In 1986, Open Eye Gallery showed The Last Resort, a collection of images made in New Brighton by Tom Wood and Martin Parr. While Parr went on to travel far and wide in pursuit of great photographs, Wood searched in the details of his own life and locally, to build a substantial body of work.  2012 marked an important year for the wider photography community to re-assess the significant contributions that have been made by Tom Wood, with a major (and highly praised) solo show at The Photographers’ Gallery (UK) that ran through January 6, 2013 and then travelled to the National Media Museum (UK), and two forthcoming books from major publisher, Steidl.
Joel Meyerowitz has said of Wood’s substantial body of work, “Tom has been a favorite of mine for a long time, someone who pushed the limits in a way that I really appreciate.” And his influence is palpable among various young British photographers fortunate to study with him as a result of his extensive teaching work within the UK.
Before the private view for his latest show began, Sara T’Rula (S) spent some time with Tom (T) and Janice (J) from The Photographers’ Gallery as they walked around the show.
S: Tom, you’ve made video work alongside your photographic work – why? Does it offer you something different? And why isn’t there video in the show?
T: Two of the people in the show, I made video portraits of because they were interesting in different ways. One lady had the foulest language you’ve ever heard from Birkenhead. She used archaic swear words. The first time she had nine cats in this place, and you couldn’t photograph them. When I went back there was only one cat, and she was on her best behavior and didn’t swear. The cats were all gone. There was only one cat in the place. But even so, you hear the chiming of a little clock and the room is amazing. And the actual photograph was taken on a 10×8” camera. But on video it’s a different piece, so that’s interesting isn’t it?
And there was an old guy called Frankie who is framed (for this show) but he’s not on the wall now. He’s got a house full of mannequins and he just goes to this one who’s sitting in a bed and starts talking to me. He is really funny though you wouldn’t know it from this picture. And as he sits down he kind of almost falls over on the chair and he knocks her wig off, and then has to put it back on. Then he says something funny about spoiling the illusion, you know? So that’s really good, a different thing, that would change the feel of the show.
S: So do you do that a lot then? Go back and video the same people that you’ve photographed?
T: Yeah. But I video my own kids every day. I looked after them when my wife went back to work. So if I was trying to photograph, look at contact sheets, or be in the darkroom, they’d be pulling at my leg trying to get my attention. Whereas if they were playing and I was videoing them, they knew I was paying attention to them. So I just videoed them every day.  I’d wake them up in the morning, open the curtains and video the park. I would video my son as he got up and then we would play and stuff. Yeah I’d video that, and all through their life until they left home.
J: They never said, “Stop. That’s enough”? Like Sally Mann’s kids?
T: Nope. Oh yeah, when they were teenagers, yeah. That’s okay. But the oldest boy, Keiron, he went to Goldsmiths and did fine art and ended up making little films so, of course he doesn’t mind. And the 18 year old, whenever it’s been on the telly, you can’t take him away because it’s interesting stuff. And I always try to edit it in-camera.

S: A lot of candid photography, street photography and so on, tends to get a mixed response from the public. Some people really love it and see it as vital while others find it somehow exploitative. Does the response people have to your work ever bother you?
T: If I read all those comments and stuff I’d just be sick. I never wanted any notoriety or anyone to see this stuff, so for me to stand up and start talking about it is like a contradiction. Just to photograph in Liverpool alone is difficult enough. I was artist-in-residence in a pub for a year and what am I going to do with that footage? We did show it in London, at Museum 52, but I wouldn’t show it in the Bluecoat. It depends. Looking For Love was shown in the Bluecoat and they had a thousand people a day going into the gallery. For Liverpool, that’s incredible. Normally they wouldn’t have a thousand going in there every day. And there wasn’t a single bad comment in the comments book in Liverpool. The bus series was on at The Bluecoat and at the Open Eye, and there wasn’t a single bad comment in either book.
J: And you’re sure there were people from the book coming in to see the show?
T: Of course! They’d say, “we thought you were a perv”, and “remind me never to smile again.” But when it was on here, at The Photographers’ Gallery, at the old place -Great Newport Street, do you remember it? They showed the work there, and there were all kinds of bad comments from people in London. You can see it there in the book. We used some comments in the book, which are mimicking what was like people wrote on toilet walls and stuff. I was copying the toilet walls from the Chelsea Reach. But in Liverpool there wasn’t a bad comment. In fact, Looking For Love was in every hairdresser in Merseyside for years, until they all got stolen.
J: Was it because everyone wanted the hairstyle?
T: No just because everyone was interested. Women and girls went into hairdressers and they found it interesting to read.
S: Do you still photograph in Liverpool at all, Tom? Or do you mainly photograph in Wales now?
T: I mainly photograph clouds and sheep and things that don’t mind me photographing them. But wherever I am I’ll take pictures. I was in Liverpool for the Biennial so I took pictures there. And because I came here (TPG) I went to the opening of the thing at the Tate. And of course there was William Klein there, so I took his picture loads and loads of times. And just now, when they all fell out of the Sony building, all these nationalities together in front me, I just took 100 pictures outside. And on the train, I took pictures of the landscape from the train, and the lady opposite me on the train.
J: You’re shooting from the hip?
T: No. From the shoulder. Not the hip. The hip is a different angle of view, and I don’t tend to like that angle.
S: Since you shoot video as well as stills frequently, can I ask what you think of the new M camera that has video as well as stills capability?
T: I’ve never seen it, but I have a little camera that’s got HD video on it. It doesn’t have steadyshot, but it’s still really good quality.
S: But you find it useful to be able to shoot both on the same camera?
T: Yeah! Absolutely! If this M9 had video that would be really useful. Would they do me a swap?
S: Can you tell us a bit about your Leica? Every time I see you, you’re carrying it, and I know you’ve had it for quite a while! What’s the story to it, Tom?
T: Well, in the beginning, I did portraits. They were the first pictures I did, with a Rolleicord.  A German camera. And I was very shy and I asked people’s permission. And then I bought a little camera called an Olympus ECR, which was 35mm, automatic with a rangefinder.
S: Similar to a Trip?
T: Yeah, but better. More sophisticated. And my earliest kind of candid pictures were with that. And then later when I was at art school I bought an Olympus OM1, because they’d just come out and they were small. I used that for a while and then I got a job working for the Liverpool Playhouse, photographing the plays. When you see all those big pictures on the wall in the foyer, I made them, and put all those big prints up. And that was an exciting time, because Alan Bleasedale was there, at the same time as Willy Russell, and the guy who did Sweeney Todd. All those directors there all at once was really good. So I learned lessons about photographing people on the stage, but I couldn’t get on the stage. And I started doing other theatres too. There was the Century Theatre in Cheswick, and I was hanging around because I don’t drive, and I had to wait about two hours for my train and my bus. And there was a little chemist that sold cameras, as they used to do. And they had a second hand Leica M2. I didn’t know anything about these cameras, but I’d heard of Leica. And I just shot 7 rolls, or 9 rolls at this theatre, and I picked up this Leica and looked through it. The viewfinder was so good. It’s a wonderful viewfinder. I clicked it, and it was like virtually silent. And the lens was just beautiful, a little 35mm one, it was better than this M 35 f/2 Summicron. And it was £325 so I bought it there and then, because I got paid virtually that for the job. And since I had that Leica, that was it. I learned to do candid pictures.
S: What year was that?
T: I don’t know. 1981 maybe. The numbers on the top added up to my age at the time, and I was 31. I’m 61 now, so this is 30 years ago.

S: Tell us the story of using the Leica as a defensive weapon on the street?
T: No, I’ve never done that! Honestly, I haven’t! I said it’s strong enough, that if someone comes it can protect you. It’s solid brass, and we’ve heard all the stories of Cartier-Bresson tying the camera to his wrist and taking pictures and some guys coming out and him swirling around to disappear into the crowd. But I’ve never done that. Although I was mugged once coming back from the Chelsea Reach.
I worked in this nightclub, photographing, and you’ve got this dilemma: have you got the right to take a picture of somebody? And only once did the girls get upset. It was in a really dark corner. And I’d photographed these girls in the past, and it was fine then, but this was a dark corner, and there were some dodgy looking guys around. Anyways, they were in this corner, I was photographing and I couldn’t really see what I was doing and this girl turned around and slapped me really hard in the face. I apologized, and just went up got my bag and went home.
And then I saw the print, and on the print you can actually see there are tears coming out of her eyes, so she was actually crying when I photographed her. You can’t blame her for slapping me on the face.
And then, not long after that, and I’d been doing this (photographing in Chelsea Reach) for about two or three years. Walking home on a really cold night, and I had my camera bag and all the rest, and two guys were following me. And I went up this dark street, and I went left, and had to cut through the park. And I should have put my camera bag over a wall and just ran, but I didn’t. I went into the park and then ran. They chased me and they caught me around the edge of the park where my road is. One guy grabbed me and slapped me around the head, and I had a woolen Donnegal tweed bobble hat on, very lovely hat, and it came off. Anyway, I turned around, and I recognized him. I’d photographed him when I was young! I said, “Oh, I know you! What are you doing?” and I hit him! And the other guy’s hung back. And then I just ran down the road, went into the house and got my brass tripod and the dog, and ran back up the hill to the park. And they were gone, and the hat was gone, too.
S: Who worked on this exhibition for The Photographers’ Gallery? Because I know you work closely with the artist, Padraig Timoney, in sequencing your books, but you’ve mentioned working with a curator here. I’m curious as to how the images have been paired.
T: Yeah, initially, the reason they’re framed the way they are is because we were mimicking the book. So in the book, because it’s that portrait way, you have a lot on top and bottom, and then allow space for double pages. This one might have been a double page in the book. And if it’s a vertical, it’s bigger, because it fits in the frame better. And within the book, it’s really carefully sequenced. Padraig worked in a studio in Naples then, and had all the pictures around. Ever come across Will Kerwin?
S: No, I haven’t.
T: He is a Liverpool photographer. He went to visit once and he said Padraig used to get up in the morning, do a roll up and a cup of coffee and just wander around. He would pick up a picture and move it somewhere else in the sequence, go to his big pile of ones that are not used, and bring that. And he did that for like over a year, working out this really complex sequence. And often, there were pairs of pictures together.

S: Yeah, I’m thinking of the baby and the window….
Tom: It’s easy to explain. It’s obvious why these ones are together, isn’t it? The color. The blue and the red is like, straight away. And maybe this guy looks a bit disturbed; I don’t know what do you think? But I thought he was at the time. And then my son, Rory, he’s in a huff. He used to sit in the vestibule. So there was a kind of mood thing. But in the book this is smaller in terms of how you put pictures together. So it was smaller in the book, and he was smaller. And we should have framed it like that on this, but we didn’t, we forgot. And it looks like he’s been thrown through that glass and landed there because they’re next to each other in the book. Now, when we hung this originally, we had the doubles closer, we had them only a finger apart. Here they’ve put them wider apart, so maybe it’s not so obvious. But the doubles come from the book.
There is another one, which I thought was great. So what working with Padraig meant is I wouldn’t do that. It is his visual eye that’s able to do that, after looking at them over a long period. So it’s not just one good picture, and another one. The two together is something else all together. And the fact that this is an ex-girlfriend I haven’t seen forever, he doesn’t even know that, he’s just picking it as a picture. And the full moon, and next to that image in the Tate, and obviously the landscape, and Rothko was into the landscape and space and all that. But the key thing is that shape and then it’s just reversed there against the Rothko. And that’s just a really good, wonderful combination.
S: is it fair to say that the taking/making of photographs is an art you do alone, whereas the making of a book is a collaborative art you achieve with Padraig?
T: Well, certainly. And Chris Killip helped me on a few books, but when he came and looked at the dummy at my house of Photie Man, he just kept shaking his head and saying, “He’s good.” He didn’t make any suggestions or changes at all. So Padraig’s a really good artist. He went to Goldsmith’s, is a friend to lots of people, and he’s in New York now. I’m lucky to work with him.
 Thanks for your time, Tom!
-Leica Internet Team