Acclaimed photographer Tom Wood has spent the last half century photographing rural west Ireland, the place where he grew up. A new book collects this expansive body of work, which shows the little-changing countryside refracted through personal history, sensitivity and humour
“There’s a primeval plain to the south / There’s a flashing river-mouth / There’s a virgin soil – no flesh hand can crop it.”
So reads a verse by the late poet Patrick Kavanagh, known for his vivid depiction of everyday rural life in Ireland. The poem, “Possessing Eden”, is excerpted in Irish Work, a new book from photographer Tom Wood. Like Kavanagh’s poem, Irish Work depicts the unchanging, untameable countryside in Ireland, and the people who live within it.
Tom Wood is perhaps best known for his photographs of the unfashionable clubs, bus stops and rubble-strewn streets of Merseyside in the 1980s and 1990s. He has gained a reputation as one of the best photographers of his generation, thanks to his sensitive approach to his subjects, who are always captured with dignity and humanity – he was so embedded in the local community that the locals affectionately called him “photie man”.
He is technically brilliant too, an expert in developing images as much as taking them, reproducing light, colour and skin tone to give his work a tactile, luminous quality. He had his first major British show at The Photographers’ Gallery in London in 2012, and his work has influenced a number of photographers, from Martin Parr to Corinne Day.
But Wood’s story really begins in County Mayo in 1951, where he was born to a Catholic mother and a Protestant father. In the 1950s, this marriage was seen as scandalous and the family was treated with hostility by the local community, eventually leading them to move to England when Wood was a teenager.
Wood returned to Ireland every year, staying on the old family farm, which was still run by relatives. 在 21, after having picked up photography while at art school, he began what would become a life-spanning project photographing the place of his childhood and surrounding areas, meditating on nature, 家庭, time and spirituality.
Irish Work, published by RRB Photobooks, collects more than 200 of these photographs of west Ireland spanning nearly 50 年. Largely focused on everyday rural life, they are presented out of chronological order, showing few changes to life and landscape over the decades – time is gauged mostly by the cut of a subject’s trousers, or Wood’s switch from analogue to digital in 2010. Landscape dominates the book, reproduced in all its rain-soaked brilliance thanks to Wood’s remarkable way with colour.
Although he is best known for documentary-style images of people, street photography isn’t quite the right term for his work. Wood originally trained as a fine art painter at Leicester Polytechnic, and his work is more ambiguous and slow-burning than the hard and fast “decisive moment” central to much of street photography. His Irish project allows him to explore this tendency towards a drifting, dreamlike ambiguity, his painterly qualities evident in the landscapes visited decade after decade.
Irish Work by Tom Wood is available now from RRB Photobooks