John Bulmer Retrospective
19 May, 2009
Just about to open, The Hereford Photography Festival has a long overdue retrospective of John Bulmer. I spent three very delightful days with John, going through his archive selecting the work for the show. If you get a chance to visit it is well worth the trip as this is a rare opportunity to see the 1960s in colour. If you can’t get there then we have posted the show up on the festival site where you can also read a transcript of an interview Carey Gough made and there will shortly be a video of John talking about his work on YouTube.
A pioneer of colour photography in the 1960s, photographer John Bulmer began his photographic career in Cambridge, where along with Peter Laurie Brendan Lehane and Adrian Bridgewater they founded Image. The magazine’s aim was to provide its photographers with experience to work as professional photographers in London and Bulmer duly joined the Daily Express in 1960.
Bulmer was a devotee of the new photographic technology and quickly embraced the 35mm format. This enabled him to work with greater flexibility and faster than his other Fleet Street colleagues who were still shooting on Rollei cameras.
From the Express, Bulmer started freelancing for Man about Town, later renamed Town, working alongside Terence Donovan, David Bailey and Don McCullin and it was here that he shot one of his most celebrated works on the North of England and in particular his documentary of the town, Nelson.
When in 1962 the Sunday Times became the first British Newspaper to produce a colour supplement, Bulmer was an obvious choice as a contributor to its first issue. Having experimented with colour early in his career, he was recognised for understanding and thinking in colour. This was in direct contrast to his peers who, dismissing colour as garish and cheap, argued that black and white produced images that had more truth and integrity.
Bulmer worked for the Sunday Times for the next 10 years and during his time at the magazine was one its most prolific contributors covering stories both in the UK and abroad.
With an end to post war austerity and the beginning of the swinging 60s Britain was a place of extremes. While Carnaby Street fashions, The Beatles and the Mini quickly became symbols of modern Britain, a divide was opening up between the north and south of the country. Novels such as a Room at the Top, and the film Saturday Night Sunday Morning highlighted a romanticism of the north, where life was hard but real. For Bulmer this industrial landscape, with its gritty cobbled streets and back to back terraces was exotic and although he found the voyeuristic nature of photojournalism increasingly problematic it is his extended project on The North, shot for both the Sunday Times and Town magazine that he has earned his reputation as a photojournalist.
In 1971 Bulmer was given a visa to travel to Burma, one of the first issued to a foreign journalist since the end of the Second World War. With The Sunday Times more interested in crime at home, than military juntas abroad, he went to the BBC where he was handed some money and told to go off and make a film and so his career shifted from photojournalism to film making.