Monday, 10 June 2019

In Conversation With John Bulmer

Don McCullin is running, running as fast as he can. His mouth is open, hair neat and jacket crumpled. In his arms is an elderly woman, her thickset legs bent over McCullin’s left arm. Her gnarled right fist clenches two long sticks; wire and trees blur in the background. This unlikely couple are fleeing missiles fired into Turkish territory by the Greek army during the 1964 conflict in Cyprus. It’s McCullin’s first conflict and the now-famous war photographer is captured in action in an extraordinary black and white photograph. The previous evening, McCullin had crashed on the spare bed in the hotel room of the photograph’s author, who then drove them both into battle the following morning: “If I was going to get killed, I thought I might as well take some photographs.” The photographer is John Bulmer

 ©John Bulmer

Strolling past the lake populated by pike and stopping to pull cobwebs from the bronze busts cast by his wife, the sculptor Angela Conner, on display in the grounds of his Herefordshire home (a house he bought on the telephone for £5,000 in 1965), Bulmer seems far removed from the front line. It’s 49 years since he captured that moment on an assignment for the Sunday Times (McCullin was shooting for the Observer).

Bulmer was one of the first photographers to adapt to the sudden change to using colour photography for editorial photojournalism and one of the first to be employed by the Sunday Times Magazine (STM) when it launched in 1962. The professional relationship secured him a 60-page-a-year contract and had him travel to around 100 different countries in more than a decade on the newspaper’s behalf. The magazine’s first cover featured a footballer photographed by Bulmer surrounded by pictures of Jean Shrimpton’s armpit, photographed by David Bailey, who Bulmer initially thought “a bit of a shitbag,” before swiftly mellowing his opinion of him.

This credible Doctor Who doppelgänger (more Jon Pertwee than Peter Davidson) with his ebullient frame, pince-nez spectacles and thick white hair, has the knack of being a master manipulator of time. The 75-year-old was a pioneer of colour photography ten years before Martin Parr, deliberately stalking his subjects through rain and fog with slow-responding Kodachrome and Ektachrome, well before the publication of Parr’s Bad Weather. 

©John bulmer

When Hunter Davies took over editorship of the STM and explained to Bulmer a change in direction of the content of the magazine to “crime, middle-class living and fashion”, he diversified into film-making where he remained embedded for the next 35 years, making documentary films for the BBC, Discovery and National Geographic television channels among others. Bulmer photographed and directed the films Fat Fiancees; Planes, Pigs, and the Price of Brides; The Witchdoctor’s New Bride and other films not featuring brides. In the film Beehives and Runaway Brides, written, photographed and directed by Bulmer for Essential TV Discovery Channel, husbands talk about the price of brides, brides gone AWOL, having several brides, forcing brides to marry and brides marrying cousins. Women with ferocious facial piercings talk about being beaten. It could be a script live and direct from the studio with Jeremy Kyle but is a matter-of-fact tale of the Sheko people living their real-life soap in the far western highlands of Ethiopia.

©John Bulmer

Malaria has weakened Bulmer twice and in 2005, after recovery from a tropical disease stole a year of his life, he decided it was time to hang his travel hat back on the rack and attend to his archive of stills photography. Sheltering from the afternoon rain, we each take a seat in his low-beamed office and nestle among myriad rosettes that Bulmer achieved in carriage driving, the sport that keeps him trim and his love of horses sated. The short-sighted Bulmer peers at his Apple Mac from inches away and presses a digit on the keyboard’s oversized bold black letters. The screen illuminates into life, showing life after life; more than 200 pictures from his in-progress new book were thrown down in a day into a Blurb layout. The provisional title is Other Places*, that’s places other than The North (of England), the title of his first solo monograph.

Published in 2012 by the local interest, Liverpool-based Bluecoat Press (Thames & Hudson didn’t reply to his book proposal, ditto Dewi Lewis) The North quickly sold out and it wasn’t even about the fun part of England (a 2nd edition has been published). Other publishers should have replied, the profit from the 2012 book was enough to buy a house over the telephone in 1965. The book put Bulmer firmly back on the photographic map; the north was part of the map this Herefordshire-born black sheep hadn’t witnessed before he first headed to the Lancashire town of Nelson. It’s the first town the viewer visits in the book, a town Bulmer thought as “exotic as darkest Africa.” Around 78 photographs in the 224-page book are in colour and 47 of those were shot in Manchester on commission for German Geo magazine, whose picture editor wanted him to capture the ‘swinging Manchester’ of 1976. Bulmer didn’t capture swinging Manchester; he captured empty canals and isolated pubs; cluttered corner shops; terraced houses being demolished and ravaged faces pulled taut against the elements by too-tight headscarves. When the Geo article was published, pictures from other sources had been used to complement Bulmer’s. Though annoyed at the time, he can now understand why. The quality of the printing of The North has had its critics and the criticism is valid but they miss the point. Bulmer is not a ‘look-at-me photographer’, he’s a ‘look at this’ photographer, bred from the mass circulation magazine market. All of the images have been scanned and cleaned by Bulmer and some scanned from prints when that’s all that remained.

Bulmer was sent down from Cambridge six weeks before the finals of his engineering degree, officially because “the University believed I wouldn’t pass my degree” (they would probably have been proved right, he spent more time focusing on photography) and unofficially because he had recently sold a set of pictures to Life magazine (under the alias, David Brinkman) depicting students climbing university buildings at night. The images were captured with an investigative style and starkness that Weegee would have been be proud of. The company of English photojournalist, Larry Burrows, (best known for his for his pictures of the American involvement in the Vietnam War) had already alerted Bulmer to a broader life beyond the roof of Senate House, where he had photographed a car positioned there by the prankish night climbers. Bulmer headed to London without a degree of regret and to the offices of the Daily Express where he quickly secured a job that gave him the confidence to set out and stride the globe.

©John Bulmer

Bulmer’s Other Places are other worldly and of another time: wide-grinned Cubans smoke long fat cigars; there are half-naked Romanians who welcomed him to photograph their picnic and completely naked Germans in Romania who flung mud at his lens; there’s a shot from a bathroom in North Korea, away from his watchful minder, and mindful shots in China where he spent five days photographing without restriction after defecting there when he missed a connecting flight in Moscow en route to North Korea. Figures stare out from across the landscape of Ethiopia, his fondest country to photograph from all of his travels and one where he had to run for a mile alongside a carriage in which Queen Elizabeth II sat, head cocked, flashing her pearly whites at Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie. Only when the crowds had fallen back did it allow Bulmer the opportunity to shoot a clean frame, this exertion achieved while carrying four cameras, usually two Nikon’s and two Leicas, loaded with a mix of colour transparency and black and white film.

The most recent photograph Bulmer took was on his phone three days before we meet for a chat; his last photographic assignment was three years before I could talk. He checks his digital watch for the time and it’s time for wine; it’s Chilean. “A New World wine,” I declare as I tsunami the welcome taste back over my tongue. Bulmer scoffs and winces at the memory, when, in 1965, a vessel he describes a “hog’s head” holding 144 bottles of Chilean wine that he had had shipped in from the New World was accidentally smashed on the road of Elgin Crescent near his home in Notting Hill. I make a mental note to pay my respects at the disaster spot on my return to London.

As the glasses of wine are vanquished, Bulmer tells tales of sharing a darkroom with Philip Jones Griffiths during the printing of the Welsh Magnum Photographer’s opus Vietnam Inc; of infuriating the captain of the QE2 on its maiden voyage after he climbed to the top of one of the ship’s funnels to photograph her arrival into New York; he talks of his disrespect for religion and disgust for the public school system to which his cider-making father decided to send him. He remembers Travellers Cheques; receiving free first-class flights around the world; 42-hour six-stop flights to Australia; flights with no security bag checks; meeting Henri Cartier-Bresson and Eugene Smith; of missing an historical photograph of Winston Churchill as the former Prime Minister was loaded into an ambulance (Bulmer had nipped away to make a call from a telephone box). He remembers a lot but regrets little and rarely looks back.

©John Bulmer

This ahead-of-his-time-traveller has always embraced change; he shot in colour when ‘traditionalists’ shied away; drank New World wine when wine was white, warm and meant for women; he used lightweight 35mm cameras while others persisted with the physically restricting Rolleiflex (with flash) and he wrote words to accompany some of his reportage features when words were meant to be the exclusive domain of writers.

We down glasses and jump into Bulmer’s TARDIS blue coloured, environmentally friendly car and smooth past the humdrum semi-detached homes of Hereford and back to the railway station where the next train home isn’t for an hour. That’s what happens when you visit the countryside. The only open and nearby place to grab a bite to eat is a fast food outlet. That’s what happens when you visit the countryside. Inside, families order their burger box and fries while a kid sweating out a viral infection cries for an overdose of Calpol. Fed, alone and thirsty, I seek the company of the Commercial pub across the road. “What would you like to drink?” asks the cherubic barmaid. There are bottles of Echo wine for £6.99 and another brand for a pound less but I ask for the only drink that can be drunk after a day like today: “I’ll have a pint of Bulmers cider, please.”

The North is published by Bluecoat Press

*Other Places was eventually titled Wind of Change published by Bluecoat Press

Saturday, 8 June 2019

In Conversation With Peter Dench

Peter Dench is a late imitator of colour photography, best known for his projects endorsing stereotypes of the British working class. I meet him in The Alex, the pub where he now lives in a small room above the bar scratching out a living doing odd jobs for pork scratchings and the occasional leftover scotch egg. Dench, now 60 years old, looks nearer 80 and still dresses as he always has: in the tired football casual terrace style of the 1980s, a vintage, vintage, vintage, red Fila polo shirt buttoned up under his cascading chins. He is sat staring at The Alex’s impressive 6D television in the spot where he can be found during the rare moments he hasn’t s**t himself. This fecal incontinence is an unfortunate medical consequence of being brutally attacked at the 2012 Visa Pour l’Image International Festival of Photojournalism by a gang of photographers who had had enough of his formulaic photography, an action that was largely applauded by the industry. Repeats of the American TV sitcom Cheers flicker past as I introduce myself; Dench barely acknowledges my arrival and mutters an order for a litre of cider.

Dench threw away a promising career as an opening batsman for his county cricket side and, by the age of 14, had finally stopped wetting the bed and started wetting his appetite for photography snapping butterflies and coots at the local wildlife reserve in his hometown of Weymouth. From there, he pursued a routine academic path in photographic education graduating from the University of Derby in 1995 with a third-class degree and a portfolio of prints depicting himself in various stages of undress. Arriving in London, Dench was deluded, delivering his portfolio to the Reuters news agency UK headquarters where he hoped to become a regular contributor. The portfolio was lost in the Reuters system. Consequently, Dench signed on the dole for two years and sponged off his parents, spending most of his days flipping the 50 pence pieces he could muster into the pint pot for topless dancers at the Griffin pub in Clerkenwell. 

After his parents tired of supplementing his slothful lifestyle, Dench momentarily pulled himself together producing a reportage on the alcohol drinking habits of the English; what was essentially a three-year pub crawl produced a significant archive of images, one he has since bled to exhaustion. Initially, the industry took notice and awarded him a World Press Photo award for the People in the News Stories category for his Drinking of England reportage; this subsequently generated a purple period of assignments from editorial publications; Frank; the Face and Arena magazines, all of which were forced to close shortly after Dench began contributing. As the editorial market declined and digital photography swept aside analogue, Dench failed to adapt and decided to take up the pen, with catastrophic results.

Dench pinpoints his demise in the photographic industry to the day his first Dench Diary was published in Professional Photographer magazine; a cringing account of his incapabilities to succeed in the industry. The diary was commissioned on the understanding that it was as an honest account of the daily life and struggles of a sometime working professional photographer. The diary begins with an entry chronicling a time Dench was forced to take a job flipping eggs in the canteen at Capital Radio to help pay for his hair regain treatment. He now sees this as a missed opportunity and believes if he had remained working in the canteen at Capital Radio, he could have achieved the position of deputy shift manager. The Dench Diary backfired spectacularly after his often shocking travails and tales of binge drinking were exposed as fraudulent. This, ironically, lead Dench to begin boozing heavily. Professional Photographer magazine sued and an industry turned its back. Increasingly desperate attempts to ingratiate himself back into favour with his profession ended in shame when Dench exposed himself during a book signing at the prestigious Arles photography festival in France.

After an uncomfortable hour in his company, I ask the taciturn Dench; “Is there anything you miss in life, anything at all?” I’m sure I detect his eyes moisten as he fixes my gaze. “I miss… I miss… I miss the cricket.”

Peter Dench is an innovator of 21st-century image-making, best known for his projects documenting important social issues in a witty style. I meet him in The Alex, the bar he now owns and from where operates his global business. Dench, now 60, doesn’t look a day over 40 and still dresses as he always has: in the revered football casual terrace style of the 1980s - a vintage, vintage, vintage red Fila polo shirt buttoned neatly under his noble chin. He is sat in the spot where he can be found when he isn’t off doing charitable deeds under the ‘Freedom of Perpignan’ plaque awarded to him after he thwarted a riot at the 2012 Visa Pour l’Image International Festival of Photojournalism, which had threatened to engulf Perpignan’s main square. Dench propels himself enthusiastically from his seat as I arrive and shakes me warmly by the hand, whispering a request for a bottle of 1989 Château Haut-Brion and two glasses from the sartorially elegant and delightfully fragrant maître d’.

Dench achieved what he set out to do as a cricketer before turning 14 and then turned his attention to photography, documenting the life of the elderly at the care home where his doting mother worked. From there he romped through academia achieving a double first from the University of Derby for his photographic reportage on upper-class English schools and a dissertation that redefined the work of Dr Hugh Welch Diamond’s use of photography in the treatment of nineteenth-century female lunatics (a copy of the paper is available on request from the British Library and The Royal Society of Medicine). Arriving in London, Dench immediately impressed and was invited to join the prestigious Independent Photographers Group (IPG), an agency that represented many photographers Dench had studied at university, photographers that are now friends and godparents to the eleven children he adopted after they were orphaned as a consequence of the civil war that engulfed Scotland shortly after it rejected independence. In collaboration with IPG, Dench would eventually complete an assignment in every country across the planet.

After Dench had paid off his parents’ mortgage and upgraded them to a house in Poundbury, Dorchester (a town built according to the principles of Prince Charles), he embarked on an ambitious three-year project documenting the alcohol-drinking habits of the English. The reportage became an instant classic, delivering the first of his 13 World Press Photo awards and was subsequently published as a book translated into 27 different languages, a book described by international thriller writer and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature Tom Knox as: “A clever, poignant, challenging, sometimes dazzling, sometimes affecting photo-diary of Anglo-Celtic drunkenness. The result is a unique and compelling visual history, full of photography that bears a striking resemblance to the drinking it depicts: at best it is perfectly intoxicating.” Dench’s editorial career blossomed, his constant contributions to the Sunday Times, Telegraph, GQ, Marie Claire and Tatler magazines reversed a decline in editorial publications and revived an industry. As the editorial market continued to recover, Dench decided to take up the pen in addition to the Olympus, with hilarious results.

Dench pinpoints the catalyst for his global success in the photographic industry as the day his first Dench Diary was published in Professional Photographer magazine; it was a sharply observed, layered and satirical account of his life as a sometime working professional photographer. The diary begins with an entry chronicling a voluntary eleven-day stint he undertook, flipping eggs in the canteen at Capital Radio to raise money for the Save the Children charity. The Dench Diary became to photography what Kitchen Confidential is to the culinary world. The royalties enabled Dench to launch the flagship Gallery Dench UK in London’s Mayfair, a brand that has been rolled out across Europe and become a career highlight for photographers to exhibit at.

After an engaging afternoon in his company, I ask the enigmatic Dench; “Is there anything you miss in life, anything at all?” I’m sure I detect his eyes moisten as he fixes my gaze. “I miss… I miss… I miss the cricket.”

In Conversation With Chris Floyd

What is love? Before Christ, at a Greek drinking party, Plato hypothesised about the purpose and nature of love. In A Lover’s Discourse Roland Barthes pontificates on love: “I encounter millions of bodies in my life; of these millions, I may desire some hundreds; but of these hundreds, I love only one.” And in 1993, the Trinidadian-German singer Nestor Alexander Haddaway, better know by his stage name, Haddaway, sang the question: “What is love?” Love has led nations to war and back again to peace; it has inspired men to greatness and driven them to take their own life; it has given us the freedom to dream and a million reasons to breathe.

©Chris Floyd

What is love? I take a trip to Marylebone railway station, arguably the most adorable gateway in to and out of London. Men in straw hats smooth their Marylebone Cricket Club ties; the shoeshine stand is brisk with business; soft bellied ramblers and academics dressed in paisley mix among the smell of freshly baked bread; an elderly gentleman rubs charcoal across a sheet of paper covering a blue plaque fixed to the wall dedicated to poet and friend of the railways Sir John Betjeman. With the Haddoway hit resonating around my head, I board a train to Banbury to meet the man who has answered the question ‘what is love?’ He has seen it, experienced it and, most remarkably of all, photographed it.

At Banbury, the man I’m here to meet isn’t and I’m instructed instead to take a taxi to the Falkland Arms pub (silver award winner of the Toast of Wadworthshire 2013 Marketing Pub of the Year) in Great Tew. The taxi driver asks which route to take; I tell him I’ve no idea how to get there. It’s a rookie mistake; he chooses the longer of the two routes. As we sweep past green ‘Fresh Asparagus for Sale’ signs, and brown ones to denote ‘Ducks Crossing’, the taxi driver asks if I mind if he makes a phone call. I say I don’t mind; it’s a rookie mistake as it turns out I do mind. In between snapping chewing-gum bubbles, he hacks forth a dialect down his cell phone loud enough to be heard in the dustiest corners of Baghdad.

Stepping from the taxi at this outpost of English countryside, I take an outside seat at the 300 year old (looking) table opposite the forty-something (looking) portrait photographer, Chris Floyd. The pubs motto swings silently on the sign behind him: In Utroque Fidelis ‘faithful in both’. As Floyd gets the beers in, I look through his book of love Things May Change, But This Will Stay The Same. Across the thick textured pages, amongst the autumnal colours and setting sun, we are able to join Floyd in his infatuation. We gaze at a flame-haired young woman stretching out in a car; disrobing in the bathroom; eating a sandwich; smoking a cigarette; sleeping. Sometimes she gazes straight back, more often not. The book represents a short sharp moment in time of how you fall in love. The relationship between Floyd and the young woman, ten years his junior, accelerated from the ruins of 9/11 across the roads of the USA; New Orleans - Houston - Alberquerque, - frequently stopping at motel rooms and Amaretto-stocked bars until, inevitably, this listless drifting love with no agenda reached the end of the road.

©Chris Floyd

He tells me the name of the Botticelli beauty but I won’t tell you. If you have seen, or you own, one of the 100 books produced, you’ll already have your own name for her. As Floyd writes so eloquently in the introduction; “It doesn’t matter what her name is because I’m looking at an ideal of how I wanted love to be and remain, of how I saw a woman when I fell in love with her. This is love, for the first time, as shell shocked and stunned wonder that this thing, this person, has been put here, on Earth, in front of me, in my lifetime and has the emphatic power to make the time in my days go quicker, slower or nowhere at all.” In time, Floyd has loved again and relocated from London to the countryside with his loving family: wife Alice and children Scarlet and Belle. It’s taken time for this self-confessed London obsessive to readjust to the country and its everyone-knows-about-you life.

Aged 22, during a summer break from his studies at a Surrey technical college, Floyd left for London, his head full of stories from his London-lived grandfather who was hit on the head by notorious British gangster, Jack Spot. Against a backdrop of Poll Tax riots, Floyd quickly landed a job (via an assistant photographer’s recorded message telephone hotline) with a jobbing photographer shooting for Woman’s Own, the TV Times and crafting head shots of aspiring thespians. Floyd quickly lost the job, on the anniversary of the French Revolution, after too many rolls of film perished on the metal spools in developing tanks. Floyd was only familiar with the self winding white Patterson brand plastic spools.

©Chris Floyd

As Floyd forks ham and eggs into his mouth and German-American parents change a baby’s diaper in the boot of a Volvo parked opposite, he explains discovering photography in his mid-teens and rapidly realising it could be an effective tool to meet people who do great or even dastardly things. He talks of the photographers he admires – Ewen Spencer, Elaine Constantine, Juergen Teller – and he talks about his passion for listening to black soul music jamming sessions. It’s a process not unlike his own photographic practice, where each image is layered with choices: lens, location, post-production and light – each element building up a style and momentum that can be tweaked, enhanced or pulled back on. His work has taken him from London to Paris to New York (where he met Alice) and to many places in between. His portraits and short films of some of the world’s most high-profile stars have earned him global recognition and accolades. Floyd was there at the beginning of the lad mag phenomenon, photographing for Loaded magazine and he was one of the few photographers who made the successful transition to GQ magazine, when Loaded’s inaugural editor, James Brown, took the helm there.

Floyd puts down the lady’s hairclip he’s been intermittently fiddling with and we depart the Falklands Arms in high spirits, then immediately burn our backsides on the black seats of his leased Mercedes Benz estate. Driving like a Londoner, Floyd points out the general direction of the home of fellow portrait photographer Nadav Kander, that bloke who created the Daleks and fashion designer Patrick Grant, who persuaded Floyd to move here after they toured the country together on assignment for Esquire magazine. We scorch to a stop at wine bar in Chipping Norton, sommelier Richard informs us he has just spotted actor Patrick Stewart, then we scoot over to Trev Beadle, the family butcher, for rib eye steaks. Unfortunately Trev wasn’t there after busting his leg in a field, Floyd asks Lee, who has a pig hoisted on his shoulder, to send Trev his get well wishes. A final look at the book shop before finally heading home towards family Floyd, past Tracy Farm, a proposed new outpost for the Soho House set and across the boundary of Hook Norton, a village on the way to nowhere.

Stepping over sleeping schnauzer Marmite (I love him), past a framed David Bailey contact sheet, Floyd takes me up to the ’hub’, a former cinema room in the house from which he conducts his day-to-day business. There are open draws full of Kodak Portra 160 and Ilford FP4 film and party invites from the American Ambassador to London as well as notes of thanks from fashion designer and film director Tom Ford and former visual editor of the New Yorker Elisabeth Biondi. A bronze cast of Belle’s baby foot stands on stacked Agent Provocateur postcards, a commission that has unfortunately run its corset (insert groan). 

In one corner of the hub leans a framed poster from another of Floyd’s notable projects, which I finger with regret. In the summer of 2010, Floyd began to photograph the people he followed on Twitter. I received an email asking if I’d like to participate, the sun was out, a bottle of wine was open and I declined the invite. Others flocked to take part and the project ended where it had to, at 140 characters, the maximum number of a single tweet. The Great Twitter Portrait Project (TGTPP) aroused the interest of a nation. Never the quickest to realise a good idea, I belatedly tried to get involved, taking my family to be photographed at Wallpaper* Tweetlife, a TGTPP inspired initiative hosted at the 2011 Multiplied Contemporary Editions Fair at Christie’s in South Kensington. Heading downstairs to take the kids to the convenience store for sweets, Floyd summarises that for him, truly creative individuals make truly creative things whether they are being paid or not and confesses to having a short attention span, lacking confidence and being prone to focusing on his failures and what he hasn’t achieved. 

Back from the shop, I excuse myself from a conversation with Scarlet about earwax and probe the kitchen, where Floyd and Alice are squabbling about the type of taps required for the new shower room. I grab a San Miguel lager from the fridge, exit for a seat in the garden among the warblers and blackcaps and open Things May Change at an image of a jackknifed juggernaut by the side of a road. As the ballad It Must Have Been Love by Swedish pop duo Roxette crescendos on Absolute 80s radio (‘the UK’s only 80s music radio station’) Floyd strides purposefully past en route to the Banbury bathroom showroom, clips closed the gate, pauses with keys in hand at the car and turns back to face Alice who is leant against the front door frame and asks “Blow me a kiss?”.