Part One of Two- John Bulmer Interview

9 May

In April, I had the honor of interviewing John Bulmer, one of our featured photographers. It was a great experience. What follows is the first part of the interview. I should have the second part up early next week, so please check back for more. This interview has been condensed into a short 10 minute film that will be available at the Hereford Photography Festival.

John Bulmer Interviewed by Carey Gough

CG: I thought we could start at the beginning. When you first became interested in photography you were studying engineering at Cambridge University. Can you tell us what made you turn to photography-especially as it was not part of the curriculum there?

JB: I was meant to be an engineer, but I didn’t spend much time studying engineering. I spent most of my time taking photographs instead. I was keen on photography before I went up to Cambridge. It was like the last of a series of childhood crazes we used to have in those days like meccano, toy trains, and things like that. And it kind of stuck. I think that before the days of ipods, iphones, and television, people used to do far more practical things, and photography was a practical thing to go in the darkroom and make images, and it stuck.

CG: Did you have a darkroom back then?

JB: I had a darkroom in a cupboard at home, yes. And then when I went up to Cambridge, we had a university newspaper that had a darkroom, and I spent most of my time taking pictures or in there.

CG: That is where you started Image Magazine.

JB: Yes.

CG: You started showing other people’s work, like Don McCullin…

JB: Well, Image was a picture magazine that was started by a group of us. I was one of the co-founders. We were very aware in those days that there wasn’t much of a picture magazine in Britain. The Picture Post had long since died, and there was nothing to fill its place. There were newspapers, but in America, there were things like the Life Magazine, which were like a big world and hugely exciting to us. But there was nothing in England in the way of picture magazines in those days.

CG: How many people did Image reach and how well was it received?

JB: Well, Image was well received, but it had a tiny circulation. We would go around and bully our friends into taking out ads and things, but it was a very, very small circulation magazine. Ironically, actually, when the founders left Cambridge, we managed to sell it on to Michael Heseltine who, as you know, went on to become a well-known politician, because he had a series of magazines for graduates. So, at least we sold it for its debts and moved on.

CG: So, you left Cambridge then, and when you finished….

JB: Well I didn’t finish at Cambridge, I was actually thrown out six weeks before my finals, and I went up to London, and went to see the Daily Express because I had been doing pictures for them in Cambridge a bit, and I asked them for a job. They kind of laughed at me. But it was chaos in the office. You never could never get anybody’s attention for more than a few minutes, the telephone would ring, something else would happen, and they would call a conference. But after I’d been there three days, they said, “Oh well, actually we’re a bit short next week. Could you help us out for a couple of days?” And I stayed there two years.

CG: Do you remember what your first assignment was?

JB: The big assignment during that first week was a story about a gang of East End youths who joined the Territorial Army so they could go and have a license to beat people up. So, it was them going out as a gang, more or less, on patrol with the Territorials. And it made a Photo News, which was like a half page spread they had in the paper. But the only thing was, the gang didn’t like our story very much, and they came into the office to try and beat me up. Fortunately, I wasn’t there.

CG: So, you get to the Daily Express, and you were the first person to bring a 35 mm camera, is that correct?

JB: Everyone in Fleet Street in those days used to use Rolleiflexes. That was the standard camera, a rolleiflex with a flashgun on the side. I had been sort of under the influence more of things like Life Magazine and was entirely a 35 mm person. So, although they did give me a Rolleiflex, one got stolen and the one got run over by the Queen Mother’s car, and so I ended up without one, and I shot everything on 35 mm. I found that it was an advantage because if you went to something like a society wedding with a wide-angle lens, you could just dive in the middle of things, and you could get pictures that other people just couldn’t get. So, I thought the days of Rolleiflexes were over really.

CG: Can you explain what the advantages were of the 35mm?

JB: A Rolleiflex camera is a roll film camera with a 6×6 frame and a fixed lens so you couldn’t change the angle. Whereas 35mm cameras all had interchangeable lenses, and you could have two cameras around your neck, one with a wide-angle lens and one with a telephoto. It meant that you could dive into the action and get pictures that other people couldn’t get. To put it in a way more bluntly, you could walk in front of the other photographers and drive them crazy. But you got the picture and they didn’t that way. Or you could use a telephoto and get things from a distance.

CG: During your photographic career, photography had a very different culture than it does now. Though there was certainly a very image-oriented culture that was constantly gaining momentum, it was a different intensity to our over saturated experience now. It could be said, today we take photographs for granted. Can you talk to us about the differences?

JB: The difference was that in those days there weren’t that many magazines. If you did a story for Queen Magazine or Town Magazine, anybody who had any kind of connection with the media world or who looked at things visually would have seen that. And it was the same when the Sunday Times Magazine started. Any big story you had in that magazine, everybody you knew would have seen it. Whereas now, there is so much around, it is hard to get noticed in that way so that is a big change.

CG: Do you think it was easier to become a photographer back then? To become well known?

JB: I don’t know that it was easier, necessarily. The competition to get into Fleet Street on a national newspaper was still very great. I think I was unusual that I was the only amateur that made it to a full time job in Fleet Street without working for provincial newspapers first. When the, and maybe I am jumping the gun a bit, Sunday Times Magazine started and they were looking for photographers to work in colour, there was just nobody around because the magazine photographers that existed in the country had worked for the Picture Post, which had gone broke just a few years before. None of them had ever worked in colour. And to my way of thinking, they went out with and shot black and white pictures with colour film in their camera. They didn’t think in colour. It is a different way of thinking. I mean nowadays it seems completely normal to shoot in colour because that’s the way you see things. But we had gotten used to making that transition to black and white, and to suddenly start working in colour was quite a big jump. We regarded it as quite difficult. The reasons it was difficult were, there were several actually. On a technical level, colour film was very slow, it had very poor latitude, cameras did not have built-in light meters, and so it wasn’t that easy to get the exposure right and those kinds of things to start with. Secondly, in terms of how you look at things, the whole process of photography is in a way a process of abstraction. You’re trying to reduce a cluttered world into something you can form into shapes and images that are simple enough to give you some strong impression. Now, if you are going to cover a news story and somebody in a red t-shirt is standing in the background, that can give you real problems in spoiling your picture. In black and white, it doesn’t really matter. But in colour, that red t-shirt will ruin your otherwise beautifully composed picture. And what I did, I think, that nobody else did, was to go out and take pictures in fog and rain and things like that because colour photography was considered something you did on sunny days. It wasn’t considered something you do in the north of England or in rain or fog.

CG: Can you tell us about sharing a dark room with Philip Jones Griffiths?

JB: Well, I knew Philip Jones Griffiths from the very early 60’s. I think I first met him on an Aldermaston March, which he was covering for the Guardian, and I was covering for the Daily Express. I was immediately struck by his wit and intelligence, and he was a total anarchist. He didn’t believe in any of the establishment. We became friends, and then later we shared a dark room because it was during the time he was working on his Vietnam book, and he was away a lot of the time. But he was a wonderful technician. And we worked together well because he had been a chemist, and I had been an engineer. So, between us we able to pool our knowledge to build a system for making colour duplicates that was better than anybody else’s. Of course, that’s now irrelevant because now of digitizing no one needs colour duplicates.

CG: Was it your idea to take colour photographs? Was it an idea you had been toying with?

JB: I think that I obviously had taken a few colour photographs, but primarily like everybody else in the country, I was a black and white photographer, and the reason was that all the outlets were black and white; all the magazines I was working for were black and white. Things like Queen Magazine that I worked for, they would never have used colour for normal editorial. They used it for fashion and advertising and things like that, but the sort of editorial work they were doing was black and white. When the Sunday Times started in 1963 with their colour section, as they called it, that was the first time any magazine had ever seriously used colour for documentary work. And so it was something quite new.

CG: Can you tell us a little bit more about taking photographs in the fog and the rain?

JB: I think, first of all, I was given an assignment for the Sunday Times to photograph the North of England. Everybody thought of the North of England as a kind of black and white subject, a sort of grey old dowdy thing. But I think you can get even more of an impression of that in colour as long as you don’t take it on bright sunny days but work in fog and rain and poor light and things like that. I think that can give a very strong impression of a mood of a place. And I think also because colour tends to shout out at you rather, that colour photographs are better done in subdued light and situations.

CG: You are also known for your photographs of Northern Britain. This was a topic that was much photographed in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Can you tell us what its appeal was to you and your contemporaries?

JB: Well, I think that to me, when I used to look at things like Life Magazine, and I used to be very hooked on photographs of exotic places. I longed to go to New Guinea and South America and all those sorts of places. And actually to us in London, the North of England was an exotic place, and you were able to take pictures that were not mundane, that were not ordinary. I think all photographers really are trying to find something that is out of the ordinary and has that sort of wow factor and makes people sit up and look. I think the North of England came into that category. It was something to us in the South, as we were then, something unusual and interesting.

CG: Had you ever been to the North of England before you photographed it?

JB: Before I photographed in the North, although I had passed through on the way to Scotland, I had never really lingered in the industrial North. That is something that I discovered when I started photographing. To me, it was an extraordinary discovery. It was like coming across an undiscovered tribe in New Guinea or something. It was so exotic.

CG: You have a lovely relationship with your subjects in your photographs. How did you make your way in with the people you were photographing?

JB: Firstly, everyone is just in the street. I was a great fan of Cartier-Bresson, and Cartier-Bresson’s technique is to be almost invisible and just take pictures without people being aware of it. And I believed in that way of working primarily. Although, ultimately you sometimes do get to know people, but I didn’t go in there trying to draw attention to myself. Some people do that more; for example, Don McCullin, whose work I admire enormously, his approach is much more to take photographs of people reacting to him rather than to take pictures unobserved like Cartier-Bresson. And everybody is different. Some people want to work one way or the other, but I tend to want to be unobtrusive. But you also do need to get inside certain places, and you do sometimes befriend people. I remember taking pictures in a steel foundry in the Black Country, and there was a young lad who was at a steel press. I went out that evening with him to the pubs, and he drank 17 pints of beer, and I could see he lost so much moisture in the day; he needed to make it up again. But he took me home, and I photographed his family in his little tiny terraced house, and they kept saying I must come back there and spend my holidays with them. They had as little idea about our lives as we had had of their lives in a way.


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