Museum reveals the art of modest determination

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Tom Wood’s 40 year photography project has been brought together in Bradford. Nick Ahad spoke to the photographer.

We all take photographs.

Birthdays, holidays, nights out, weddings. Maybe you think you’re a little trigger-happy yourself when it comes to getting the camera out.

You’ve got nothing on Tom Wood.

The photographer has spent the last 40 years taking photographs around Liverpool and Merseyside. Five days a week, for 40 years. It is fair to say he has built quite a collection, and with it, a reputation.

“I have always tried to keep a low profile,” says Wood.

“I wanted to be – I needed to be – a nobody when I was taking photographs, which is why I didn’t put anything on the internet or go out of my way to be known, it wouldn’t have worked if I’d done that.

“It was only when I moved away that people got to know who I am.”

Yorkshire audiences will get to know Wood a lot better over the coming months – as the first full UK retrospective of his work begins a three-month run at the National Media Museum today.

The Bradford venue has also bought 80 of Wood’s prints to be housed there, thanks to curator of photographs Greg Hobson. It is the largest single acquisition of Wood’s work to date and one of the museum’s largest single acquisitions from a living photographer.

Wood is nonplussed.

“I don’t really like going to exhibition openings – not my own, anyway, I don’t like to be the centre of attention,” he says.

It’s an apt attitude for a photographer whose 40 year body of work has come from moving in the crowds without being noticed. Hiding in plain sight.

“If people see you’re taking their picture, they want to pose for you. That’s when it stops being what I’m looking to capture, something real.”

Wood’s quest to capture the real became what could be fairly called an obsession. While he worked as a lecturer two days a week, he would go out of the streets of Liverpool and Merseyside the other five days a week, capturing with his camera the life he saw around him.

He insists that he never went out with any specific ideas, nor did he set up the photographs he took.

“I just took lots and lots of pictures. I never had any idea if I had anything when I was taking the photographs, I just couldn’t tell until I had them developed and returned,” he says.

“I would send off 40 rolls of film by post, then when they came back I would sit under a good light and see what it was I had. That was the first time I could tell what I had, if anything.”

He definitely had something. Wood’s work is praised for straddling the worlds of documentary and art - his work is a mixture of the two, capturing moments in time and places that change with time. It is why the Bradford retrospective is long overdue, and why it is no surprises that it clashes with a second opening of Wood’s work being exhibited in Moscow.

“I was just there. That’s the secret, being there to capture what is in front of you,” he says. “It’s the life in a picture that makes it, you try catch it.”

Galleries collaborate to select exhibition images

Tom Wood: Photographs 1973-2013 is a collaboration between the National Media Museum and The Photographers’ Gallery London. The images were selected by Greg Hobson, curator of photographs at the National Media Museum, and Stefanie Braun, senior curator at The Photographers’ Gallery.

Two books, Men and Women will be released by Steidl later this year.

The exhibition, featuring 116 photographs including more than 10 previously unexhibited and unpublished images, opens at the National Media Museum today, and runs until June 16.

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