Saul Leiter


Essay by Francis Hodgson

The Photographers’ Gallery, London
22.01.16 — 03.04.16

Photographic history is pretty rum. It has become standard to read that William Eggleston was the first person to use colour as an ‘artistic choice’ and that his show at the MoMA in 1976 was the first show of colour at the museum. Both are nonsense. Alfred Stieglitz had of course made colour photographs by the Autochrome process and shown them at his 291 gallery as early as 1909. Edward Steichen worked in colour too, often brilliantly. And whether one considers such luminaries as Louise Dahl-Wolfe or Paul Outerbridge as ‘artists’ is a question for another place, but both certainly made work of high artistic intent to be distributed through commercial channels. And then there’s László Moholy-Nagy, of course, who was committed to working in colour after his arrival in the US in the late 1930s.

Eliot Porter showed colour photographs at MoMA, by the way, in 1943. Porter continues even now to be a photographer overlooked by fashion. It suits a certain number of people to overlook him, notably in the fine print market. Yet his commitment to environmental subjects much of interest today and his wonderful eye surely make him a candidate for a revival. And then there is Ernst Haas, who was a pioneer of another sort. That history is at long last beginning to be rewritten, as with Color Rush: American Photography from Stieglitz to Sherman, published by Aperture and the Milwaukee Art Museum in 2013, but it has been a long time coming.

Saul Leiter (1923-2013) almost vanished through this kind of sloppy thinking. Specialists knew he was included in Jane Livingston’s grouping of ‘New York School’ photographers in 1992. The great New York gallerist Howard Greenberg knew him from around that time. And there were others, too. Yet he only really took his place in public photographic history when the brilliant British historian Martin Harrison tracked him down for his monograph on Leiter’s Early Color in 2006. That book showed masterpiece after masterpiece – little views of New York, a miraculous combination of street photography and abstract art. Since then, many think they know Leiter. And a huge retrospective of some 400 pictures at the Deichtorhallen in Hamburg in 2012 (with a tome of a catalogue) did the rest. Leiter was firmly inserted, only months before his death, into the canon of photo-history.

It is worth noting that Leiter’s father was a great Talmudic scholar and his family wanted him to be a rabbi. In Tomas Leach’s documentary film on the photographer, In No Great Hurry, Leiter is heard to say (his tones unmistakably rabbinical) “My father from time to time descended into unkindness. The Leiter family is not as familiar with the notion of kindness as I believe they might have been or should have been. Greatness was important. Great scholarship was important. Intellectual achievement was important. Knowing was important. Knowing a great deal was important. Kindness? Well, if kindness interfered with the pursuit of learning and greatness and scholarship – too bad. Get rid of it.” There’s sadness there, which might explain a lot. There is a loneliness about his photographs, which never quite disappears.

Born in Pittsburgh, Leiter arrived in New York with plans to become a painter; he knew already he would disappoint the expectations others had placed upon him. His standard view of life is from the outside of whatever he is looking at, shielded by multiple layers of glass (and that glass often steamed up or dripping condensation) or peeping between boards or blinds. It is here that he differs from other New Yorkers, the type of William Klein or Garry Winogrand, who were quite happy in the thickest press of the crowd. And he differs, too, from those, such as Helen Levitt, who made tableaux of the people she found on the streets, careful compositions with a story built into each. Leiter never did that. The word is overused, but nevertheless he is a kind of existentialist photographer, dealing in the lost moments between times. Leiter’s characters are almost never defined by the role they play or by their status in society. They simply are. They may be waiting for a bus or maybe a lover; they may be about to become bus riders or girlfriends; but Leiter finds them in between those roles.

He could be a marvellous painter. In one enormous respect he went against the grain of his Abstract Expressionist contemporaries in the East Village. He never painted big. Painting at the edge of abstraction in gaudy colours that I’m tempted to call Fauvist, he layered thickly but on tiny supports. Whether from poverty or from a kind of consciousness of the weight of surfaces, he often used what he had to hand and painted on that – packaging, printed materials, and in one spectacular case, on photographs.

The story goes that he was invited to make a book of photographic nudes, a book, which never materialised. Then, ten years later, in his studio, surrounded by the stack of unused prints, he started to paint on them. In the best of them, the paint acts to clothe the figures, not covering them entirely, but adding something more. The painted surfaces act as a caress – one almost sees the brush as stroking the body – but once the caressing is done, the body is clothed. Not all of the images, it must be said, are good. Leiter was a hoarder and too many of his tests and mistakes survive. It’s not quite clear why he persuaded so many young women to pose for him nude. In the documentary, he talks self-effacingly about his “secret life as a creep”, but it may not entirely be a joke. The unpainted nudes are not particularly good at all; although it is noticeable how relaxed the sitters always are. Leiter was a gentle man, devoid of any great ambition or drive. “I aspire to be unimportant”, he said.

Yet for a number of years he earned his living in fashion, at Harper’s Bazaar, no less, before his name began to get him gigs elsewhere. He made no great bones about fashion. His fellow New Yorker, Louis Faurer, was rather ashamed of working in the industry. Robert Frank wasn’t especially cut out for it, but he saw no shame in it. Unlike the street views and indeed his paintings, the fashion pictures were made for other people, but he clearly only modified his way of seeing. At their best, Leiter’s fashion photographs have the same shyly voyeuristic sense as his own work. He’s never openly pervy – like, say, Miroslav Tichy – but even in the magazines the pictures are often a little off-key. This is man who always preferred to see than be seen. Kate Stevens (of the HackelBury gallery in London) told me a story that Faurer once kept a model waiting a terribly long time at a meeting place out in the open. When he finally showed up, he dismissed her. He had already done the pictures while she was waiting for him. Was that cruelty? Or shyness? Or a bit of both?

By the time you read this, it will be too late to see the glorious HackelBury exhibition of his paintings. The Photographers’ Gallery show, which is a boiled-down version of the Hamburg show of a few years ago, is still on. It gives a nice overview of his whole career. But what to make of Saul Leiter himself? The colour street views are certainly the highpoint. They have something of the almost mystical gentleness of colour from the mournful little Polaroids André Kertész made of the glass objects on his window-sill high above Washington Square, after the death of his wife, Elizabeth.

Leiter’s effects owe much to Kodachrome (which was a slide film) and it may be for that reason that they have such a strong appeal right now. It used to be that viewing photographs backlit was a rare privilege reserved for professionals equipped with light-boxes. Only slide shows gave any chance of seeing pictures backlit (or seemingly so). That’s partly why Nan Goldin’s Ballad of Sexual Dependency was always originally shown as a slide show. Pictures just have much more intimacy that way – which obviously suits Goldin’s subject matter to perfection. But then along came digital, and almost all pictures were suddenly seen backlit on our screens. That may be why certain techniques that were hardly considered before now look so natural to us.

Leiter painted in mixed colours at the height of their brightness: turquoises, oranges, acid greens. But he photographed in primary colours, muted right down through misting and screens and that wonderful bloom of damped-down Kodachrome. His favourite colour was red. He returns to it again and again. These are Leiter’s colours: never shrill, never too loud. Once you recognise how he does it, there’s something about his manner, which lies well with his successors. It is hard, for example, to imagine that the influence of Saul Leiter is not lurking somewhere behind Paul Graham’s shift from clear factual seeing to his later, less overt manner.

Clearly, Leiter was a saddened man. He photographed mainly for himself and searched, through his pictures, for little bits of happiness where he could find them. He probably didn’t have the sheer bravura technical virtuosity and invention of an Erwin Blumenfeld (though, it would be interesting to show the two of them together), but he had absolute mastery of the emotional effects of colour. The splash of yellow, for example, of a passing taxi could be joy, if only for a moment. “There are,” he said, “the things that are out in the open and there are the things that are hidden; and life – the real world – has more to do with what is hidden.” That’s a subtle motto for a photographer; he was a subtle man, working brilliantly in colour, long before Eggleston.

All images courtesy of Howard Greenberg Gallery. © Saul Leiter

Francis Hodgson is Professor in the Culture of Photography at The University of Brighton. His former roles include photography critic for the Financial Times, and Head of Photographs at Sotheby’s, London. He is also a co-founder of the leading photography prize the Prix Pictet

Francis Hodgson

Professor in the Culture of Photography

University of Brighton

In the next instalment of our Interview series, Gemma Padley speaks to Francis Hodgsoncritic, professor, photography consultant, co-founder of the Prix Pictet, former head of the photographs department at Sotheby’s, and an advisor specialising in fine photographs for private and public collections – about his thoughts on the contemporary photographic landscape, taking in topics such as whether or not there is such a criteria for ‘good’ photographs, the current boom in photobook self-publishing, and how photography has touched every aspect of our lives.

Gemma Padley: You’ve spoken before about applying a ‘criteria’ for quality when talking about photography. Could you expand upon some of these ideas; how do we decide what is ‘good’ in photography?

Francis Hodgson: I’ve talked about this a lot in the past, both in writing and elsewhere, and I’ve found myself talking about this very strange verb – ‘to matter’. Matter is a very odd word with regard to photography. Because of photography’s fantastic vernacular strength, there’s a tendency to say, “everybody’s equal, everybody’s as good as everybody else”. And then to counteract this by saying, “that person is with such and such gallery”, or, “that person has published a book with so and so”, so that the standards of quality move away from the standards of communication.

I’m certainly a million miles away from saying that the standards of quality are basic technological things about f-stops and accuracy of reproduction; lots of out of focus pictures are completely fantastic, I have no hesitation there. But I do think there has been a tendency over a number of years to confuse the ‘subject’ that’s under consideration with the ‘quality’ of the photographs that consider the subject. There are lots of very bad photographs of serious subjects, and there are lots of very wonderful photographs of complete trivial nonsense.

I’ve been anxiously trying to see whether one can set standards by which one can say, “look, that actually is a bad photograph.” And my gradual tendency is to find myself looking at the notion of communication. Photographs that do not say what the photographer purports they say are not really doing the job that he or she thought they were doing, whereas photographs that say something, that is not much wanted at the time, or is digested 100 years later, really do have that content, [and] seem to me to be closer to what you might call ‘good’ photographs. I realise these are very difficult things to talk about and I’m often accused of being deeply conventional when I look for some kind of standard. Part of it, I have to say, is to do with the intentions of the photographer. A photographer who is trying to say something of course can be understood differently when one uncovers those works fifty or so years later in an archive. Nevertheless, those pictures have a built-in content heaviness if they were successful at getting across what they wanted.

GP: What, to your mind, has been impact of digital technologies on photography, in terms of the creation and dissemination of the medium?

FH: One of the things I see in the great overdosing of photography that goes on in the digital era, where, if you like, pictures are no longer single events or single cultural moments (lots of people talk about a flow of images where you don’t really print, you just get struck by them; for example, you very rarely look at things on Facebook again), is the role of turning oneself into a voluntary archivist if you like – editing pictures and finding some importance in them that was not there when they were first made. I see a lot of people trying to slow down that flow, even at quite modest amateur levels. I see a lot of people curating collections of pictures on their blogs from the vast flow of imagery and they are making those images matter – there’s that word – in ways that the originators of those pictures probably never expected. And that’s absolutely fine by me. It is a way of applying critical standards to something that is otherwise completely neutral.

I’ve been writing a lot about the notion of a new vocabulary [for photography]; I want to talk about people who are ‘photo operators’ to whom the culture of photography is not of any concern. The example I often give is of a traffic warden whose job it is to make ‘x’ amount of photographs per day which quite literally have to be good enough to stand up in court. That person does not describe him or herself as a photographer and yet he or she is using photography to a professionally high standard every time. Another example would be of estate agents who again do not think of themselves as making any allusion to photography and yet everyday they go to visit people’s apartments and make photographs according to a set of standards, and these pictures have to be good by some kind of odd estate agent standard if they’re going to work. But that business of not being involved in the ‘culture’ of photography has spread.

GP: But what has photography’s impact been more widely on other areas of culture?

FH: I refer you to a book, which I regard to be of great importance – Photography Changes Everything by Marvin Heiferman, a project initiated by the Smithsonian Museum. It is really one of the only museums that is, ‘a museum of everything’. It goes, as Marvin says, from A to Z. This meant that in every department of the Smithsonian Museum, not only did they use photography but photography profoundly changed the disciplines in each place. Now that is not a digital phenomenon. If you like I’ll give you a very simple example, which comes from Marvin but which I’ve also written about in the past before I’d read Marvin’s book. If you think about the way that photography bursts into particular fields, in medicine, for example, in the field of ophthalmology; what happened was, photography started as a tool of description and very quickly became the central tool of diagnostics. So now it’s impossible to be an ophthalmologist without using photographs. That’s to say that photographs have actually changed the practice, as they have in anthropology, and so on. Now that has nothing whatsoever to do with digital.

The example that I suppose comes very early on is the business of colonisation. You start in Victorian photographs to look at the notion of other people; people from other countries. Colonisation doesn’t make any sense if a few hardy explorers come back and tell everyone about these things, but the minute photography becomes a standard tool, then colonisation has elements of ethnography built into it. The minute you have those images, colonisation becomes the business of seeking to understand people as well as categorise them. And I’d say this was around 1860, so it’s very early in photography’s history.

The way I describe it – and I always describe it like this – photography is like the Big Bang. It boomed enormously quickly. Photography’s birth date is always given as 1839, but by the mid-1850s there had been an incredibly rapid boom, an explosion. And photography continues to explode into every field that it touches, so that when it touches medicine, it revolutionises that field; when it touches politics, pop music, and so on.

The reason I use the metaphor of the Big Bang is that no one is quite sure what’s left in the middle. The core of the photographic explosion is now in doubt. We’re not sure what photography is. And lots of clever people including philosophers, photographers and lawmakers, when you get to copyright, are asking, ‘what’s left in the middle?’ It’s either an interesting post-modern phenomenon where photography isn’t what we thought it was, or it’s something very different to that – something where we might gradually see that photography isn’t actually a thing in its own right; its done its work, its taught us how to think.

On the most obvious, basic level, at the beginning of the twentieth century, people suddenly realised that photography had profoundly changed the notion of aesthetics. Where we’d previously looked for grace, harmony, balance and some kind of cultural virtue, clearly, once photography does its thing – with things being very interesting when they’re not properly framed, or when perspective is squished – ugliness, squalor, and pain slide onto light sensitive surfaces just as easily as grace and harmony. So photography blew away 500 years of aesthetics. Everybody knows that, that’s not [coming from] me – you can find all sorts of quotes for that. But I think photography did the same thing to lots of very other important fields. And I think that’s the place where we are now.

GP: If this middle no longer exists, then what replaces it? Do we have to create that middle, or try to find something that could take its place? What should the next step be? Do you think we’re scared to face these changes? Perhaps there is a sense that it’s safer to cling on to what’s gone before and what we believe we think photography is? Are we thinking outside of traditional realms of photography or do we need to force the issue?

FH: There are people thinking about these things in very interesting and successful ways, but there is also what you describe – fear. But I find the parallel is exactly like the early days of photography where people were absolutely convinced that photography was going to change industry. There was a huge debate at the Great Exhibition of 1850 as to whether photography should be a product or a process. There’s lots of good writing about this. And I find this exactly parallel to what’s going on now. Take the carte de visite. The idea was hugely popular and not at all dissimilar to how people are working with Instagram now. The carte de visite was considered vulgar and popular and allowed a new kind of social class to play with these things. And it was cheap; it completely altered the mechanics of social interaction among the people who had access to it. So I don’t see how there is any great newness in the philosophical positions, I just think the phenomena at stake need to be thought of afresh.

People are rushing headlong to use the new possibilities of photography, and doing very interesting things with them – that’s great. There’s no problem there. And if you can hang onto some of the cultural wealth that the analysis of photography has produced already, then you can make better sense of these other ways of doing things. I’m excited by the astonishing things one can do with post-photographic tools. The Prix Pictet, in which I’ve been involved since the beginning, remains an astonishing way of getting powerful ideas out to vast numbers of people, which actually change lives. It’s not an art project; it’s a political discourse about globalisation. And that’s done through photographs – like great documentary filmmakers who affect political change even though their stuff is distributed through Hollywood. That’s great – there is nothing wrong with that at all. I’ve no doubt that the root efficiency of photography is not under threat, it is just there are lots of new players and new ways of playing coming in and jostling for attention. I suppose my job is to try and make sense of some of those as they come.

GP: What is your take on photobooks and their function as you see it within contemporary photography?

FH: I’m relatively sceptical about the present explosion of the photobook. The reasons for that are multiple. One of them is the rise of self-publishing; it’s been done under an illusion. When a customer buys a photobook that has come out of this self-publishing or nearly self-publishing market, they still think they’re buying something that has been validated and paid for by a person or a cooperation that has committed to those pictures and that way of telling a story. And that is no longer true. Even utterly respectable publishers are now asking the photographers to pay for the print run or the galleries are paying for it. There’s an illusion of independence, which I think hasn’t been advertised enough. Which is not at all to say that I find all photobooks bad – far from it. But the photobook boom flies under an illusion of neutrality or objectivity when a lot of it is marketing.

The circulation figures of photobooks are simply not in tune with what photography is. It’s very rare to have a photobook that sells a thousand copies. It is closer to the vanity publishing of a few bad sonnets by Victorian poets. I’ve got nothing at all against photobooks. Like everyone else I get a huge hit from the good ones; but, this is not the mass communication medium that we knew all those years ago. This is a medium which is addressing itself to a small and self-selecting group of photobook collectors, many of whom buy two copies of books – they keep one in cellophane, just in case it will be worth more money later on.

So out of your thousand copies of a book, perhaps only 300 are sold to be viewed. This is actually a tiny, self-sustaining sector of a market. As long as one doesn’t have any illusions about that, it’s a jolly interesting phenomenon with lots being produced that’s very exciting. But my view is that people aren’t very clear about that. So you have lots of new interest in the photobook – at fairs and auctions – and lots of photobook activity left, right and centre… but actually, that does not equate to a great boom in the influencing of people through images, which is what photography at its root, was.

For example, if you go to see a show like Donovan Wylie’s great exhibition Vision as Power at the Imperial War Museum, which explore modern-day surveillance, what you see is a really fantastic set of objects that are three or four feet across. And when you buy the book of those things you get an index of what you saw, a kind of sequence. But there is no great mass communication hit from that book. The photobook is the catalogue of a really powerful and publically effective exhibition. Huge numbers of people thought about the way modern colonialism works in different ways to the ways they’d thought about it before, but not through the book. The exhibition and the magazine publications that come out around the time of the exhibition are doing a really powerful communication job. But the book is not, even though it is a jolly good book. And that to me seems likes a really frequent phenomenon. The project comes out, it’s done in a show, the show is publicised in magazines, and the magazines get 20 to 40,000 people seeing the thing, not for very long. Those [articles] are reproduced online, that gets 100,000 people seeing the thing – online – if it’s exciting, and at the end, there is a high value, small, circulation object – the book, which is collectable but no longer has very much heft in the communication moment that’s at stake. And that seems to me to not yet have been articulately shared with people. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that photobooks are crap, I’m saying that the job they do is not the job that they purport to do.

GP: You’ve worked and continue to work in many different areas within photography – from education, as professor of the culture of photography at the University of Brighton, to the art world, through the consultancy work that you do and your time at Sotheby’s as head of the photography department, commercially, and of course in your writing for the Financial Times and other publications and institutions. How, for you, do these different disciplines relate to each other, and how do you manage to keep all the plates in the air, so to speak?

FH: I think of them all as being parts of the same thing. To be personal about it, I am surprised to find I am still completely taken by photography. It was possible, when I started to write about photography all those years ago, that I thought this was just a field I was in, and I would move to another field, and then another one. And I’m surprised to find that in dodging and weaving in the way that I have, I have kept my own interest absolutely on the boil the whole time. I’m not in the slightest bit bored by photography or by the functions I take within photography. But I’ve taken a lot of different functions. I’ve never been a picture editor on a magazine for 30 years; I’ve done a bit of this and a bit of that. The CV is very slalom shaped. But I do think that they’re all part of the same thing.

I still believe that photography is by far the most important medium of the latter part of the twentieth century – more important than prose and more important than cinema. No exaggeration. Photography is transnational, it’s transcultural. It is available to five-year-olds, it is available to professors of photography. It’s amazing how it is not a limited medium. No other medium equals it in its efficient transmission of powerful messages – certainly not prose. People are less literate than they were but they are more literate in photographs than they used to be, and that is pretty powerful. One could argue that photography is dropping off a bit from those great heights, and its other cousins are jostling up against it, but they’ve all developed from photography. Video games are derived from photography, as is cinema, and actually quite a lot of journalism too. These huge industries which people don’t think of as being post-photographic, I most certainly do. The fashion business doesn’t make any sense without photography. Photography is absolutely at the core of fashion, which is a billion-dollar industry and has been for years. I see photography as being close to either a key or the key to everything else.

Image courtesy of Francis Hodgson. © Anton Corbijn.

Tom Wood

Men and Women

Essay by Francis Hodgson

There is something hard to grasp about the lifetime of powerful photography produced by the Liverpool photographer Tom Wood. His pictures overlap with other things that we know. They overlap with other pictures, for a start. Wood does the ‘peculiarity of the British’ like a Homer Sykes or a David Levenson (recently published by Café Royal Books and The Sunday Times). He can do schoolgirls like a Markéta Luska?ová. He can do men at work like an Ian Beesley or an Ian Macdonald. Nightclubs, of course, he has done for years, and some of the pictures look like Billy Monk or PYMCA.

Wood is a sociologist, ethnographer, local historian, political campaigner, novelist, autobiographer. He has made long studies of the football culture, and hilarious one-liners which you just have to see to get. It gets worse: Wood uses medium format, panoramic, little cameras, big ones. He uses all sorts of lighting arrangements.

Here he is, in the transcribed interview he gave to annotate a file of brilliant pictures of the Cammell Laird shipyard he made in 1996 on a commission for the Documentary Photographic Archive, now deposited at Greater Manchester County Record Office: “I used different types of film for the sake of economy. When I started I tended to use what film I had in stock. So I had some date-expired Konica, but I also had free film from Jessops including Fuji Reala, so I used that. The negative film doesn’t make much difference at this size as long as you expose correctly. The colour balance is being altered all the time due to long exposures and different lighting sources – tungsten or welding or fluorescent. At the same time I would use fill-in flash. This messes up the colour, but that’s O.K.”

If we define a photographer by his technique, we get nowhere much with Wood. But that is OK; a photographer like Wolfgang Tillmans has much of the same elusive refusal to stay in one conveniently marketable box. If we begin to define him by his subject material, we get a little closer: as far as I know, Wood has not done much in the way of would-be Zen black pebbles, or shiny modernist architectural details. I rather doubt he has done many product shots of perfume bottles, either. Even so, it would be a mistake to prejudge the question. Martin Parr (who himself made great work at New Brighton, the garish beach resort at the end of the Wirral, north of Birkenhead, in the very heart of Wood’s hunting grounds) makes a lot of commercial pictures for fashion magazines, and so have people like Nick Waplington. There is no a priori reason why Wood should not do the same, although, again, I do not know that he has. So you cannot easily define Wood by what he does, and you need to be careful defining him by what he has not yet done.

Many years ago, when I worked at The Photographers’ Gallery, we represented Matthew Dalziel (who was not then yet Dalziel + Scullion) and held a particular set of pictures of his called Images for Hugh. They commemorated a friend who had died in an industrial accident. They were close large format views of a workplace, in colour, and there was something about the In Memoriam status they held that demanded the most exceptional care in the scrutiny. The photographer had done his looking harder than normal, and somehow as viewers it was only fair to do the same. I saw lots of people over a period of months look quite casually at those pictures, and then with a double-take, look harder, feeling the seriousness before they knew why. I pretty much consistently find that same experience when looking at Tom Wood.

He is one of those photographers who often publish with not much in the way of explanation. His recent show at The Photographers’ Gallery was strict and austere in the presentation – to the point, I may say, of letting him down a little. Two minutes in his company on the opening night provided me with five or ten little details about pictures which nobody who had not the chance of meeting him could have known. Indeed, Wood is one of the photographers I would like to sit down and listen to at length – I think it is fair to say he has not had the chance properly to put the back story yet. But one can see without knowing the details, if one looks hard enough. The details which matter will somehow spring to the eye. Wood demands that.

He includes, for example, a number of pictures of his family and of those around him in his work with no hint that they are closer than any other sitter. He might use their names in a caption, but since he photographs intensely in a relatively restricted area, he knows the names of a lot of people. He also is quite happy to shelter pictures by other people under his own umbrella without necessarily feeling obliged to use terms like ‘appropriation’ or ‘repurposing’. So he told Sean O’Hagan of The Guardian about his terrific picture of a woman lying collapsed by a road: “That’s not even my photograph. She’s my Auntie, but a friend of hers took the picture. I love it so I put it in there.” He is informal like that, irregular in his photographic habits and hard to pin down.

He is known for taking many hundreds of pictures on each project, and that has done him harm. I have heard him disparaged with remarks along the lines of the ten thousand hours principle (that Malcolm Gladwell discussed in his book Outliers) – that anybody can become good at anything if they put that time into it. My take on it is that I could not care less whether it is the hours or the most instinctive natural talent, but he must be the most remarkable editor, to take only what he wants from that volume and not be bogged down by it. Certainly, by whatever magic it is achieved, he does not often release pictures that are less than interesting. He is varied and non-formulaic, and his curiosity is piqued by different kinds of things in different scenes, but he is unerring.

Here is a picture of a man in a pub. It is suitably blurred, but the man is looking just near the camera, tie beginning to come adrift. His face is pleasant but his eyes are at the extreme edge of their orbits, as he turns towards the camera. The skin tones are too red – or just red enough for the cruddy lighting on licensed premises. A few golden flickers off gaudy joinery in the background provide the kind of twinkle that used to come from candlelight. A flare of light occupies about ninety degrees of a circle below the man’s chest, like a little reminder of what it’s like to look through the bottom of a glass. All in all, it is only a little study of a man in the pub, with bonhomie and potential threat in an easy balance. It is a subtle and fine picture, although like so many of Wood’s you could miss it if you are not concentrating. It is only called Untitled, 2010. Does it make any difference that this man Wood photographed is in fact Graham Smith, one of the subtlest photographers ever to have raised a camera (or a glass!) in a pub, the Hermann Melville of the drinking culture? You would not expect to know that, but it is another layer in the picture when you do.

Wood has been a connoisseur’s photographer. His publisher’s website quotes a nice compliment to him from Lee Friedlander. Chris Killip is known to admire some of what he has done. At long last he is now receiving his first ever UK retrospective at the National Media Museum in Bradford. It is well overdue, and I shall tell you why.

Over many years Tom Wood has deliberately put aside all that makes it too easy to latch onto this or that set of pictures. He has destroyed the familiar, often crude, pegs upon which we hang our approval. So many photographers grub about until they have a formula, and then force all their pictures into the same mould. Not Wood. Forever unsatisfied, never content to make a series when a single picture will do, his curiosity and his intellectual powers always fully engaged, he has roamed around making pictures of the world he lives in. Then he has roamed about in the pictures until he has found the telling details, the arrangements that add up to more than the sum of their parts. He is a brilliant but uncomfortable communicator: he reminds me often of Ian Dury, as it happens. He is brilliant at things like composition and sequencing and lighting and framing; but where most photographers end their pictures with those things, he starts with them. Enjoy those things, and then, if you look hard enough, you can get irony and wit and humanity in spades. But it is the looking that Wood demands.

I think of Tom Wood as quite a Dickensian photographer. His real subject matter is not this or that group or subculture, and the way they carry on. What he is really about is the pressure that morals and ethics and manners find themselves under from circumstance. People are often kind or gentle in Tom Wood’s pictures, even in the meanest-looking of circumstances. It is not a style, and it is not a technique, and it is not even really a subject. It is a mistake to think of what Wood does as reportage or street photography or this or that benighted project. He is just a man who has found the means to say important things to those who take the trouble to care.

Tom Wood was born in 1951 in County Mayo in the west of Ireland. He lived and worked on Merseyside between 1978 and 2003 before he moved to his current home in North Wales. Wood has published numerous books, including Bus Odyssey, People, All Zones Off Peak and Looking for Love. His latest book, Men and Women, will be published by Steidl in 2013. He has had solo and group exhibitions worldwide and his work is represented in the collections of major international museums. Tom Wood: Photographs 1973-2013 is a collaboration between the National Media Museum and The Photographers’ Gallery London.

All images courtesy of the artist. © Tom Wood