Vibrant characters captured in 80s and 90s pictures by the ‘Photie Man’
Offering a fascinating snapshot of Merseyside during the 80s and 90s, Tom Wood spent 25 years capturing the life of characters on our streets.
Born in Ireland, Tom, now in his 70s, moved to Merseyside in 1978 and lived here until 2003 and it was during this time that he earned the nickname “Photie Man.” From trips to Greatie market to matchdays at Anfield and Goodison Park to New Brighton’s Chelsea Reach nightclub and Birkenhead‘s Cammell Laird shipyard, Tom would be taking pictures. Since May, a number of Tom’s photos have featured in a new exhibition. “Photie Man: 50 Years of Tom Wood” at the Walker Art Gallery, celebrating over half a century of his work.
Tom has had major retrospectives around the world – in China, France, London – but never in Liverpool, where he photographed every day for 25 years. Tom previously told the ECHO how he wanted to give the work back to the city “where it belongs.”
And this week, November 16, Tom was reunited with a number of the characters and their families featured in his work decades ago for a special event at his exhibition in the city centre. As part of the Liverpool ECHO’s How It Used To Be series, we spoke to the Photie Man and a number of the faces featured in his fascinating photographs for their memories.
The late Tracey Thompson, from Wallasey was snapped by Tom Wood at the now-defunct Chelsea Reach nightclub in New Brighton – a photo that would later become one of Tom’s most famous iconic snaps. The snap shows Tracey with the New Romantic haircut, putting on lipstick with her two friends Christine and Sonia.
Tracey’s sons Chris and Charlie were at the Photie Man reunion event and Chris said the photo of his mum “just captures the 80s.” Chris told the ECHO: “The photo was taken not long after I was born, I was born in 1984 so she used to say she still had her pregnancy fingers in the photo.
“What a time to be alive, the 80s – the fashion, the music. I’m slightly jealous that I wasn’t older in that age – it’s a bit mundane now, everything is social media and digital.
“I think Tom must have been the only person going round with a camera that night. I see myself in my mum and now she’s not here it’s quite emotional but it fills me with joy that long after we’re gone this photo will still be iconic.”
Chris said he also brought his daughter, who is interested in art and photography, to the exhibition to see the famous photo of her nan. After being diagnosed with motor neurone disease, Tracey died in 2019 at the age of 52, but son Chris said whenever the photo appeared online, his mum would “have a smile on her face.”
Chris said: “If she knew about this now, she’d be over the moon. A long time from now people will ask what the 80s are about and this picture will crop up and it will be used for something else.
“It’s that moment in time captured forever. There’s a lot of photos that I look at of her and I think what a time to be alive. There were no cameras, there was no social media – it was just people living in the moment.”
As a teenager, Rachel Crawford, now 56, was first photographed by Tom as a wedding dress model. Over the years, Tom has captured her growing family, with four generations attending his exhibition event.
Many will recognise Rachel from one of Tom’s most popular portraits, which shows her in a red dress standing against a blue background in New Brighton. Rachel told the ECHO: “It was a chance meeting that day.
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“My friends and I had been to the outdoor pool in New Brighton and it was hot but it was so grim. It was slimy on the corners and the edges of the pool – but we had a laugh.
“We were just sixth formers having a nice day out together. I was literally walking home up to the bus stop with my friends and Tom was walking past and about doing his thing and we crossed paths so he took the photo. It’s lovely to come and see it like this.”
Another photo in the exhibition features Rachel years later with her daughter Alice. She said it’s great to have the photos to look back on, which have also been embraced by friends who have visited. She said: “It’s great because everybody has that 15 minutes of fame thing that Andy Warhol said.
“You’ll be with friends or you’re in different parts of the world because I’ve lived in other areas and you can say here’s my 15 minutes of fame, Google Tom Wood girl in the red dress and that usually comes up.
“I had visitors who came to Liverpool, they went to the exhibition earlier on in the summer, they’re from Australia and they really loved it. They said they were a bit ‘Beatled’ out with thing but to come to something like this, to see the photographs and to get an insight into the history of the city, they really embraced that.”
Growing up in Egremont in Wallasey, John Paul Hughes and his family were photographed in their home by Tom for several years. John Paul’s sister, Carol, features in the exhibition, but more photographs have since been unearthed of their family life in the 80s.
John Paul, now 63, told the ECHO: “He used to come around the estate and at first we were all trying to be ‘roughy toughy’s’ and we didn’t know if he was working for the police when he was taking photos because people didn’t really walk around with cameras. Then he befriended everyone and asked could he come in the house – he photographed us over a period of 7 years coming to the house, having a cup of tea and chatting.
“It’s great to see how we changed during the times as well. Some things I did notice, like from a financial point, we still had the same couch, the same carpet over these years, the same wallpaper but it was just a bit more tatty. But you look at those times back, they were happy times.
“I said to Tom and other people here at the exhibition, it’s not just a visual experience, it draws you into emotions from that time. I remember being unemployed, frustrated, angry – but I also had hope.
“It’s quite funny that I look back and these emotions start emerging again. I remember as a young man what it was like, all the aspirations I had.” Since reuniting with Tom, more rare photos have been shared with the family.
John Paul said: “It’s unbelievable. The feedback you get from other parts of the country. People comment on the archive and say this is a powerful photograph and then I’ve responded saying this is my sister, this is my house, this is where we lived, that’s us. It’s great.
“Definitely come and have a look because all of the photographs, even the ones you’re not in, will take you back in time. It’s like a portal to a different dimension. You feel like you’re actually part of it.”
Now 46, Kerry McCulloch, from New Brighton, remembers Tom from her teens in the early 90s. She visited the exhibition to show Tom photos of her and her friends playing in Vale Park that he gave her years ago that have been unseen to the public.
Kerry told the ECHO: “We were about 13 or 14 at the time and that was where we went to hang around at the weekends or in the evenings and in the summer holidays. I loved that time, it was a really free time.
“I remember the photos getting taken and he would be around the park with his little boy, then he passed me the photos because I was in them. Compared to now when there’s tonnes of photos, not everyone has a lot of photos like these.
“It’s just really special to have those moments captured. t’s amazing and now I take my little boy to the park and now I’ve met people in the park who have then come to the exhibition – so it’s come full circle.”
At the event, Tom Wood gave visitors prints they never knew existed and took details to send more to families. He said to give the images back was a “real pleasure” and the “least he could do” and that he hopes to photograph those who featured in the past in new photos.
Tom told the ECHO: “It’s really exciting and emotional. People who you have a rapport with, they give you part of themselves, you’re with them for a few years and then you don’t see them again. So to see them again, they haven’t changed.
“I have never made money my whole life, an average person would make a minimum £20k a year, times 50 years, that’s a million pounds. There’s around 80 people here and an older guy stepped forward and said would you rather leave behind a million pounds or all these pictures and I said these pictures.”
Tom’s photos currently feature in an exhibition called “Photie Man: 50 Years of Tom Wood” at the Walker Art Gallery, celebrating over half a century of his work. The exhibition opened in May and also includes shots from Tom’s ‘Irish Work’, made since the 1970s, together with recent landscape photography made around his current home in North Wales.
Tickets for Photie Man: 50 Years of Tom Wood are on sale now. Adult tickets cost £9, with concessions available – members of National Museums Liverpool can visit for free. On the first Sunday of every month, Liverpool City Region residents can visit the exhibition at the discounted rate of £4.50 for adults and concessions.
The exhibition concludes on January 7, 2024. For further details, click here.
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