LOOKING FOR LOVE

An interview with photographer Tom Wood at his home in Wales, who revealed the unseen images that anticipated his seminal 'Looking for Love'  series for a special Dazed project.

I’m in a car in Caerwys, North Wales, admiring the drizzly view through the valley, and my taxi driver is singing along to Robert Palmer’s “Addicted to Love”. The so-badit’s-good soundtrack might be the same, and the smell of stale cigarettes may have seeped into the seats, but we’re a long way from the Chelsea Reach, the Liverpool club where photographer Tom Wood hung out every weekend during the 80s, camera in hand. The photos he took affectionately chronicle the nights out of a generation that had no idea of the rave years around the corner. “They’re looking at me looking at them, looking at each other,” says Wood in his living room, later on. They’re also looking, as the eventual book title put it, for love: that sweat-drenched, lagersoaked, one-night-only, hands-in-the-air, holding-back-the-tears kind of love common to 20-somethings of any era.

“It was always a dilemma whether I had a right to take pictures, to move into the situation and fire a flash into someone’s face, into this sea of bodies,” he recalls, poking at a low-burning log. “But I thought if I don’t do it, who’s going to do it?” We’re at the photographer’s home to discuss his cult 1989 photobook Looking for Love, as well as the never-before-seen images from those years uncovered for this issue. Every week, he would have a few pints with friends – too many would upset the balance between “concentrating and feeling free” – and pop into the Chelsea Reach on the way home. “When you photograph in the nightclub you only get one picture because you’re using a flash. You just shoot and then the situation is gone, you can’t work around it. One wrong look destroys a picture – a really dirty look in someone’s eyes, saying fuck off.”

The fact that this look is so rarely seen in the Irish photographer’s work is proof of his close relationships within the communities he has called home. “Most people I knew by sight or name,” he says. “(And) I’d do the same thing over and over again. I would be in the Chelsea Reach on a Friday night, then photographing on the bus and at the market on Saturday morning, football in the afternoon and then Chelsea Reach again in the evening.”

As we flip through different photobooks and explore cupboards full of negatives, the conversation is peppered with memories of the people in each photo: shipyard workers, skinheads outside a police station, schoolgirls on buses, cleaning ladies, the residents of a mental hospital. The same faces pop up again and again, at different points in their lives: “I photographed her daughter’s 21st the other day,” “He was my bus driver,” “He died in a car crash in Ireland… I should send some to his family.” That some of these lives seem troubled is what makes them so ordinary. “What I liked about the people was they were just really normal,” he says. When the camera flashes through a pub window, you might even catch a glimpse of the Photie Man – as Wood was affectionately dubbed by local kids – reflected in the glass.

Wood, resolved to shoot society’s overlooked corners, has always employed similarly unpretentious distribution methods, giving local hairdressers prints for browsing alongside the magazines, and sitting a box outside his house for local kids to come pick up photos of themselves. To this day, graphic photographs of drunken encounters are proudly displayed on middle-aged men’s mantelpieces – men “now married to someone else”, he sagely notes.

From his early days as a Butlins photographer to his current landscape work, Wood hasn’t strayed from the mantra he scribbled in a journal in his art school days:  ‘It has got to be real.’ “I would see prostitutes in the doorway next door, under the street lamp at night and with their kids during the day,” he says. “What was going on in art school seemed like a game. This seemed more interesting and raw.” It’s a memory that underlines Wood’s commitment to respecting the fullness of an individual’s life in his photography, both happy snaps-sunshine and after-hours glow: “It was that realness I responded to in the Chelsea Reach.” For Wood, photography’s small epiphanies are as useless to try and explain as why a turn of phrase might sound more beautiful in Irish, Welsh, or even a Liverpudlian accent: photie man, for one. “There’s no analysis, just instinct,” he says in his own, soft voice. “You take pictures and you go somewhere else. You forget about yourself.”

Taken from the spring/summer 2016 issue of Dazed, with previously unpublished photos from Tom Wood.