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Tom Wood, “Not Miss New Brighton” [1978-79]
Tom Wood, “Not Miss New Brighton”, Mothers, Daughters, Sisters [1978-79]. Analog chromogenic print (C-type), 43.2 x 43.2 cm© Tom Wood

Tom Wood’s arresting photographs of 80s Britain

The prolific photographer’s latest exhibition takes a new look at his vast archive

“There’s a quote by the photographer Lisette Model which I’ve returned to my whole life,” says Tom Wood. “It goes, ‘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.’”

Wood has spent his working life creating images from which profound lessons emerge. Camera in hand, he is a conduit for endless configurations of stories as they unfold around him, told through the millions of living moments preserved in his portraits as vividly as the second the shutter closed on his camera. “You can look at this image of, say, a mother and daughter who are no longer alive, but they’re still alive in that picture,” he explains in a conversation over Zoom. “That was a key thing for me when thinking about what makes a really good picture… something that you can look at over and over again, you know?”

Walking the streets of Liverpool with his ever-present camera, Wood’s work is a testament to his love for the city and its people. As the “ill wind” of Thatcher’s Britain and its harsh legacy blew a gale, capsizing lives in its wake, Wood’s pictures form a rich portrait of the times and, while he treats his subjects with dignity, he never aestheticises their hardships. From the terraces of Anfield and the top deck of the bus, to the Saturday markets, the streets, the nightclubs and the doomed shipyards, Wood’s images distil the struggles, tenderness, camaraderie and chaos of the world around him. He photographed the realities of austerity not as a voyeur, but as an ever-present comrade. He says, “I would say I’m exploring life, rather than being a documentarian.”

Every Day Is Saturday is the new exhibition in the Mougins Center of Photography which encompasses several bodies of work from his time living in Liverpool and travelling around the city by bus on photography odysseys. Liverpool is key to this whole thing – that city and everything it represents as subject matter,” Wood explains. “I get off the bus, and suddenly it's like, I just want to photograph. I’m feeding off the energy of the place and the people. That’s really important.”

“I would say I’m exploring life, rather than being a documentarian” – Tom Wood 

Having been prolifically photographing for several decades, his archive is vast. He attempts to give me an impression of its scale by describing the double loft space, various rooms, floor-to-ceiling shelves and plan chests in his house all occupied by negatives and prints but still probably fails to do it justice. “The loft is massive,” he emphasises. “A publisher I know came a few months ago and went up there and had a look through. He reckoned there were maybe 14 major bodies of work up there, each of which could be a book.”

For this new exhibition, curators Jérôme Sother and François Cheval insisted on a deep dive of this colossal archive. “They were pretty intense,” Wood says. “They spent two or three days, like 10 hours a day. They wanted to see every picture in every box. I was trying to show them digital stuff but they were saying, “No, no we want to see the prints.” So that’s how it began, it was like this massive selection, and then edited down, edited down, discussing between themselves.”

Despite the enormity of his contribution to photography, it wasn’t his first ambition. Wood explains how he ended up taking pictures: “I did painting originally. It was a degree in fine arts and I had to choose an academic subject, so I did film studies. Although we studied European art cinema and Hollywood, the guy who was teaching us really was into underground cinema, avant-garde stuff, films you think you could just as well make yourself. I bought an 8mm camera and start making little films, that’s all I really wanted to do. I thought I’d just do photography for a little while.”

While his early interest in painting accounts for his extraordinary sense of composition and colour, there is another more amorphous dimension Wood attempts to capture in his work. “I’m exploring my medium and how pictures work and that’s really interesting,” he reflects. “But often in a really good portrait, the presence [of the subject] lives on, it comes alive. I would always judge my own pictures that way.”

Seeking that elusive dimension in his work continues to galvanize his practice. While he no longer lives in Liverpool – a source of such profound inspiration and the subject celebrated in Every Day is Saturday – he remains as prolific and voracious as ever, continually marvelling at the world around him. “I’ve got 50 years of dog pictures alone,” he reveals, allowing a further glimpse of his insatiable delight in taking pictures. “I’ve photographed all our dogs we’ve had, and stray dogs too. I photograph our current dog for an hour every night, maybe more. I’m on my hands and knees following him around, wherever he’s going. And they’re really funny pictures. Our previous dog was a much more cultured, intelligent dog – a real lady. So she made different kinds of pictures. That’s another book.” 

Tom Wood’s Every Day Is Saturday is running at Mougins Center of Photography in France until October 16, 2022