Bluecoat Gallery and Open Eye, Liverpool, UK
‘All Zones Off Peak’ is an exhibition (accompanied by a book) which presents a set of images culled from some 3,000 rolls of film shot by Tom Wood during 15 years of travel on the buses of Merseyside. It provides a visual counterpart to the often stridently vocalised representations in other media of Liverpool’s population: lined, weary faces, changing fashions, a rampant crush of day-trippers defied by a surly conductor, the strange coincidence of two girls in completely different photographs who are identically posed and dressed. This focus on human presence in public spaces tends to label the work as social documentary. But as this massive project builds up a view of the city from the humble perspective of public transport, it becomes increasingly difficult to see these characters as the sole focus of Wood’s gaze.
It is interesting how his treatment of the subject changed from the early, grainy, black and white photographs (almost the formal trademark of social concern), to large-scale colour exhibition prints. Among the earliest in the show, taken in 1979, are two that predict the complexity of Wood’s project - one looks through a rain-streaked window at blurred figures waiting on the pavement, whilst the other is an image composed of a mass of reflections and divisions, which obscure and multiply people at a bus stop. Alongside shots of figures isolated against dreary backgrounds, these two photographs manifest the relativism of the camera’s eye - an admission of the contingent and conditional nature of photography. The bus is presented as a predominantly visual space, a metal box with vast areas of glass. Scotland Road (1989), shows a bus parallel to a winter sunset sky, its windows reflective screens, mirroring the sky, buildings and trees, and intersected by half-glimpsed faces. The relativism of this moment, its fortuitous dependency on movement, light and weather, brings photography itself to the forefront.
The work constantly describes modes of viewing and presenting - compressing multi-dimensional spaces and narrative-led inclusiveness into a single rectangle as if revisiting and quoting moments from the history of painting: hints of Caravaggio, for example, in the expressions of the faces of passengers on Stanley Road, Bootle; the fractured, formal abstraction of Renoir’s Les Parapluies (1881-85) recalled through a rainy window.
In London Road, City Centre (1989), the Neo-classical facades of an earlier Liverpool are juxtaposed with modern signage for discount tat, a cracked pavement and scattered shoppers. The raggedy visuals provided by urban poverty present intense areas of detail, which are possible to read both as stage directions of a social situation and concise zones of formal aesthetics. Urban signs deliver a constant subtext, whether the graffiti on a bus-stop in Kirkby, a supplier’s list of building materials, or a poster
that seems to promise a free Pre-Raphaelite romance with every bottle of shampoo. A blonde woman with black roots, dressed in a pink jacket, stands in front of the advertisement, the photographic surround becoming a grotto for her dreaming. With deliberate irony, her lost expression, remarkable in itself, is positioned against the couple on the poster, problematising identification and empathy through the photographic image.
In some photos, figures blur into uneasy whorls of colour emptying into the static bus architecture, and the staginess of straight figure/ground composition is completely dissolved. Gyratory, City Centre (1993) puts Wood’s own reflection on the picture plane as he takes a wobbly shot past a disembodied driver, into an area of shadow, in which a young girl prises a few silver coins from her companion’s hand. This narrative is extracted from an extraordinary screen of fragmented light and colour values, stitched together by the party-streamer of red trim on the driver’s sleeve.
It was a great feat to persuade such a multiplicity of formally divergent themes and quotations to hang together and complement each other in this extraordinary picture of the ‘ordinary’. Wood takes us through the Merseyside of the 80s and 90s on a multi-dimensional conceptual and aesthetic journey that can honestly be described as Joycean.