Tom Wood, Mirror Mersey (1989)
There’s so much studious mirroring in Tom Wood’s Mirror Mersey — almost too much. At first glance, his picture has the easygoing look of a fortunate first glance. It has the pleasing serendipity and taken-for-granted immediacy of an unpressured, unposed snap. But look again and the photograph intensifies as an involving matrix of intricate visual symmetries. Acutely observed and steadily handled, it’s an image of impeccable compositional balance. Two young women on Liverpool’s Mersey ferry sit facing each other: two pale presences on the boat’s dark benches. One has dark brown hair; the other’s is yellowy-blonde. The blonde wears white; the brunette wears yellowy-brown. They’ve chosen near-identical outfits — one-piece jumpsuits with the sleeves and legs rolled up — in the committed way that close friends do. Everything matches here. The white handbag on the right-hand bench neatly corresponds to the white trainers resting on the left-hand bench. The chestnut hair and white t-shirt neck-line of the figure on the right are almost — in a moment of extraordinary photographic insight —a continuation of the wooden handrail and white painted barrier at the side of the boat. And note too how perfect her ensemble-completing earring is within this scene: an entirely fitting little circle of white and brown stripes that seems a bright, highlighted spot amongst the multiple intersecting diagonals of the boat’s own white and brown fittings. Beyond, the city of Liverpool is itself a blurry medley of varied browns and off-whites — an uneven, not-quite-horizontal stretch of busy landscape between the twin planes of grey-blue sea and pale-blue sky.
At the centre of the photograph, within all this well-controlled formal composure and correspondence, an everyday human drama is quietly in progress. Between these neatly complementary female figures, something is occurring: something that might be nothing special; something that could be barely anything. Yet as our eye travels back and forth between them, we surely begin wondering about what they’re saying, what they’re thinking, where exactly they’re travelling to. Most particularly, we might hazard guesses at the meaning of what the young woman on the left is holding and showing. And maybe, for a while, the modest mystery of what is passing between these two passengers on this short (and no doubt familiar) ferry journey might seem to be the main source of the photograph’s singular presence and peculiar emotive power. This is a moment of quite ordinary interaction and intimacy, transformed through scrupulous and shrewd artistic framing. But, as we look again and again at the picture, it might be that other factors begin to intervene — other features of the photograph somehow interfere with our leisurely interpretation. For, more precisely, there is a certain something — a something that could be barely anything — in the expression of the young woman on the right that introduces a chill into the seeming warmth of the situation. And more precisely still, isn’t it her deathly pallor that finally overwhelms? It’s a skin-tone that is superficially ‘at home’ within the picture’s balanced scheme, but it’s wholly excessive too, unsettling the sophisticated equilibrium of the image. This is a detail that might offer nothing much of meaningful consequence — but it hints at a force of human feeling that cracks the carefully crafted photographic mirror.