Tom Wood “Men & Women” at the Photographers’ Gallery

Tom Wood is probably the photographer that virtually everyone who styles themselves a street photographer believes themselves to be. For the past four decades he has been out with his camera in the badlands of Liverpool and Merseyside. His work takes the British documentary tradition and turns into something rarely seen: something that is both warm to its subjects and challenging to their surroundings. He nearly always seeks permission, never sells images for advertising and has said that he feels a responsibility to those whose photos he has taken. In short there is a remorseless need to take photos, an almost monomaniacal focus on a single location and a rare integrity. Like I say, every street photographer wants to be him, even if they don’t know his name.

Remarkably, this is Tom Wood’s first major solo show in the UK. There are 50 previously unpublished prints on display drawn from material from Wood’s now out of print books, the most famous of which is probably All Zones Off Peak which, as the title suggests was mostly shot from and around Liverpool’s buses. A budget ticket then, now a copy of the book will set you back a couple of hundred quid. Even Tom Wood who celebrates the working class finds that his work will not be within their reach. And it will be Steidl who publish the two books (“Men” and “Women” presumably) to follow this exhibition so they won’t be cheap. Thankfully, this exhibition at least is free.

Alongside the 50 prints on the wall are ‘vintage’ prints from around the time the books were put together. They too cover the forty years of Wood’s working life. Before you look at the content they remind you of nothing so much as the snaps you used to get back from Boots. But that is Wood’s strength revealed again: the prosaic revealed to be incredible. Men on their way to the match look both confrontational and lost, an estate pub slightly blurred as the bus goes past – a lone man standing outside, women trying to look strong and confident and older people looking back less with regret than with defiance. One of the images that struck me was one of those vintage prints – an old couple in a cafe look up and try to look comfortable for the camera and as they do so they hold hands across the table, almost hidden but actually central to what’s being said.

Without wishing to gush too much it’s my opinion that virtually every single picture on the wall is nudging classic status. That contract that Wood perceives between photographer and subject means that there is little of the discomfort that the viewer might feel when alighting upon a Martin Parr but nor, thankfully, is there the cloying sentimentality with which some recorders of the working class envelope their subjects. I also like that Wood gives his pictures decent titles rather than just place & date (or worse, “Untitled #74, 2005”). A photo like “Three Wise Women” would be enjoyable enough without the title but the three women striding across the frame are given an extra layer of thinkaboutit by being so named. I also like that Wood called it his favourite shot in the Guardian rather than choosing something more obscure from his repertoire.

It may only occupy a single room but there is so much here for the visitor to mull over and take away. Stop reading this and go.

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