PHOTOGRAPHER Tom Wood, whose stark and evocative pictures of Merseyside in the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s are collected in this beautiful book 101 Pictures, was known locally as “The photie man”– also the title of a 2005 book of his photos. That he was so affectionately named, and accepted, to photograph so much of Liverpool life, not always at its coiffed and sun-bedded best- is testament to the trust and complicity that informs a good photographer and subject relationship.
Whether it’s the lads on tea-break in a backroom decorated with Page 3 dollybirds, or two women, make-up less and heads covered in curlers, getting ready for a night out, these Merseysiders are happy for Wood to have all of them, good and bad, dressed to the nines or in highly flammable leisurewear.
Here he chronicles the ages of Scouse innocence and experience with portraits awash with fags and hairspray. You can almost smell the Elnet and Players waft off the pages. There is milky tea with bread and marg; teenagers with babies; nightclub chancers grabbing white skirted arses, burger vans, bust ups and broken dreams. All life, and complexions are here, from the alabaster, Titian face of a young girl clutching a baby, to the spotty, boil ridden neck of a lad in a club.
Wood brilliantly captures the blink and you’ll miss it details of people in cafes and markets, on buses and ferries, in workplace staff rooms and fag strewn carpeted pubs. Every picture captures the essence of the moment, but with hints of what came before, and what will come after. There is stillness in movement, the breathy fog of the inside of a bus in the rain hanging heavily as Wood’s subjects stare out the window, at other people on other buses, the way we do.
But what he is best at, is spotting and catching the individual touches that make a group of, on the surface, identikit tribes, into unique individuals who happen to look a bit the same. The portrait of a line of elderly women seated on a ferry, is a study in both the sameness of women of certain age, and individual expression. All of the women are sporting immaculately curled white hair, big buttoned raincoats and oversized handbags or carry bags but there are small individual touches that make this uniform look, somehow, NOT uniform, not predictable.
Overleaf are two young couples on the top deck of a ferry: one couple is locked in a passionate embrace, the other, perhaps coming up for air. The following photo of three fag smoking Bananarama style girls exhaling in the direction of large, middle aged woman clutching a Sainsburys bag in one hand and a donated (by the girls) fag in the other, has the ubiquitous cigarette as the communal, almost communion-style experience. Though we are many, we all puff from the same ciggie. So it was, before the vape.
And though the photographs of the youth of those days are very much of their time (though the shell-suit count is pretty low, I feel that Wood maybe studiously avoided having too many for fear of perpetuating stereotypes), it is the slices of end of life at the care home that really capture the slow drip of real time for people in their 80s, in the ‘80s.
There are so many narrative possibilities in the photo entitled, “I’ll do your hair and get you looking nice,” as a frail woman reclining on a mobility device in the lounge of a nursing home is tended to by a care home assistant, while slight men in sturdy chairs doze or look on, all seemingly oblivious to the skeletal man curled up, foetal style, on the floor. It feels neither exploitative nor voyeuristic, but a moment of truth at that certain stage of life, that hovers on the precipice of death.
Not every photograph makes for comfortable viewing, but Wood never strays into the terrain of, say, poverty porn, that informed the style of Richard Billingham in his portraits of his parents in Ray’s A Laugh. However, if you are looking for reference points, Billingham is somewhere in there, but less so than Martin Parr, who selected these photos from thousands, and supplied the forward (which comes after the pictures, but it reads like a forward), though- and I can’t emphasise this enough – Wood is in class of his own. Sure, his photo of sisters, not identical, but as good as, are a nod to Arbus, but this is without the freakery of Arbus.
If you have any connection to Merseyside, this book is a must have. If you have no connection to Merseyside, this is a ground-breaking photography book by an undeniably great talent of 20th century images.
by Michele Kirsch
101 Pictures Tom Wood (RRB Photos)
You can buy the book here