people and the machines. My girlfriend at the time, Fay, collected a lot of them together in a scrapbook. I had one friend, Brian, who was an artist. He said “You’d get into art school with these Tom! Lots of girls, lots of parties!” So I applied for a Foundation course in art, and was accepted. That was in 1972.

Once I walked in the door to the art school it was like I was inoculated – in a good way. Imbued with the art idea. Something that was already there but as you walked through the doorway it was switched on. You just get it – that was it. There were about 40 girls and a dozen blokes on this course. And, at Easter we went to Venice – on a train! We went through Switzerland with snow on the mountains – picturesque!  I’d never been anywhere except the West of Ireland!

In Venice one day a few of us were in Peggy Guggenheim’s museum and there was no one there but one attendant. One room was Jackson Pollock, one was Max Ernst, one room Joseph Cornell. The light was great, and I just walked around amazed. Next thing I know my friends had disappeared, there was no attendant, and I was on my own with all this artwork. That was it. The light in Venice – the quality of light I’d never seen before.

When I did my Foundation end of year show I had a folder of photographs - early portraits on the Rolleicord done in the last weeks of the course. They weren’t even on the wall. A local photographer Paddy Summerfield saw them and was really enthusiastic about these pictures. It was him who encouraged me to think about photography seriously, not just about painting. 

By then I’d already been accepted at Leicester Polytechnic to do Fine Art. But I had bought that Rolleicord camera and during the summer, I started going on coach day trips, to seaside resorts, taking photographs in Brighton or Margate, or wherever. I must have been influenced by Tony Ray-Jones in the magazines Paddy had lent me, Creative Camera, and the whole collection of the short lived “Album” magazine. It was the only stuff I’d seen. 
At that time there were no degree courses in photography. Being at art school – it was about self-development, the importance of doing the work, no thought about ‘career’. We were taught art history by the composer Gavin Bryars. He would introduce us one week to Charles Ives, another to Duchamp, to Alfred Jarry. One of his key lectures was on The Black Mountain College. What was important about that was it was interdisciplinary. You had musicians there, you had poets, you had loads of visual artists there, you had photographers there. That whole thing was a different grounding for me. All of that affected me.

That and my film studies option which ended up sitting each week in a dark room with a 16mm projector watching experimental, “underground” films loaned by the London Film Co-op, Peter Kubelka, early Brackage, quirky people like Harry Smith (who had compiled the wonderful ‘Anthology of American Music’), even Robert Frank films.

What led you to make your first photobook?

Brian Perks – my friend who did art – he used to collect stuff. This was when I was in the 6th form. Brian could draw like a photograph – he’d draw his heroes and you’d swear they were photographs. He did these pictures like cigarette cards of footballers or film stars and he put them in a handmade book. 

I’d been making collages and I liked found photos and I had the idea of sequencing some of these in books. I put text underneath, using Letraset. I made three or four of these books, which my bookbinder friend Pete had bound. And I was always into music and I had this song in my head, Full Time Woman. Anyway, one day I wanted to make a story about this song. I was looking for pictures to go with the words but couldn’t find any, so I thought of taking them myself. Using my mum’s friend, Jean Kingston – she’d come round once or twice a week and share half a bottle of draught sherry with my mother - she agreed to pose for these photographs, with Mr. Kingston. Mr. Kingston was a ‘no – nonsense’ bloke. And I thought they’d just be good subjects for these photographs. We never had a camera in the family. In order to shoot them I had to borrow a Polaroid camera. They even let me photograph them in bed together. I stuck the pictures in one of Pete’s books, you know, with Letraset words underneath. Years later when Mr. Kingston died I gave the book to Mrs. Kingston. I saw her for the last time in 2003, at my mum’s funeral. I asked her if I could borrow the book but she said she’d thrown it out years ago. She hadn’t thought much of it. So that was my first photo-book.

The first “proper” book was Happy Snaps. I worked in Butlins in Ayr, Scotland, April to September 1977, after Art School. I photographed babies and kids in the afternoons and in the evening I photographed people in bars, often when they were drunk. The people would buy copies of the photographs and I always bought two copies for myself of the best ones. I used a selection of these to make the book. When later I applied for a job in the Art department at Liverpool Polytechnic, 1978 I took this book along to the interview. The head of painting, Colin Finn, liked it and bought it from me for £10.

So has he still got it?

I don’t know – I’ve rung him a couple of times about it but he hasn’t answered!
A few of those pictures have been used in Photieman and Men and Women. Only now have I seriously considered trying to find it, prompted by our earlier discussion!

How do you feel about showing your work in a photobook? Are photobooks an essential part of organising and making sense of your work? 

It forces you to take all that material and see what you’re trying to say. 
Don DeLillo said the act of writing takes him to another level of concentration he wouldn’t otherwise reach. Making photobooks is a different act from taking the pictures or selecting the pictures. The aim is a book / work which will stand up on it’s own merits.

You say you have no agenda with your work. What do you mean by this? 

That art has got no agenda for me – my understanding was that it was all about doing the work. What interests me is learning. I always quote Lisette Model who 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 to me, and I am the one who gets the lesson.” 

And likewise, DeLillo said, “I don’t know what I think about certain subjects, even today, until I sit down and try to write about them”. 

I‘m interested in the complexity of sight...not knowing how the pictures will turn out. What excites me is how they work photographically, as pictures, irrespective of what’s in them. A good picture has a life of its own…. you don’t call a poet who writes about real life a documentary poet.

What is the essential difference do you think between living where you work /observe / photograph and temporarily visiting a place that becomes your subject?

When I moved to North Wales I photographed where I could get to easily by walking, cycling or on the bus. There’s a Welsh word – ‘Cynefin’ – which loosely means ‘your surroundings’, ‘where you know. I was pleased when I heard sheep have a ‘Cynefin’ – they know where not to stray beyond on the hillside. I like another description of it as ‘multiple pasts of which we can only be partly aware…’ and ‘knowledge, or sense of place that is passed down through generations’. I also like that it can refer to ‘fleeting moments in time’. 

That’s how I photographed Merseyside. The same circuit all the time, with variations on it. It was the same in Ireland. I just photographed around the family farm. I don’t believe you have to know a place to photograph it. You can’t tell necessarily how well someone knows it from a photograph.

I’m interested in the fact that you work daily on photographing people that you don’t know, but you sort of become familiar by inhabiting the same place. How does that work it’s way into your images?

[With Merseyside] I was definitely part of the landscape. So you get to know a lot of people by sight. There’s a sense of being stared at, unconsciously…I would go to the women’s market and the women aren’t dressed up because it’s out of town and it’s all women. And I never asked their permission… but because I’m there every Saturday for years and years they knew who I was. I sensed they knew what I was doing. If you are doing it properly you lose your self-consciousness. Even on the hillside in Ireland you might meet a farmer, have a conversation and that stays with you and informs your next pictures. In Liverpool you can’t help respond to the material that’s there. All that has meaning and it affects you.
You have a body of work that spans 40 years and rather than photographing a ‘set piece’ you have a diaristic approach, recording daily. What is it like seeing the patterns when you stand back? How does it feel when curators / editors find those patterns without you?
The ideas evolve through the working process. I’m exploring the subject, not imposing my own ideas. In terms of books, the artist Pádraig Timoney - when I found him - freed me up enormously. We worked on Photieman first, over a couple of years, themed loosely about boy-girl and time passing. But we had too many pictures of women. So, we were saving up these extra pictures for a book on Women. I mentioned this to Gerhard Steidl, and next time I saw him six months later he said: “Where’s this Women book?” So eventually Pádraig and I finished it [the book]. 

Then Martin [Parr] came to my house and saw it. Typically, being Martin, he said we should turn the book upside down and put all my Men pictures (shipyard, football etc) at the back. But I was always years behind and it took nearly two years to go through all the contact sheets. By this time Pádraig had moved to Naples, so I sent him a couple of thousand pictures and he made the Men book on his own. His layout - that was a surprise to me… all the connections, the way he’d done it. He works with the sequence on the floor, right around the studio walls and a big pile of unused / possible prints in the centre of the room - very different to making a book on the computer. 

He’s got a great eye. I connected with Pádraig. When I saw the juxtapositions – there were some great combinations. To make that many pictures hang together - it’s difficult to do!

From Photie Man, published 2005


How can / does a photobook shape external / internal perception of people and place? For example, how we look at Merseyside through your photographs. 

The photographer has a responsibility to their subject. I was content just to photograph. I was not trying to make a career of it - it’s a return thing. If I was nobody, just doing it, it seemed equal. Now that works completed many of the pictures were made 20 – 30 years ago…. 

At the same time it’s not just “my pictures of Merseyside”. The photograph has a life of itself. People are giving something of themselves to the picture. So on one level it’s their picture. I’m just glad I did it.

‘Not having an aim’ – your approach - is quite different to the way in which many others work using photography, i.e. exploring one subject until reaching ‘an end’. I would love to know how, especially in the earlier part of your career, you found support and points of connection for this way of working. 

Looking for Love, Photographs from Chelsea Reach Nightclub,
New Brighton, Merseyside. 
Published 1989

Paddy Summerfield, who I’d met on my Foundation course, sent me to see Peter Turner (editor) at Creative Camera. It was subsidized by Colin Osman’s publishing house Coo Press, and they had offices in Doughty Street. They had a little bookshop there. They would allow me to sit there all day and look at books. There was nowhere else in Britain then to see photography books. So whenever I was there I felt I should buy something as I’d sat there all day. One day I wanted to get Robert Franks’ (Japanese edition I think) Lines of My Hand, but it was too expensive, so I bought Friedlander’s original Self PortraitThere were many books I wanted but mostly couldn’t afford them. 

It was Colin’s wife Grace who ran the bookshop and she was always helpful with suggestions, bringing in her own books that weren’t there. Later I was after Ed van der Elsken’s Sweet Life and it was her who found me a second hand copy.

Pete Turner also wrote to Sue Davies the first Director of the Photographers’ Gallery, but I was too unsure and I didn’t follow it up. So after that I just carried on working for years, without any particular connection or help. I met Martin in about 1980 and that was important to me. Since then he has always been supportive. It was Martin who introduced me to Chris Killip. So I travelled up to near Newcastle to see him and I didn’t know what to take so I brought a suitcase full of pictures – nightclub pictures, my early bus work prints, and Chris said virtually nothing about the work until he saw the bus ones. He in turn sent me to Robert Delpire, in Paris. But I still couldn’t get the bus work published or exhibited at that time. I had applied for grants before and got nowhere. 

In 1986 I had shown some of the nightclub images in Manchester. John Davies saw these and recommended the pictures to Dewi Lewis, who had just set up Cornerhouse Publications. And in 1988 ‘Looking for Love’ was published (I thanked Paddy Summerfield in the credits).*

Going back to the bus work, I had met Lee Friedlander in 1992 and he was very enthusiastic about the pictures. Eventually I sent him an early dummy book of the work and he wrote a great letter of support for me to the Arts Council and I got the money to publish All Zones off Peak. He introduced me to Mark Holborn, who had been an editor at Aperture, but had also worked on books with Friedlander and Eggleston. He did the layout for All Zones using colour photocopies concertinaed together. The layout was a slightly larger format and importantly the images went nearer to the edge of the page and overall the ‘dummy’ was more ‘in your face ‘ and worked better than the scaled down public version. He also brought my photographs to New York to show them to Robert Frank, the Museum of Modern Art, the ICP and all sorts of things happened because of that. Even so, All Zones Off Peak wasn’t published until 1998.

From All Zones Off Peak. Published 1998

How do you feel then looking back at your pictures, with the sense of time having passed?

Yes and no. Much of the “old work” is still ongoing!

Where do you keep all this stuff?

Ha! If you’re ever in North Wales come and have a visit…..

Want to see more? View Tom Wood Photobooks in our shop >>

You can also view this interview on the Photobook Bristol website 

Biography: Tom Wood was born 1951 in rural West of Ireland. He studied Fine Art Painting at Leicester Polytechnic (1973-76) and moved to New Brighton, near Liverpool, in 1978 where he became known locally as “Photieman,” as he was always on the street with a camera. For the next 25 years he photographed life on Merseyside including nightclubs, football supporters, hospitals, the river, the docks and public transport.  

He moved to North Wales in 2003 to continue a long-term exploration of landscape that began in Ireland in the 1970s. 

He has been awarded the “Prix Dialogue de l’Humanite”, Recontres d’Arles, 2002 and was recently the subject of BBC4 documentary What do artists do all day?

His work has been exhibited and published widely. Solo shows include: Tom Wood – Landscapes, Mostyn Gallery, Llandudno and Ffotogallery, Cardiff; Tom Wood: Photographs 1973-2013, National Media Museum, Bradford; Men and Women, Thomas Erben Gallery, New Yorkand The Photographers’ Gallery, London. Photobooks include Men and Women, Steidl Verlag, Göttingen (2 vols); All Zones off Peak, Dewi Lewis Publishing, Stockport, UK and Looking for Love, Cornerhouse, Manchester and Aperture, New York.

He also has forthcoming books in 2015/16: Landscapes (3 vols), Steidl Verlag, Göttingen and The DPA Work (Rainhill Hospital, Cammell Laird Shipyard) Steidl Verlag, Göttingen (2 vols) as well as a Special Edition of Looking for Looking for Love, Sorika, London.

Editors note: 
* Summerfield’s own book Mother and Father was published coincidentally by Dewi Lewis in 2014. 


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