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Tom Wood, "Double grope leg over" (1985)
Tom Wood, "Double grope leg over" (1985)Photography Tom Wood

‘It’s deeper than curiosity’: Tom Wood on how to photograph your community

To coincide with the opening of his major retrospective Tom Wood: Photie Man, the revered documentary photographer shares some of the wisdom he’s accumulated over the last five decades

Tom Wood is a photographer who has dedicated his creative life to chronicling the world around him with prolific devotion. His portraits of everyday life in working-class Merseyside, dating from the 1970s to the present day, are taken with manifest tenderness, sympathy and respect. And it’s a testament to the mutuality of that love – and the familiarity of the sight of Wood and his ever-present camera – that he became so widely known among his community as “Photie Man”. 

Photie Man: 50 Years of Tom Wood is a retrospective of the renowned photographer’s work now running at the Walker Gallery in his hometown of Liverpool. Surveying over half a century’s work, the expansive exhibition takes in some of Wood’s best-loved photographs – including his images of the nightlife New Brighton’s Chelsea Reach nightclub – to lesser-known studies of Liverpool’s two famed football grounds, and never-before-seen work on a variety of formats.

Below, we talk to the prodigious documentary photographer about what he’s learned over the last 50 years of taking pictures. From retaining an insatiable curiosity about your subject matter to integrating your process into the fabric of your life, Wood shares his advice on creating poignant and radiantly authentic portraits of your world and your community. 


“There‘s this James Joyce quote about experiencing the moment while, at the same time, the very experience becoming the work. Even when I was with the kids, I was at work. I was filming them all the time. So it’s both things – I’m really, really close to them and I’m spending time with them but, at the same time, I’m making video material.

“What’s interesting about this show is that two big rooms within the gallery are showing video. This is 700 hours of stuff being dipped into by my son, Ciarán, who is really, really good at video editing and he does the installations. I’ve filmed him and his brother since they were born, so for him to be editing it is amazing. And I’ve got two nieces who studied film and they’ve helped with editing as well. So that’s a really big part of the show, really.”


“The best analogy is Neil Young’s music. He said something like, because nowadays he records everything he does, when he wants to go and record an album, it's no big deal. Because he’s recording everything all the time, he’s kind of in the flow all the time. Whereas if you only do it occasionally – for me, anyway – you can be more self-conscious and it's like a decision to go out and photograph. If you’ve already got your camera in your hand and you do it all the time, it’s easy.”


“We began the process of trying to photograph every negative I’ve made. We got through nine years’ worth and it’s 180,000. If we do the full 50 years, that’s a million. And then on top of that, it doesn’t include all the medium format work.”

“The loft is massive. A publisher I know 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.”


“I love physical prints. 98 per cent of Photie Man is analogue. Even though it’s really hard to do, even the really big colour prints are done in the darkroom with the enlarger on its side projecting onto the wall – not just because we believe in the idea of it, but because they’ve got something about them. So when you see one of the big panoramas, you can walk along it. They really have a sense of presence. 

“And then the black and white prints are staggering. You have to see them to believe. They have a big emotional effect… the blacks are deeper, the details are enhanced, they just engage you more.”


“Every time I take a photograph, I’m asking a question. I don't know how it’s going to turn out. And if I knew how it would turn out, I wouldn’t be interested in exploring life with my camera. So the way I work is, I try to get the most chance of surprise. It’s deeper than curiosity. 

“A lot of people relate to my work, but it's almost nothing to do with me when you have a subject matter that is so generous in terms of allowing me to see things as they happen. So I try to work in as free a way as I can, to allow stuff to happen. There’s a quote by the photographer from the 50s, Lisette Model, which I’ve shared with you before. 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.’”


There’s a poem by an Irish writer called Patrick Kavanagh called ‘The Hospital’ and I related to the line, ‘Snatch out of time the passionate transitory.’ For me, that's one of the things that a photo has got to have... on the one hand, you're catching this thing – time – but you have got to really feel it, that’s the thing, right? You have to feel it – that’s the passion. And the transitory is life itself.”

Photie Man: 50 Years of Tom Wood is running at the Walker Gallery in Liverpool until January 7 2024. 

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