Time and Tom Wood

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Text Kenn Taylor
Images Tom Wood

The Pier Head – Tom Wood
Open Eye Gallery, Liverpool
12th January – 25th March 2018

“They were outside the groove of history and it was my job to get them in, all of them.”
The Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison

The thing that gets me most in Tom Wood’s series of images on and around the Mersey Ferries is the intensity of the eyes. Across years, generations, genders, locations, so many of his subjects in these photographs either look intently into the distance or, more strikingly, straight into the lens and into you. I’m drawn to an old video clip of former Open Eye Director Paul Mellor – an early champion of Wood’s work in the gallery he has returned to with this show: “I think he has a care and empathy for the subject matter and the people. I think he’s a humanitarian, if there is such a thing.”

Full disclosure, seeing Wood’s images years ago and how they captured places, people and an era so familiar to me in such a powerful way, was one of the things that drew me into visual arts. Merseyside, like many deprived areas, has had no shortage over the years of photographers keen to bob in and capture ‘poverty porn’. Which when you know a place well, its layers and complexity, can become deeply tiresome. Even if the photographer’s intentions are well meant, their ‘truth’ is usually two dimensional.

Wood is one of a few whose work stretches far beyond this, no doubt in part due to his deep familiarity with his subject, having photographed the area as a local resident over decades. In contrast to others, Wood captures his subjects not as types, but individuals as significant as in any high society or celebrity portrait. Sure, in some expressions or behaviour is humorous, but in others it is sad and still more it is powerfully dignified as he gets that shot of the confidence of youth, the resigned wisdom of old age, the cynicism of having been pushed to the fringe of society. And of course, the boredom of waiting.

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Like his previous work that focused on bus travel, All Zones Off Peak, here Wood captures the commute and its varied humanity. His Pier Head images differ from All Zones though in that the ferries and their terminals were, much more than the busses, also a ‘sit off’. Somewhere for the young and old especially to hang around, mess about, chat, linger. He photographs friends, couples, individuals’ heading somewhere or just passing the time. Snapping different generations over several decades, Wood captures continuity and change. Faces seem ever familiar. In contrast, fashion and hair styles shift rapidly. It was a particular part of the poisonous stereotypes pushed to the area in the 1990s to attack Scousers for a fondness for sportswear. These images remind that was only part of the fashion story. Not to mention that the often unique ways clothes were worn in the area was done with an originality rarely matched when such looks were copied elsewhere. Again, the particular detail of fashion in cruder hands could become voyeurism, but not here. You look at his subjects and their styles, but they look back into you.

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People are the heart of Wood’s images but the background detail is important as well, as much a part of their role now as social document as the fashions. While the images here span from the 70s to late 90s, the bulk are from mid 80s to mid 90s. This is a time in Merseyside history that artists, writers and academics rarely look too, preferring to tap into the swinging, for some, 1960s, the radical era of the late 70s and early 80s, or the more recent, if patchy, renaissance. Yet the period between the 80s and 90s that Wood captures so powerfully is important as well as it was perhaps Liverpool’s nadir. Coming as it did after the collapse of the brief Militant period when Merseyside was largely cut off and left to rot. Treated so often nationally with either contempt or indifference, negative stereotypes about the area came to the fore even in supposedly polite and liberal circles.

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This was the Merseyside I grew up in. Almost nothing new was built. Most of the theatres and gig venues closed. So much seemed of the past, decaying, like the ageing, smoky 1960s busses and ferries we waited for, while opportunity, change, a positive future, seemed distant, if not impossible. The local media became deeply nostalgic for ‘the better times’. What radicalism existed largely retreated to educated urban circles and had little impact on the city’s poor and unfashionable fringes.

Wood, intended or not, captures this atmosphere. Both the crumbling grandeur of the Victorian docks and jetties, rusting, grassed over, silent. But also the decay of 1960s optimism as exemplified by the rotting Modernism of the graffiti covered Pier Head terminal. Today its concrete and steel would be lauded by fans of once-again fashionable Brutalism, its Formica’d cafe turned into a themed eatery. Then, it was just a reminder of how everything had fallen apart. The Merseyside of today still remains highly deprived and faces numerous challenges, but it has come far from being so unrelentingly crushed in a way that people who came to know the area later on struggle to grasp.

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What Wood also captures though is that, despite the national mistreatment, life in Liverpool did indeed go on. People survived and even occasionally thrived despite the shit they had been given. Not crude stereotypes or even that other media trope, ‘sympathetic victims of a cruel system’, but individual human beings with their own stories, part of a culture that carried on despite seemingly impossible odds.

The landscape of the river and those who travel across it, as they have done so since around the 12th century, has now changed from that photographed by Wood. Just as the young, moody people in sportswear in 1987 confused and in turn were confused by the older people sporting headscarves and flat caps, so young people today must look these images with a distance hard to bridge. The differences in fashion and scenery though are just the visual demonstration of the bigger gap. That of experience and understanding between generations in an ever faster rapidly changing word, each one with its new sets of opportunities, joys, problems and challenges. Wood captures his subjects with dignity, young and old, but the generational gap remains for them as it does for all of us. We look at them, they look at us, but never quite understand what the other has seen and felt, like looking across a river into the distance.

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This piece was published by Corridor 8 in March 2018.

LOOK/13 Liverpool International Photography Festival

Every Man and Woman is a Star by Tom Wood

By Kenn Taylor

From the 17th May until the 15th June, photographers from around the world will have their work on show in Liverpool for the second edition of the city’s LOOK photo festival.

“We’ve worked very hard on learning from our experience of two years ago,” says Patrick Henry, LOOK/13’s Director. “LOOK/11 was very rich and expansive, with loads of activity spread over the city. In LOOK/13 we’ve tried to create a tighter, more focused core programme and to be realistic about what we have the resources to do.”

This year’s festival theme is ‘who do you think you are?’ Patrick tells me more: “Our theme in 2011 was photography as ‘a call to action’. The 2013 theme is a reversal of that. Instead of asking how photography can change the world, it asks what happens when we turn the camera on ourselves and others.”

Patrick describes the festival’s origins: “The impetus to create a festival came from a group of photographers based in the North West. They wanted to get more people involved, create new work, bring the best photographers and photography to the region and share it with a wider public.”

The hope is that LOOK will continue as bi-annual event on the city’s art calendar, running in the opposite years to the Liverpool Biennial. Patrick feels that LOOK fills a niche not just in Liverpool, but the UK.

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“Photography festivals have been hugely successful all over the world, France alone has more than sixty, but they’re very thin on the ground here in the UK.” He continues: “Liverpool is the perfect festival city, with the best collection of galleries and museums of any regional city in the country. This gives us the infrastructure we need to do really ambitious programmes. There are really strong links between the venues and an unusual willingness and ability to work together. The programme grows out of close, long-term collaborative conversations and each exhibition and event is a genuinely collaborative effort.”

And there also seems to be something about photography as a medium that suits Liverpool as a city: “Liverpool also has a very strong photographic culture,” says Patrick. “It’s home to Open Eye, one of the UK’s very few specialist public photography spaces. The city also has great collections of historic photography, some of which we’re mining for LOOK/13. And some of the UK’s best-known photographers have made their most celebrated work here, Tom Wood and Martin Parr to name just two.”

One LOOK/13 exhibition that definitely relates to ‘who do you think you are?’ is Kurt Tong’sThe Queen, the Chairman and I. Kurt’s project, on display in the Victoria Gallery, explores his family history across several continents. He explains: “The title came from the fact that their actions ultimately lead to my grandfathers coming to Hong Kong. My paternal great-grandfather came after the fall of the empire in 1911 and my maternal grandparents came in order to escape from Mao’s advancing army.”

“We will be exhibiting my photographs, found photographs, some of the actual family items and a home movie form 1948,” says Kurt. “The idea is that visitors will get a glimpse into my private history. However the main focus of the exhibition is really in the storybook that I have produced for my daughters.”

The exhibition will have an unusual element: “We will be installing a working Chinese Tea House where visitors will be able to sit down, have a cup of tea and spend some time with the book,” says Kurt. “I have always found that the book gets people talking about their own history and their ancestors.” He continues: “I am basically saying, I have gone and done this for my daughter and in the process, gotten closer to my parents and discovered and gotten a better understanding about myself, go and try it for yourself.”

Chung Zhak and Yun Nan wedding photo: Kurt Tong Archive

Based in Hong Kong, Kurt grew up in London and studied at Liverpool University. Photography has been a second career for him: “I wanted a job that I could travel with and that’s why I chose nursing. I headed out to India during and after my training and started taking pictures for the NGO that I was working for. They started to pay me and I started taking jobs from other organisations. I figured that was a more interesting job and decided to try to do it full-time.”

Meanwhile, at Bluecoat, Liverpool-based Adam Lee will be exhibiting Identity Documents, a project that looks at the identity of others through photographing their bookshelves. Adam elaborates: “It came from a conversation with a friend at university about ten or twelve years ago. We were joking about being robbed and I said facetiously that I would be nothing without my things. While neither he nor I agreed with this statement it got me thinking about the relationship between our possessions and who we are. I came to believe that while we shouldn’t define ourselves through our possessions, we define them, through our interests in the things they represent. I think it’s a reciprocal relationship and that our possessions then come to say about our identities, as representations of these interests and tastes.”

Where does Adam get his participants, and their shelves. from? “I began by asking personal connections of mine. I work part-time for John Moores University and began by asking lecturers there if I could photograph their offices,” he says. “Following on from these, I asked friends, family, colleagues in the arts, and other personal connections.” Identity Documents remains an ongoing project: “I have also had an extensive social media campaign to try and find self-curated participants, which has mixed met with mixed success. I’m always looking for more participants.”

Identity Documents by Adam Lee

I ask him, what is it about books that tell us so much about a person’s character as oppose to, say, wardrobe contents? “I feel the sheer variety of them, in terms of genres, topics and specificity, means that they can give a very broad but also detailed picture of someone’s interests. I feel that it is this massive variety of specificity that makes them more interesting than say clothes, or for me, films or DVDs.”

Lee thinks that LOOK/13 is not only great for visitors but offers good opportunities for photographers based in Liverpool too: “I think that for photographers and artists who get involved, through the core program, parallel program, competitions, conferences and any fringe activities, the festival offers an international and high-profile platform to get work seen and network.”

LOOK/13

Liverpool International Photography Festival

17th May – 15th June 2013

Various venues, Liverpool

www.lookphotofestival.com

The piece appeared on The Guardian in May 2013.

Kevin Casey in conversation with Kenn Taylor

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The following was an interview conducted with photographer Kevin Casey about his project Closing Time, for which he photographed the many abandoned pubs across Liverpool. An abridged version of it appeared in the book of Closing Time, alongside an essay on the subject by myself which you can read here.

KT: Tell me, how did this project began and, why pubs?

KC: Basically, it started two years ago on my journeys into town. I live in Waterloo/Crosby, and I take the train to town for my job as a Gallery Assistant in Liverpool. During that journey you stop at Seaforth, Bootle, Bankhall, Sandhills, and at nearly every stop you’d see a pub that was in disarray, or about to close down. I just thought, well, with my background being photography, I decided to photograph them. There’s also a link to my family. We’ve had quite a few pubs over a twenty-five/thirty year period, so I feel like I’ve got a bit of an intrinsic link to them, so maybe that’s why my awareness has been heightened.

KT: How did you go about finding the pubs?

KC: Initially it was ones that I saw on my journeys to work, or going to the football. I also asked my friends, family members who used to run pubs, if they knew of any pubs that had closed. A lot of the time when I was photographing, on the way to the location I’d find two or three pubs I’d never even heard of on the way.

KT: When you were shooting, were you consciously trying to portray anything?

KC: It’s impossible to be impartial when you’re documenting or photographing anything, but I thought when I was taking the images that if I could get them as uniform as possible, then hopefully you can see both the comparisons and the contrasts of each building. Basically my idea was to be as impartial as possible, and to show both the harsh reality, with slight sympathy, but not overly romanticise the images.

KT: When taking these pictures, did you have a desire to preserve something, to capture it before it went?

KC: I think one of the main things photography is used for is capturing the here and now, that is photography’s strength, and I’d like people to appreciate them now. But I also think that they might have greater emphasis in ten, twenty, thirty years time, when we look back on a lot of these buildings, when I think it’s a given that the majority of them will not be standing any more, or at least will not be a pub.

KT: Tell me about your experience of shooting the images. Did it generate a lot of interest amongst passers by?

KC: Yes, there was a lot of interest, and a lot of suspicion as well. Some people are more suspicious if you’re holding a camera than they are if you’re holding a baseball bat. Most people were great though. They’d stop and chat to you and take an interest, and even suggest or point out other places I could go to. A lot of communities, like say Kensington, a few in Bootle, a few of the ones near to town and Anfield, people were quite interested and wanted to get involved and tell you places where to go, and they’d always start talking about their childhood, and the places they used to go out.

KT: What were your own feelings then, whilst shooting the project, having seen all these pubs, going to these communities?

KC: You go through different stages. I think at first you feel, it’s such a sad and alarming thing to see, even before I started to photograph, witnessing and picking up on the fact that these places are closing down. Then you go through the sort of, selfish stage of ‘That’s a good idea for a project. It’s quite unique and it might get me some attention.’ And then you feel a little bit guilty for that, because your project is the fact that these things are in decline. Something draws a lot of photographers to that, there’s a lot of appeal in things that are declining, there’s a beauty, a sort of fallen grace if you like. So you do feel a bit of guilt sometimes that, even though you’re getting a great project out of it and doing good work, you are doing that good work through the misfortune of something else. But I suppose your role as a photographer is to document what you see, whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing happening in front of the camera. But I also had quite a lot of empathy towards it, because my family have been involved in pubs from a long time and I used to spend a lot of time from an early age in pubs that my cousin and my auntie and my nan used to run,. If you can get success out of a project, that’s what you want as an artist or a photographer, but I’m doing it in an honest way I’d say.

KT: Tell me what photographers have influenced you, either in general or for this particular project?

KC: I’m actually a big fan of the modern trend of ‘constructed reality’. Like your Jeff Wall, Gregory Crewdson, and Hannah Starkey as well, because I come from a bit of a fine art background as well as the photography, it’s almost like creating something in front of the camera. But I also love the documentary people, like you’re Walker Evans, you’re Cartier-Bresson, Brassaï. Then there was people like William Eggleston whose colour work was so raw and new at the time. Landscape wise, I love the Becher school; Edward Burtynsky, Andreas Gursky, the grand landscapes, high statements. There might not be a lot going on in the image but the power and size of the image forces you to look at it. Especially in colour, that’s definitely been an influence on me deciding not to shoot in black and white, because with people like Burtynsky and Gursky I think you can see the fading and deterioration of buildings and landscapes a little bit more than you can do with the Becher’s work in monotone black and white. You can see little details of these buildings, like the brickwork that is starting to erode, or the pub sign which has got faded paint dropping off, that was one of the reasons I decided to shoot in colour. It is the influence of them, but also just to retain the detail for future reference.

KT: Was there a reason you decided to shoot them in portrait format?

KC: I was shooting the images in a portrait format because you’re in a very, very tight space with some them, and I didn’t want to include too much background. If you can pick up a bit of the surrounding background, then that obviously adds to it, but I wanted the focus to be on the pub. I thought that the portrait format is a lot more direct in the way it is cropped. I also think it gives the pub a bit more personality, almost like people in a way. They’re all very similar but they’ve also got their own characters and that, which you can relate to portraiture.

KT: You seem to have purposefully shot the buildings largely in isolation. There are no people in the shots and hardly any cars.

KC: I think it was the South African photographer David Goldblatt who purposely used to include cars and people in some of his landscapes because in ten, twenty years time you can see the difference in fashions, or style of the motor car, in shot. So with me, I’ve been battling whether to include cars or people in the scenery. I’ve chosen not to have any people. In a few of the shots there are cars, but ultimately I didn’t want to detract too much from the actual buildings.

KT: So were you trying to get the buildings to speak for themselves?

KC: Yes…and no. That doesn’t really answer your question but…I wanted them to speak for themselves in the sense that, they didn’t need any extra help from me to show either the decay, or the loss, in some cases, of great architecture. I mean some of them are run down shacks that are not very beautiful at all, and some of them are actually beautiful buildings that have been left to ruin, but still have that element of beauty. So they do speak for themselves in that case, but if I said that phrase I think it would sound a bit cheesy. If someone wanted to describe it in that way though, I’ve got no problem with that.

KT: How do you think this work fits in with other photographic representations of Merseyside?

KC: I suppose the most well-known, well the ones that spring to mind, linked to Merseyside, are Martin Parr’s The Last Resort, and any given Tom Wood book. Bus Odyssey I suppose is the one he’s known for. I can understand that people get frustrated the only thing that seems to be popular linked to Merseyside photographic wise are decline, or a working-class way of life. I think there are a lot of other things that the city offers and a lot of positive things that are happening in Liverpool at the moment, I’m more pro-Scouse than anyone, but I think it would be naive to ignore the things that are going on, and that are in decline just to put a positive spin on things. Of course, pub closures are a national thing, but my experience was Liverpool, I’m from Liverpool, I know Liverpool. I feel that, because I’ve got a connection to the area, and even to some of the pubs, I’m not just showing decline in Merseyside of the sake of it, to add to the stereotype.

KT: What do you think it is about Liverpool that seems to either suit the documentary mode, or appeal to documentary photographers? I’m thinking especially of photographers from outside the city that have come to shoot it, some of the most famous in the world; Henri Cartier-Bresson, Candida Höfer, Phillip Jones-Griffiths, Rineke Dijkstra.

KC: From what I can guess, for people coming from outside of the city, when they come to Liverpool, it’s almost like a separate state, even though it’s reflecting what’s happening in a lot of the rest of the country. I think a lot of Scousers see themselves as slightly different. Whether it’s because England is an island in itself, and on the edge of that island you have Liverpool, so close to Wales, Ireland. It’s such a melting pot of people and it’s gone through so many different changes; from slavery, trade, to the industrial revolution to the decline of industry. Right now we’re going through a period were leisure and tourism is the new industry, and there’s quite a lot of documentation of that. I think it appeals to people because it is such a powerhouse of a city, such a melting pot that’s gone through so many transitions, up and down like a rollercoaster ride. As a photographer, you’d be foolish not to want to document it.