John Bulmer Interview Part Two

19 May

CG: What about the girls with the curlers?

JB: I was just standing at a street corner and saw them coming and snatched a picture. You know, to me that’s the kind of documentary photography I really like. It’s down to anticipation. You have to think ahead, to think where the people are going to be. You have to think what settings, what focus, what exposure, what aperture to have your camera on. And you grab it, because you can’t usually recreate those sort of things.

CG: Did you work too much of a brief when you were making these photographs? Or did you have a subject and they would say just go photograph it?

JB: With the Sunday Times, sometimes I would suggest ideas to them, and they would commission it or not commission it, as the case maybe. Sometimes they would have an idea and ask me to do it. But quite often, it evolved from a discussion and a session where everybody was throwing ideas around. I think it’s mostly like that. Everybody chucks ideas in the pot and some of them kind of emerge as the ones that are goers.

CG: In the late 50’s and 60’s, journalism went through some pretty radical changes. Editors and art directors with new ideas were key to giving photographers such as yourself, Don McCullin, Philip Jones Griffiths a platform for your work. It must have been a very exciting time.

JB: A renaissance of photography in Great Britain came about in the early 60’s, and I think that the one magazine or the one man that really had the biggest influence of all, was Tom Woolsey, closely perhaps followed by Mark Boxer. Tom Woolsey was picture editor of Town Magazine and Mark Boxer was editor of Queen Magazine. They both were very visually adventurous. Town Magazine started doing things that were way ahead of its time. It was surprising because it really was a men’s fashion magazine, but the documentary stories they did were nothing to do with fashion. It was funny because Don McCullin and I were doing editorial material, and David Bailey and Terence Donovan were doing fashion. So, there was a lot of interesting material in there. But, of course, it was primarily a black and white magazine. By 1963, The Sunday Times started their colour section, and that’s when things really took off because other papers started doing the same thing pretty soon.

CG: Did it feel like there was an air of change, or was it just something that was happening?

JB: Well, it was something that was happening, but it was a strange situation where I found American photographers coming over to work for the Sunday Times Magazine, rather than us going over to work for American magazines. I did work a certain amount for American magazines, like Life and Look, but not very much. I worked quite a lot for a big travel magazine called Holiday. And that was an amazing magazine, they had lots of colour pages and sent people all over the world. But during that decade, I really think the Sunday Times overtook them for visual imagination.

CG: Let’s talk about your work abroad. You have spent a lot of time making films overseas, did you take many photographs before you started your filming?

JB: During the 60’s I did go to a huge number of places. For example, the Sunday Times commissioned me to do a story called The White Tribes of Africa with the writer Richard West. And we went to, I think, 14 countries in Africa within seven or eight weeks. And they commissioned me to do two whole issues on the struggle for power in South America. We went to 90 percent of the countries in South America within a couple of months. There was a huge amount of travel. I did really go all over the place, and I went around the world three times in one year for the Sunday Times, so it was a huge time for travelling, and it was wonderful. It was time when the world was different and when you went somewhere it really was different.

CG: Were these quite remote places you went to?

JB: Some of the trips were remote and others were not. I went into pretty much the remotest parts of New Guinea. But then I also went and did stories on things like New York apartments. I preferred the wild places. That was my thing really.

CG: How prepared did you have to be to go into the remote places?

JB: You’d pack a lot of film and a few antibiotics and things like that, and hope for the best.

CG: As a photographer myself, I have to ask you who were the photographers that got you interested in photography?

JB: I think the first thing that really hit me was the exhibition The Family of Man and the book that went with it. And that suddenly was a wonderfully new open look because up until then, if you went to things like the Royal Photographic Society exhibition or the London Salon of Photography, they were extremely traditional and boring. Nobody was using a camera in a very exciting way. But then the Family of Man came along, and I started looking at Cartier-Bresson’s work, and Eugene Smith did his book on Pittsburgh. Then, while I was at Cambridge, I met some really top photographers that came on assignments. I met Burt Glinn, who came to do a story on Cambridge for a holiday magazine. I met Larry Burrows, who came to do several stories for Life Magazine during the time I was there. I suddenly realized that there was a world out there that was exciting and that it was possible.

CG: You became frustrated with photography in the 70’s and turned to documentary film making. Did you see this as an extension of what you were doing photographically?

JB: By the early 70’s really, I was bored with the still photography I was doing. I think the magazines were heading in different directions. The photographs they wanted became more like the adverts and less exciting. I liked the idea of film, partly because it had a beginning, middle, and an end; it was more of a progression. You don’t go out and do exactly the same thing you did the day before, but you’re moving along. And I think the other thing is that it’s more of a team work. Photography is quite a lonely profession, travelling the world on your own and looking for these images and making the same compositions that you made the day before or the day before that. I was attracted to the idea of film for that reason. And actually came about completely by chance. I was offered the first visa to Burma that anybody had had since the end of the Second World War. I went to the Sunday Times and said, “Look, I’ve got this visa to Burma.” And the new editor said, “Ah, Burma, well that’s not very interesting really.” So I went to the BBC and said, “I’ve never shot a film in my life before, but I’ve got this visa, will you give me some money?” And they said yes and that’s how I came to make my first film.

CG: What was happening in Burma then?

JB: Nothing was happening much, but since the war, no journalist or photographer had been there for 25 years. It was a totally closed country in the way that later North Korea became closed for years, and nobody was allowed in the door. So, it was very exciting just because of that.

CG: Was it somewhere that you personally wanted to go? Did you secure the visa yourself?

JB: No, what happened was, the Burmese stick dancers were coming on a cultural visit to London, and I think that the impresario thought that he would get more people to buy tickets if he got about them in the Sunday Times. So, he was really just looking for publicity. My eyes just lit up at the idea of Burma because it was always a place that I had fantasies about going to. There were a few places in the world that were exotic and closed like Burma and Tibet, and it was just a wonderful opportunity.

CG: Have you been able to go to Tibet?

JB: Yes, I have. In fact, I think I probably shot the first real documentary in far Western Tibet in 1990, something like that. And we got into far West Tibet and that was an extraordinary experience. We actually walked over the Himalayas from Nepal into Western Tibet. It was tough.

CG: What did you find there?

JB: We found the remnants of a lost city. The film was called “In Search for Shangri-la” and we found the remnants of a lost ancient civilization.

I then asked John to talk to me about some of the photos he had in his study on display.


JB: Well, this was taken in the Black Country for a story for Town Magazine. I think it was about 1961. It was at the time I was still working for the Daily Express. I got an arrangement where I could work three days a week, but it was the first three days of one week and the second of the other. So, I had a week on and a week off effectively. So, I spent a week in the Black Country and it’s not far from here, just north and west of Birmingham. But again, it was like a foreign country. You could drive for miles and the only thing you could find to eat were pork scratchings. It was amazing, and it was so exotic. I really loved it. This is one of my favourite pictures. It’s just so simple, a street going two ways and one old man. I didn’t ask him to do it, it was just grabbed. And you can see his breath; it was so cold because it was in the middle of winter.

CG: Was it in the morning? There’s a milk float there.

JB: I imagine it was early in the morning. But I remember the hotel I stayed in Wolverhampton had no heating in the bedroom. I remember going down early in the morning to try and get people going to work. There was ice in some places on the road. I had never been so cold in all my life. It was horrible!

CG: When you were in the Black Country, was it more reportage? Were you just walking around?

JB: It was reportage. I just drove around until I saw a likely area, and then I just walked around. I didn’t have anything set up. One of the other interesting things in those days, you could just walk into places in a way you couldn’t now. There was a steel foundry where they were pouring moulten steel into a mold and hitting it with a press. They allowed me to just walk in there and photograph it. That’s inconceivable now with health and safety.

john bulmer

JB: This one is in Papau, New Guinea in 1963. I’d actually been doing a story for the Sunday Times on Australia. We interviewed one of the heads of a local airline, incidentally, and he offered me a free ticket to New Guinea so I took it. I went up there and this is a place called Mount Hargon. It was about two or three hours walk from the town that I was taken by the local comissioner. It was really untouched in those days, there were no roads. This is what’s called a head turning ceremony. In the same way as the village dance, the young man would ask one of the girls to dance, which meant headturning. They would put their foreheads together and sway in time with the music. The music was the old men at the end of the hut chanting. As you can see, one girl got the young man and the other didn’t and she’s looking jealous as hell. But what I loved was the fact that human emotions were the same in this sort of situation. Technically this was quite a challenge, too, because it was completely dark in there. There was no light in there at all because it was night. I hate direct flash. The ceiling was completely black from the smoke of the fire so what I did, I wedged a couple of banana leaves on the roof and bounced a flash off a banana leaf and that is how this is lit.

CG: Would you have seemed exotic to them?

JB: I’m sure I seemed extremely exotic to them. The other thing I remember here, I asked the local district commissioner what I should take as a present for them because I knew we were going to this head turning ceremony or a courting ceremony. He said, “You should bring a tin of tobacco and a bag of beads.” So I went along to the local store and bought this huge tin of tobacco and a large bag of beads thinking that the tobacco would be for the men and the beads for the girls. And when I got there, the women all descended on the tobacco and the men all descended on the beads.

john bulmer

JB: This was taken in West Hartlepool. It was at a time where they used to gather sea coal off the beach. I think Hartlepool had the highest unemployment rate in the country, which is why it was a place of interest. There were seams of coal out at sea and every morning at low tide, you’d see them scraping coal off the beach and loading it into sacks and carrying them on their bicycles or pony carts and so on. This is an old man on the sea front trying to get warm throwing his arms around himself.

CG: Sorry, I’m showing my age. What is sea coal?

JB: It’s simply ordinary coal dust that comes through underwater seams. Obviously mines have seams and sometimes they come up underwater so the coal just gets washed up on the beach and they beach becomes black with this sea coal. I actually made a film later called The Black Beach. It was an extraordinary place.


CG: This is one of my favourites.

JB: These are pit ponies in a drift mine in County Durham. This was part of a story for the Sunday Times on the North of England. This was my first big colour story on the North. It’s a good example of what I was talking about taking colour pictures in fog and mist. It simplifies everything, you get rid of extraneous things in the background, and there is a certain quality to it.

CG: What were they doing when you got there?

JB: You notice their faces are clean. They are waiting to go down the mine. I’ve got other pictures, which you might have seen, of some of them after their shift. But this particular one they are still clean, and they were about to go down the mine. I did quite a few mines and one of the amazing things, again, was the access which you’d never have now. I remember one mine they just let me in, I walked in the shower room and filmed the men stark naked, cleaning themselves up after their shift. That sort of access you’d never get now.

CG: Were they quite welcome to you being there? Were they interested in being photographed?

JB: Yes. They were just interested and friendly. There was no big deal about it, but they were real relaxed about it.

CG: Do you think people have a different attitude about being photographed as we are photographed so many times a day now?

JB: I think that’s true. Years later, I was involved with a film for the BBC in Whitby. It was about Ian Berry who is a Magnum photographer going back and photographing in the same sort of area as a famous Victorian photographer, I think his name was Sutcliffe, had been. And we went to a dance hall, and Ian Berry was photographing people with his Leica. They were very suspicious. They didn’t know what it was quite, and they were worried about it. Whereas, when I came and put my big movie camera in their face, they’d say, “Oh, is that the telly?” And I’d say yes. “Oh, that’s alright then.” Because the telly was something they watched every night, and being on the telly was something normal to them. But someone with a small Leica was really worrying because they didn’t know what it was. So, I think there was an element of that. In my time, people used to accept things more. They were a working class who were used to being a bit downtrodden and they were used to people coming around and doing odd things to them. They probably just accepted it.

CG: I guess they were less suspicious as well.

JB: That’s right. I don’t think they felt people were going to exploit them in the same way.

CG: Well John, thanks for your time today. It has been most enjoyable and enlightening!


2 Responses to “John Bulmer Interview Part Two”

  1. James Clarke May 20, 2009 at 9:22 pm #

    Hi there
    My name is James Clarke and I work at Hereford College of Arts. Two of my filmmaking students have rendered a very elegant short film about John Bulmer’s work so please do check it out at the festival.


  2. Lynnette Neal May 29, 2010 at 8:27 am #

    You’ve done it once more! Amazing read!

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