Review: The Pier Head – Tom Wood

Tom Wood, Open Eye Gallery (2018)

The Pier Head – Tom Wood
Open Eye Gallery, until 25th March 2018

Words, Julia Johnson (Messy Lines)

It’s one of my favourite things about living in Wallasey, being able to commute to Liverpool on the ferry.  Particularly in the summer months there really is no better way to cross to the city – certainly none with a better view.  Whilst it may not be the transport lifeline it was before busses were allowed through the tunnel, it still attracts a diverse crowd for whom the boat serves a different purpose.

Realising the snapshot of human activity his daily journey offered him, from 1978 photographer Tom Wood started documenting the everyday activities and people he encountered almost daily until 2002.  The results have now been curated into Open Eye Gallery’s The Pier Head exhibition.

A John Berger quote on the wall describes Wood’s photographs as protecting “a Merseyside that is now…forever unloseable”.  It’s somewhat misleading – for only superficially is Pier Head about history. Rather, Wood’s talent lies in capturing people.  Of course Liverpool has changed dramatically in the 40 years since this series was begun, and some of these changes are inevitably reflected in the photographs.  But whilst the places and fashions have changed, you feel like you still recognise the characters.  You’ve definitely seen the same groups of teenage friends out for the day in the city, the parents playing games to keep their young children entertained.

Tom Wood, Open Eye Gallery (2018)

There is a real honesty in how Wood has captured emotions and relationships, so that you feel that you could be sharing the moment with his subjects.  Maybe it’s this quality, rather than the haircuts, which makes The Pier Head a time capsule.  The ubiquity of photography in the age of the smartphone means that we all understand to some degree how to strike a pose anywhere, at a moment’s notice.  Wood’s subjects have not had this experience, and it works to his advantage that his interest in wanting to record them as they are is genuinely unexpected.  Their success lies in them being unplanned, off-guard reflections of the truth of a particular moment.

The Pier Head left me thinking not so much about how the world has changed in the last half-century, but instead about what stays the same – the universality of human relations.  This is what is truly “forever unloseable” in these photographs, and we can only be delighted that Tom Wood was in the perfect time and place to be able to capture their story.