Bradford, UK-based photographer Thomas Wood doesn’t like to tell his subjects how to pose. And maybe that’s why he’s had the opportunity to shoot portraits, both intimate and epic, of everyone from Olly Murs to The 1975. He talks to us about his love for medium format film, what it’s like to be on tour and how a chance encounter at a music festival launched his career.
Can you start by telling us a bit about when you first started getting into photography?
I think my interest stemmed from borrowing my mum’s camera on family holidays when I was maybe 13/14. It was a heavy Praktica SLR, one of the early affordable ones. I’d put it into manual mode with no actual idea on how to use it and take the cliché photos of flowers with an “out of focus” background. I always got told off for leaving it on manual and my mum not being able to use it [laughs]. Those are my initial memories of photography but I’d say that it may even go back to being super young when I’d want to look through the viewfinder of my dads chunky 90s VCR camera and then playing with his 35mm film camera, a Praktica MTL3, which he gave me and I still use today actually.
Was there a specific moment where you realized that you felt really passionate?
There is actually one moment I can remember, I was photographing a local festival as one of my first jobs. I was assisting one of the senior photographers for the weekend but found a moment to myself one evening and approached an act called King Charles. I went over, introduced myself and asked to take his photo. He wasn’t too interested in standing in front of the branded fences as I’d been briefed on but instead climbed onto the side of a nearby JCB. It had fallen dark and I was using a cheap camera I’d borrowed from my college. I just flicked up the on-camera flash and hoped for the best. It wasn’t until later that night I realized I’d shot a portrait no one else had, and in a style no one else had. Away from artists giving placid poses stood unwillingly in front of a logo I’d intimately photographed him doing something he felt comfortable with that differed to how every other person had captured him. That got me hooked and I spent the rest of the weekend chasing that – despite nearly being kicked out a couple of times [laughs].
Did you go through a phase where it was purely a personal hobby or have you always know you wanted to work in photography professionally?
I think up until college I’d only viewed it as a hobby. I used to shoot friends on our BMX bikes at the local skatepark but that was about the full extent of it. I knew I had some artistic capability and interest in being creative so took photography as an A-Level. Instagram wasn’t as big of a deal when I was starting out and the access to thousands of professional photographers didn’t present its self as easy. It wasn’t until I started researching various photographers that I understood how many career options there are within photography and started taking it seriously.
Your images are very natural and intimate. Your subjects, famous or unknown seem to really let you in. It just feels honest. How important is it for you to connect to the person you photograph? We would love to hear a bit more about how you create this kind of atmosphere for your subjects to open up.
I’m so glad that comes across in my imagery, it’s something I always strive for! I think sometimes you can lose someone when you direct them too much, “pose this way” and “put your hand there” etc. I feel that then becomes your vision of them. You’re only ever going to be able to capture one side of someone’s personality so it’s never going to be a true representation of them as a whole but I’d like to get as close to that as possible. I think maybe I’m quite relaxed so that energy is reflected on my sitters but I’ll always let the person lead themselves with minor adjustments from me. Or if I see something great I’ll shout it at them!
You are super established for a young creative – that’s awesome! How do you keep inspired and true to your original love for taking pictures?
Thank you! It is something that’s difficult and I think that most artists struggle with it when there’s so much repetition on the various social platforms we have access to. My ideas are always rooted in capturing the essence of whoever I’m photographing and that was my original draw to photography as a medium. I’m constantly thinking about who else’s life can I offer a brief window into and how I can capture that. That really excites me. As long as I continue photographing the things that excite me I think I’m staying true to my original love for taking pictures.
On the flipside of that, do you feel there is a hustle to keep creating and keep fresh in order to stay ahead of the curve? How do you handle that?
Definitely, there always is. As a creative person you always want to be putting out new work so if I’m not shooting I’ll be researching or planning my next project. I’m constantly researching, be that reading a magazine, online features or interviews, Instagram, Pinterest etc. I also watch a lot of tutorials and behind the scenes videos of film sets, those really interest me, seeing how the cogs turn. If I don’t know something I’ll google or YouTube it and try learn something new every day. On top of that, I try not to compare myself to other photographers, although the competitive nature in me does sometimes take over, but analyze their images – how they’ve used a light source or why they might have used the angle they have.
You recently went on tour with Lany. Can you tell us a bit of what it is like to be on the road and the sort of moments you enjoyed capturing there?
It’s great! The opportunity to travel and see some of the things I have really is once in a lifetime. More often than not you’re really tired and jet-lagged from moving around so much, or you’ll wake up and not know what city you’re in but it’s all part of the experience. I think some people think it may be a bit monotonous shooting the same thing every night but that couldn’t be further from the truth. You’re in a new city every day, a different venue with different people and culture. Each day is a catalyst to create something completely different from the previous. I’ve loved shooting a lot of backstage and candid images on those tours which really is driven by the fact it’s something I love looking at myself. All the old Annie Leibovitz images of The Rolling Stones on tour and seeing what was going on off the stage, super interesting.
Whats it like for you to spend so much intimate time with a band like that? And what do they tell you it’s like for them?
I was never thrown into it as a stranger like “Hey you’re on tour with us for 7 weeks nice to meet you” [laughs]. The level of trust has been built up over time. I first met the guys at Leeds Festival while shooting a portrait for a magazine and then met up with their singer, Paul Klein, when I was in L.A. the following November. We have quite a lot in common in terms of the style and content of image we like. We both love ‘The Smiths, by Nalinee Darmrong’, a book that’s been used as a reference point countless times while on the road. A couple of months later I shot a small 3 date UK tour with them and our relationship has gone from there. It’s a family vibe when we’re on the road now and we can bump ideas off of one another for any images we might want to create. The band has said they love having me around and that’s enough for me, and the feelings definitely reciprocated. I’ve never been told anything negative so I’m going to take that as a good sign!
It looks like you shoot quite a mix of different kinds of film and digital. What do you love about working with each medium and why?
I love the disconnection from the actual image you get with film. No one is bothered about checking their hair or if they blinked, it’s more about that moment and making sure everything looks good before you look through the viewfinder. People are always more relaxed too which I love, almost as if it sets them at ease. 120mm and Polaroid are my go to’s at present. I love using 120mm the same as I use my Polaroid and shooting fast with it as if it’s a compact camera. I’ve always had great results with that, and you get an upper body workout to boot [laughs]. One thing I love is how smooth the drop off of focus is with medium format film, you get a nice soft feel around the edges. Then contrasting to this I love being able to shoot harsh flash and capture bold colors with my Polaroid photos.
How did working with Polaroid Originals film change your experience of photographing this particular project?
I actually used a ton of film on my recent Asia tour with LANY. I used it for a project initially to document a moment each day but only on the Polaroid camera, so there isn’t actually a digital version of those images, just the individual Polaroid photo exists. Then I’ve created smaller projects within that, so I shot some B&W as a mini-series and used a red flash filter for a series of portraits. I also collaged portrait images using Polaroid’s on LANY’s European tour and shot 4 images to piece together and make one portrait. Plus it’s always nice on trips like that to have something physical as a memory.
What’s in the pipeline for you?
I’m on the road again in June and working on a personal series of portraits. I guess you’d have to keep an eye on my Instagram to find out!