ARCHIVE: Interview with John Bulmer


6There are certain photographers from the sixties that everyone knows; there are others who only those in the know are aware of. John Bulmer falls firmly into the second category. At the height of his career in 1970, when both he and Don McCullin were contracted to the Sunday Times Magazine, he walked away from stills photography to make documentary films. He travelled the world making films for the following 30 years until illness and a partial loss of sight in 2000 forced him to return to his first love and his photographic archive.

Magazine features, lecturing and exhibitions swiftly followed. John Bulmer and his photography had been rediscovered. I met Bulmer in a country pub near his rural Herefordshire home. Having worked with a lot of his contemporaries, I was interested to find out how he created such personal images when they were all commissioned by a commercial client, how he came to photography and why he ended his career so dramatically.

“I was a student at Cambridge studying engineering, but I spent all my time taking photographs and not studying. I did picture stories and sold one to Life magazine on the night climbers of Cambridge [students who climbed buildings once it became dark] and one to Queen magazine on the training of the Cambridge boat crew. I then started some unofficial stringer work for the Daily Express covering the university. Then the college threw me out because they didn’t like me taking the pictures.” Bulmer then went to see the Daily Express at their Fleet Street offices, and after a few days of hanging around, he got commissioned and stayed at the paper for the next two years. “I then started doing different stories for magazines such as Queen and Town [revolutionary magazines of their time that came to define what magazines would look like for the next 50 years]. I did stories on Nelson in Lancashire and the Black Country for Town. It was a great magazine and Tom Wolsey was an amazing art director and, to me, the star of Town. We didn’t talk about how the stories would be done; I just went off and did it.

“I was aware that, to photograph the north of England in colour then was a challenge, because up until then everyone had considered the north to be a gloomy black and white story. So I decided to do it in winter in fog and mist as much as I could because I thought that would make more beautiful pictures. I just did what made a good picture.”

At the time, many of the British photographers were looking at the US for inspiration and Bulmer was no different. “Eugene Smith and [Henri] Cartier-Bresson influenced me, and Bill Brandt to some extent, but I felt the Americans were doing so much more. When you look at Eugene Smith’s Pittsburgh Project it was so prolific. You only had to open Life magazine in the late fifties, early sixties every week and it was sensational.”

Bulmer admits he started in photography as the last in a series of childhood cravings he had for Meccano and that, for him, photography was initially a mechanical process. But he soon began to understand the importance of the image, the story and the journalism, and how these three elements came together to create powerful work.

“I wasn’t interested in art photography, I was interested in photography as journalism, the last thing I wanted to do was put my photographs on the walls of galleries; I wanted them in magazines.” Although Bulmer was creating images and stories in black and white throughout this time, which have a graphic intensity and almost poetic atmosphere, with rich blacks and dynamic composition, it is his colour work of the period which stands out. Saturated but muted colours combined with his compositional talent to create images which are time capsules as contemporary today as they were then.

“The other photographers in Britain didn’t regard colour as serious. Black and white photography was considered as art, and colour commercial. There was no reportage in colour; there were terrible problems with doing it. You have to think differently in colour, you can’t think in black and white and just change your film as a lot of photographers did in those days. “You have to think about composition in a different way. I became known as someone who could do journalistic photography in colour, which helped me get work. I would go to an area for a couple of weeks in my car, drive around and then see something; nothing was pre-arranged.

“I’m a reactive photographer. When the Sunday Times asked me to photograph heads of state portraits in places such as Ethiopia and Cambodia, I always tried to get them doing something.” Unlike today, it was possible for photographers like Bulmer to make a good living through this kind of work and approach. “[In the sixties] the Sunday Times page rate was £40 per page and I would go off to Ethiopia for two weeks and have an eight-page story published, giving me a £400 fee, which was a good chunk of money.”

The beautiful house Bulmer lives in today, with its grounds and private church, was bought in 1965 for approximately £5,000, which gives a good idea as to just how good a living a talented reportage photographer could have. Bulmer worked extensively for the Sunday Times Magazine with the great art director Michael Rand (see page 31 for our exclusive interview with Michael) throughout the sixties and was briefly contracted to the publication towards the end of the decade. This guaranteed him 60 to 70 pages of his photographs in the magazine every year – a situation unheard of in magazines today. While Bulmer was at the Sunday Times, Don McCullin was contracted to the rival Observer Magazine, but there was a time towards the very end of the sixties when they overlapped and were both contracted to the Sunday Times Magazine. But there was little rivalry between them, at least not from Bulmer’s side. “[Don’s] pictures were very different as he never really got along with colour.

I first met him in Cyprus in 1964 during the civil war there. “I was working for the Sunday Times when Don turned up and he’d never been out of Britain before apart from when he was with the RAF. He didn’t have any idea how to manage his life or how to book a hotel and he only ate egg and chips, things like that. I gave him a spare bed in my room and the next morning someone called me and said there was a battle going on, so I gave him a lift to his first battle even though he was working for a rival paper. If I’d had any sense I would have sent him off in the wrong direction.” Bulmer had no photographic training and admits that he learnt from looking at the work of others, particularly the work appearing in the iconic Life magazine, which he continually returns to when referencing photography.

He talks about the work of photographers such as Larry Burrows, William Klein and Mark Kauffman. “They were doing very highly tuned work and it made me aware that everything has to be right and correct, but that it needs the unexpected also. Sometimes people who put their cameras too neatly in their camera bag, their pictures are too neat. You need the offbeat thing. A bit of chaos makes the picture that sparks.”

In the early seventies, The Sunday Times appointed a new editor, Hunter Davies, and the editorial direction of the magazine changed. “I was called into his office and he said: ‘what we want is stories on crime, middle-class living and fashion’ and I knew my days were numbered. I also felt that I was travelling around the world making the same compositions of people and that I wasn’t saying anything new. “So I got involved with documentary films through the editor of Town magazine. Editorial photography was in the doldrums; so many photographers experimented with film at that time.”

A film on the life of Vincent Van Gogh was the start of an award-winning 30-year career in film. He did take on a few assignments through the seventies as a stills photographer, most notably a commission for the German reportage magazine GEO in 1976, which asked Bulmer to return to Manchester to document the city. “I spent about 10 days there and took a lot of pictures. I was amazed it was still like the sixties there in a lot of respects, but colour film had improved.

“I had previously had to use Ektachrome X and now Kodachrome had been developed, although it was still 64 ASA. I never realised at the time that what GEO had wanted was the swinging new Manchester, and I was going back nostalgically to the sixties. “They used another photographer’s picture to start the story and I was really depressed.” This wasn’t the only time that Bulmer fell prey to an art director’s vision being different from his own, and his final story for the Sunday Times Magazine showed him that the days of creative freedom and an open commission were over. “I came back from North Korea and I’d risked my neck to get a story of what it was like to live there. And [the Sunday Times Magazine] had turned my pictures into a pop art feature on Korean poster art. And that was the last thing I ever did for them.”

In a similar way, Bulmer’s film making came to an end with the departure of the commissioning editor for the Discovery Channel, who he had been working with, and there was a new desire for populist formats at the channel. This, combined with ill health, brought him back to photography, bringing him full circle due to changes in those commissioning him.

His career can therefore be easily broken down into three distinct stages: photography, film, photography. But Bulmer’s vision is not one open to compromise despite his gentle demeanour and considered approach to his work. “The things I photographed were exotic and unusual wherever they were. I’ve always believed that, whenever you go somewhere different, you should start working immediately before what’s different becomes mundane.”

This desire to get things done is still with him and finally John Bulmer’s name and work is becoming known by far more people than just those in the know. 

© Grant Scott 2016

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