Review: The Pier Head – Tom Wood

Exhibition view of The Pier Head - Tom Wood, at Open Eye Gallery, 2018. image: Carol Emmas

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

Words, Carol Emmas

I recently rewatched the BBC4 ‘What Artists Do All Day’ documentary on Tom Wood ahead of the Open Eye Gallery exhibition. I wanted to see close-up how he captures the natural expressions of the people he photographs and the frequent far away look in their eyes. Expressions that usually disappear into an immediate pose or a visible reaction once the camera is pointed at a face.

Wood’s current exhibition shows photographs taken over a 20-year period while travelling to and from Wirral to Liverpool and back on the Mersey Ferries. Showing alongside his new book Termini, the exhibition and the book contains images from the 1970s to the early 90s of local people both boarding and embarking from the ferries. Wood likes and always has liked to capture the face with character, the face of youth and the face that’s had a life. Young parents and families feature heavily as do the elderly, and people connecting or even dis-connecting with others in their company. There is rarely a smile in Wood’s images, he ensures he furtively captures them before they have a chance. ‘You have a matter of a fraction of seconds to take a photograph – once you think about it – it’s gone’.

Anyone who has ever attempted to capture people up close will know that it’s one of the most tricky things an analogue photographer can do. Stop to ask permission and the moment is lost. Shoot first and ask later is the easiest way, but you don’t ever quite know who you’re asking and you ever quite know what kind of response you’re going to get. Wood has done it for long enough to know the dance. There is seemingly a quiet persistence to his nature. You can tell he’s a man who is always on the job, always looking, always thinking, always two steps ahead of the person he is wanting to immortalise.

Exhibition view of The Pier Head – Tom Wood, at Open Eye Gallery, 2018. image: Carol Emmas

In the selection at Open Eye Gallery, his images are split into two camps; some images that consist of a scrappy off-chance fluidity (there was time that he had to use out-of-date black and white cine-film because it was less expensive), to other images, that stand out in clear artistic precision. Wood began as an artist first and whether it is co-incidence that his use of colour is spot-on, whatever he does in these instances, he nails it. These images begin to resemble a classic painting, via the medium of the lens. As time moves on, those colours and images will become even more solidly indicative of the time.

Exhibition view of The Pier Head – Tom Wood, at Open Eye Gallery, 2018. image: Carol Emmas

Since 1973 Wood has been taking around 500 rolls of film per year and I was lucky enough to be invited to see part of his archive to find he has a back catalogue that hasn’t even begun to be realised or mined. Without doubt, as these images are subsequently released it will continue to build his reputation as one of our national photographic greats.