Tom Wood's new exhibition Men and Women at the Photographers' Gallery is a concise but deeply affecting tour through 1970s to 1990s Liverpool. What follows is a poignant, although brief, series of images that capture the gentle spirit of the everyday.

Between 1973 and the early 2000s, Tom Wood has steadily photographed Merseyside, compiling an astonishing selection of images which document the city of Liverpool and its inhabitants. His work is often described as more documentary than artistic, which is easily seen in the series of photos selected for Men and Women. However, allowing Wood's work to fall into this category belittles the effect of what he has achieved. Of course, the aspects of documentary are clear – these are stark images firmly rooted in the aesthetic of reality and fact. Yet within these images there lies a more poetic intention too; they allow the viewer to establish an imagined narrative, forcing us to engage on a level that goes beyond merely what-it-is.

Wood's selection of photographs taken in the period 1990–1999 offer a series of portraits that beautifully display the trends and atmosphere of the time. The aesthetic of the 1990s is on show through a number of reoccurring motifs; from the colourful and vibrant sports leisure wear that seemed to dominate 1990s street fashion to the post 1980s-hangover bleached haircuts. One picture entitled Elesse Line (1999) shows a line-up of six teenagers staring beyond the camera, their cold menacing stares wonderfully juxtaposed with the colourful vibrancy of their clothes. This aesthetic reoccurs throughout Wood's exhibition as the dull colours of the environment play against the brightness of 1990s fashion. It portrays a city in decay, yet the visual presence of its inhabitants emphasise the vitality of a community eager to prosper.

Perhaps the most interesting dialogue between the images taken of 1990s Liverpool is the relationship between the subject and the setting. Figures are found in apparent industrial wastelands, dilapidated concrete marshes that appear more visually associated with wartime Sarajevo than post-Thatcher Liverpool. One image, explicitly called Post War (1990) depicts our bleak urban landscape, populated with two people selling clothes and bric-a-brac out of the back of a car. The buildings on the horizon look unstable, only standing as if hooked onto the grey sky above them. Only with the towers of the Royal Liver Building pushing through the mist does the photograph become rooted firmly within Liverpool, confirming its presence as a third character within the image. With this context, the viewer is immediately asked to make the connection between the familiar media-peddled images of poverty and war to our own cities, seemingly safe from conflict, but in a similar state of neglect.

The relationship between the image and Wood's titles provides further, sometimes amusing, context. A photograph entitled Mad Max (1993) shows us a dockworker in dirty, damp overalls staring blankly at us. The goggles on his head eerily seem to replace the subject's eyes as the origin of the stare. The reference to the 1979 post-apocalyptic film visually connects the two through the bleak, dilapidated aesthetic of post-industrialism. Is the apocalypse found in reality? Visually perhaps, as our association is dominated with worlds created through fiction of rusting, decaying wastelands. But here these wastelands hold within them the livelihoods of the people in Wood's images. It is a simple but incredibly effective creative decision to evoke a sense of the community and humanism within the urban space, however decaying it may look on the surface.

Wood's black and white portraits from the 1970s paint an elegiac picture of women in the domestic space, allowing for a more peaceful reflection of life within the city's homes. With a quiet, sometimes mournful, presence, these images are juxtaposed with more colourful 1990s images of life on the Liverpool streets. Echoing the image of male youths mentioned earlier are images of teenage girls. Scowls are replaced with mischievous grins, the colours bright and bold. This youthful energy is carried through into Wood's portraits of elderly subjects. Graffiti of genitalia features in the background of one stern-looking woman, neatly establishing a dialogue between the city and its generations. Here dignity is marred, however amusingly, by childish insolence. One striking image entitled Three Wise Women (1990) depicts three elderly women shuffling across a car boot sale in the same manner as the familiar Three Wise Men walking across the desert. Instead of carrying riches, they carry second-hand wares and what appears to be a dusty lampshade. It's moments like these that make Wood's photos so striking as he captures the immortal in the everyday.

What Men and Women does so well is marry a city to its people. For all the dampness and neglect found in the buildings that background Wood's photographs, it is the people that inhabit these spaces that give hope to the landscape. It appears that the city is trying to abandon its people, but the people aren't ready to let it go. Out of the graffiti, the broken glass, the shattered bricks and the cracks in the pavement, Wood's subjects ooze determined pragmatism to prosper. A city's identity here is in the people, and Wood shows us that they won't be forgotten.

Tom Wood: Men and Women, at Photographers' GallerySimon Longman reviews Tom Wood: Men and Women at the Photographers' Gallery.4