JTF (just the facts): Published in 2018 by Stanley/Barker (here). Hardcover, unpaginated (104 pages), with 66 color and duotone plates, 230mm x 300mm. In an edition of 1000 copies. Edited by Padraig Timoney and Tom Wood. Cover by Tamara Shopsin, designed by The Entente. (Cover and spread shots below.)
Comments/Context: I ignore the old saying, and pick-up the book for its cover. Simulating an ’80s-style, in-your-face, shop’s sale sign, its pink background makes the handwritten letters pop, and with just a glance you have all the information you need: Women’s Market by Tom Wood for £34.99. Not exactly a steal, you might think, but there is one picture, in particular, that makes me buy the book, regardless.
This photograph, like many in Women’s Market, is saturated with people. Standing in the cramped aisle of an outdoor market, they pause and push, while their bodies and gestures are condensed and cropped by a wide-angle lens. Despite this inundation of people, three figures stand out. A woman and a girl turn away from the camera, engaging another teenage-girl, who looks straight at the photographer, and it is not flattering. All raise their hands: the woman pointing towards the teenage-girl, the girl touching her lips as if holding her breath, and the teen forming a hidden fist to complete the armor of her leather jacket. No words are needed – an admonition, a daunt, and a defense provide for a contested dialogue. They also project Wood’s photographic philosophy: “I think of a photograph as a receiver of sensation. Sensations are intangible, I try to organize them through the act of photography.”
His statement, as well as the book’s succinct afterword, reveal that taking pictures is “a labor of love” and “a deeply personal experience” for the Irish-born photographer, who moved to Britain as a child after his Catholic mother had married his Protestant father, and lived in Liverpool for many years.
Wood’s process is never guided by a set theme or photographic aim, but the responsibility he feels for his subjects, that is, the people around him, and the ways in which they allow him to capture their day-to-day existence. “I just go out the door and, whatever’s real, I try and deal with that.” As such, Wood’s projects, which have been primarily shot in and around Liverpool, are rather epic undertakings, unfolding not only through years but decades, most famously captured in Looking for Love (1989), All Zones Off Peak (1998), or Photie Man (2005). Women’s Market is no different.
As opposed to the book’s title, the market’s official name is Great Homer Street Market, indicating its location on the outskirts of Liverpool. While the locals affectionately call it “Greatie”, it is also known as Paddy market, Wood once said, because of the Irish vendors who once sold second-hand clothing there.
Wood first visited the place, with a girlfriend, in the early 1970s. Unlike anything he had seen before, “It spanned both sides of the road for a long way, mainly stocking secondhand goods in those days.” He wanted to return, and when he ended up living in Liverpool in 1978, he did – although not right away. “I knew that the market was there, but I didn’t have the courage to go and photograph it straight away. At that point I mainly shot portraits, I hadn’t captured candid images before.” After a few visits in the early 1980s, he began to seriously document the market in 1987. The book’s black-and-white and color photographs, comprising both portraits and candid images of mostly women, were taken with a small-format camera and outdated film on Saturday mornings between 1979 and 1999, before Wood would go to photograph another long-term project, football games – or rather, their predominantly male fans. Knowing about this visual (and sociological) contrast, even if invisible in Women’s Market itself, is an elucidating detail when considering the book’s premise and gendered title.
Men do appear in Wood’s images – most tenderly, for example, in the color shot of a young father, carrying his sleepy son amidst the market’s winter crowd, looking somewhat resigned, into the camera. However, women and girls are clearly at the heart of the book. Spanning all ages, from toddlers to grannies, and the many stages in between, they look and evaluate, browse and bargain, for shoes, panties, children’s clothes, and beauty products. At times, they are captured as close-ups, other times further away, outdoors and indoors (the indoor pictures were not taken at the “Greatie”, but the Birkenhead Indoor Market), usually in pairs or groups, never alone.
Because of the images’ 1980s vernacular – the heavy bangs, mullets and shags, the clothes’ signature patterns and colors, the shoulder pads and cigarettes – it is easy to mistake them as mere documents of their time, providing a window into the market’s unique atmosphere. If you look closely, however, you can see and sense that these female figures are not considered as stand-ins for their time, but for the individual mannerisms, the gestural interactions, they disclose. An oblivious gaze; a mouth puckered for a swift kiss; a hand that decisively grabs a wallet, maneuvers a stroller, or holds onto the arm of a friend or relative, are as revealing and intriguing to look at as the gentle or impatient touch of child, waiting to get up or move on.
In comparison, Women’s Market, is perhaps not as strong and cohesive a body of work as Wood’s previous publications – particularly when considering some of the images’ feeling of distance, that, for him, is rather atypical, which appears in small waves throughout the sequence. It bestows the book with a less relational, more descriptive character.
Yet the book is relevant, not at least in the context of current debates concerning the perception and agency of women and their bodies. If the questions“Who is allowed to speak”and “Who is listened to (and, ultimately, believed)” are applied to photography, they change into “Who is looking, how, and what for?”. In an interview, Wood said that it was the market’s “mix of faces” that fascinated him most. While he had tried to photograph people “around the shops in the center of Liverpool”, he did not really succeed in making satisfying images, as “people had their guard up” and were “less open”. At the market (as everywhere), Wood photographed openly and without hiding, and became more and more interested in “the sense people have when they are being stared at.” If considered only in concert with the book’s rather thoughtless title, this quote could tie him to either the chauvinist approach innate to Garry Winogrand’s search-for-nipples photographs of Women Are Beautiful, or the often-cruel images of Martin Parr. In their very own way, for both of these photographers, the act of looking equals authority; it is canonical and unilateral. We also call it “the male gaze”.
Wood’s images, however, are neither sexualizing nor searching for demeaning moments. Instead, they are often gentle, always straightforward, sometimes humorous, but the joke is never on the people. In fact, a significant number of his images reflect the peoples’ reaction towards the photographer – their tolerance or indifference, as well as their curiosity and, at times, even dissent (look out for “the finger”). It is these small details that hint at their thoughts and emotions, actions and motivations, shaping the fleeting moments captured on camera. As a result, Wood, as well as his photographs, engage their protagonists as subjects not objects, as respected individuals who require a respectful perception.
Collector’s POV: Tom Wood is represented by Galerie Sit Down in Paris (here). Wood’s prints have been inconsistently available in the secondary markets in recent years. Prices for those lots that have come up for sale have ranged from roughly $1000 to $5000.