Dedicated to the City

Tom Wood (b. 1951) is affectionately known as the “Photie Man” across Merseyside. The Irish-born artist has certainly earned this title; it’s the result of 50 years dedicated to photographing everyday life and culture in Liverpool. Match days at Anfield, New Brighton’s seaside frolics and afternoons on Pier Head are all scenes to be found in Wood’s oeuvre. Now, the artist’s first UK retrospective opens at Walker Art Gallery. Photie Man: 50 Years of Tom Wood offers multi-layered portrait of the city and its inhabitants at a time of social and political change. The 1980s was a decade defined by economic crisis: factory closures and rising unemployment rates had a huge impact on the population. From 1990, the city’s revival began.

The retrospective features some of Wood’s most iconic photographs from this time period, including those from Looking for Love (1989) – a portrait of New Brighton’s Chelsea Reach nightclub – and the well-known bus pictures of All Zones Off Peak (1998). These appear alongside rarely shown works from the Cammell Laird shipyard and around Liverpool’s two celebrated football grounds. Notably, Wood has dedicated the exhibition to the people and places of the city in which he spent so much time. “I didn’t want a show for myself or my career, but rather to give the work back to the city where it belongs,” he explains. “The energy of Liverpool and its people has informed all this work – it was everywhere I went, everywhere I looked. All I was doing was tapping into that. It has been a real labour of love.”

Today, photography is a well-established fine art form, but this wasn’t always the case. In the 1970s, Wood trained as a painter, moving on to experimental film, ‘found’ postcards and, eventually, lens-based image-making. Wood is self-taught and, as such, displays an open and unrestricted approach to framing and subject matter, shooting quickly yet precisely. Chance encounters become striking portraits, like Rachel, aged 17, whose bright red dress stands out against a duck egg blue wall. Wood works daily on an unfolding, diary-like recording of his observations and encounters, often returning to the same locations again.

Wood’s approach seems to sit somewhere between Martin Parr’s (b. 1952) humour and Chris Killip’s (b. 1946) social realism, capturing both joy and struggle in late-20th century Britain. Right now, this is being echoed by a new generation of creatives grappling with similar subjects, at another moment of upheaval. Jamie Hawkesworth (b. 1987), for example, broke through with the project Preston Bus Station by recording those passing through a condemned transport hub in Lancashire. Elsewhere, Hannah Starkey (b. 1971) is well-known for her staged images of women within the city, making us think about how female-identifying individuals are depicted in visual culture. Walker Art Gallery’s retrospective comes as myriad questions are being asked of documentary in a digital world. It will be interesting to see where the genre takes us next.

Photie Man: 50 Years of Tom Wood | 20 May – 7 January

Image Credits:
1. Tom Wood, Couple with new baby, Sefton Park, 1980.
2. Tom Wood, Rachel, age 17, 1985.