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.

The mill town of Elland, Yorkshire

The mill town of Elland, Yorkshire

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.

A pub in the northern town of Nelson

A pub in the northern town of 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.

Spread from the feature White Tribes, Sunday Times Magazine

Spread from the feature White Tribes, Sunday Times Magazine

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.

Pit ponies and miners from the series The North

Pit ponies and miners from the series The North

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.

Seen but Not Heard

24 April, 2009

Earlier this year I was asked to curate this year’s Hereford Photo Festival, and after much consideration I decided to tackle an issue which has concerned me for sometime; namely the increasing restrictions, both legal and moral, that society is placing upon photographers. Here is my introduction to the work I have selected.

“Few questions are more contentious in modern day Britain than those involving children” wrote Simon Bainbridge, editor of the BJP, in June 2005.

As new technologies make taking photographs easier, so too the social constraints that limit what we can take pictures of are expanding. The freedom photographers such as Roger Mayne, Henri Cartier Bresson or Dorothea Lange had to document children, playing on the streets, at home or school has gone.

Boys on a Lorry, Cowcaddens, Glasgow 1958 by Roger Mayne

Boys on a Lorry, Cowcaddens, Glasgow 1958 by Roger Mayne

Now photographers, both amateur and professional, have to negotiate the minefield of obtaining permissions, run the risk of being branded a pervert and counter our increasing prudishness of what is thought to be an appropriate image of a child.

Pledging allegience to the United States flag by Dorothea Lange

Pledging allegience to the United States flag in 1942 by Dorothea Lange

Rue Mouffetard, 1954 by Henri Cartier-Bresson

Rue Mouffetard, 1954 by Henri Cartier-Bresson

For this year’s Hereford Photo Festival, I have selected the work of nine photographers, all of whom engage with this charged subject matter, each finding their own way to overcome an increasingly fearful sensibility that operates in our society.

Examples of the work of the photographers featuring in the Hereford festival 2009:

The Birthday Party by Vee Speers

Vee Speers - The Birthday Party

Don’t call me Urban by Simon Wheatley

Simon Wheatley - Don’t call me Urban

Harlemville by Clare Richardson

Clare Richardson - Harlemville

Hals über Kopf by Wiebke Leister

Wiebke Leister - Hals über Kopf

Interface by Michelle Sank

Michelle Sank - Interface

Playground by Ali Richards

Ali Richards - Playground

Julia Fullerton Batten – Teenage Stories

Julia Fullerton Batten – Teenage Stories

Jan Von Holleben – Dreams of Flying

Jan Von Holleben – Dreams of Flying

Edmund Clark – Baby Fathers

Edmund Clark – Baby Fathers

In making my decision about what to show I deliberately decided not to include anything that might cause controversy or be under threat of removal. My reason for this is simple. There have been many blank walls and empty galleries where work commissioned for exhibition has been taken down as a result of a complaint by a member of the public or an over anxious council worker. These removals are often covered in the media and we are made aware of the issues, but not the images.

For this show I want the work to be seen and for the discussion to broaden out into an understanding what our culture will allow to be seen. If we can permit ourselves to look at images of children, hanging on the walls of an art gallery, then perhaps we will also begin to discuss whether or not the act of taking a picture of a child is as dangerous as society seems to think it is.

The New Photojournalism

5 January, 2009

I went to see the Robert Capa and Gerda Taro exhibition at the Barbican over the New Year holidays and can thoroughly recommend a visit. It finishes on the 25th January.

Republican militiawoman training on the beach, outside Barcelona, August 1936

Republican militiawoman training on the beach, outside Barcelona, August 1936 by Gerda Taro

Also showing is a collection of four contemporary photographers, Omer Fast, Geert van Kesteren, An-My Le and Paul Chan, grouped together under the title “On the Subject of War”.

The collection of Capa’s work “This is War!” encompasses the Spanish Civil War with the iconic image of the Falling Soldier, China during the Japanese invasion in 1938, the D Day landings and American troops in Leipzig at the end of the war. It is by no means a comprehensive collection of Capa’s work but attempts to show us a photojournalist at work during conflict. Much heralded are the unseen images from the Spanish Civil war recently discovered in a suitcase. I am generally suspicious of the value of unseen work and to a large extend remain so here as I don’t think the found images add a great deal to Capa’s legacy as a war photographer.

D-Day landing by Robert Capa

D-Day landing by Robert Capa

Alongside Capa’s work is a retrospective of his lover and collaborator, Gerda Taro. Taro’s work is a foil to Capa’s edgy snapped pictures. Shooting on square format Rollei her work is more considered. Where Capa’s images work brilliantly on the page, showing us the action through their cumulative presence, Taro’s photography is more pictorial and attempts to portray the story within each frame, seeking context and pathos.

In glass cabinets we are also shown Capa’s and Taro’s images as they appeared on the printed pages of international magazines of the time and it is here that their photography makes sense. Their form of photojournalism was intended for the pages of Life magazine, Picture Post and similar publications. It is in the collective presentation of sequenced images and page layout that we gain a sense of the action and consequences of war on humanity. Viewing the photographs on the white walls of the Barbican compromise the urgency of the work. Displayed as art it becomes rarefied and isolated, a pretension to art that belies its original meaning.

One of the most intriguing set of pictures in the show, wasn’t the infamous Falling Soldier, although I did spend a lot of time trying to work out whether it was a staged performance or not, rather it was a set of pictures taken by Taro that were openly faked and captioned as a reconstruction of a battle scene for Taro and Capa to photograph.

One of Gerda Taro's images from the re-staged battle

One of Gerda Taro's images from the re-staged battle

Presumably the photojournalists had missed the great heroic scene and felt it necessary for posterity to record it. What this almost nonchalant reconstruction demonstrates is that there has always been a tension within photojournalism about conveying a truth. Right back to Roger Fenton’s canon balls in the Crimea, photojournalism has been about the primacy of the message. For Taro and Capa and indeed the western media as it was then constituted, sympathies lay with the Republicans and it was their responsibility to show the courage and heroism of the International Brigade. There was no attempt by Taro or Capa to work alongside Franco’s troops to provide a more even handed approach to the story of the Spanish Civil War.

Valley of the Shadow of Death, 1855 by Roger Fenton

Valley of the Shadow of Death, 1855 by Roger Fenton

In the introductory text to the exhibitions the curators have asked the familiar questions about partisanship and a journalist’s own political boundaries and whether or not the 21st century photographer is more or less a practitioner of journalism of attachment. They have left this question hanging and are asking the viewer to provide the answers.

My answer is to suggest that the question is the wrong one. Photojournalism or indeed all journalism has always been about a process of attachment to an idea, a cause. In choosing to shoot one image over another, covering one story rather than another, printing/broadcasting one story over another, is always to some degree a reflection of the media’s political boundaries.

As this exhibition shows photojournalists have always been partisan. What is more interesting is how the viewer’s attitude has changed. Photojournalists have not stopped taking photographs. Rather it is we that have stopped buying the magazines that printed photo essays, choosing instead to be shown the world through television.

How we perceive images and their inherent truth has also changed. As a society we have grown increasingly sceptical about truthfulness of journalism, blaming the media for all our crises.

Instead we are looking elsewhere to gain an understanding of the world and it is through culture that meaning is sort. We increasingly turn to the artist, playwright, or author to lend an insight into the complexities of our world and how we might exist in it. Photographer Simon Norfolk recently stated that he used the aesthetic to seduce people into paying attention to his politics. Norfolk has recognised that his audience visit the art gallery, so he creates images that sit well on the wall rather than on the printed page. Our perception has become that the artist has a greater truth to offer than the photojournalist.

Capa is quoted as saying “If you call yourself an artist you won’t get anything published. Call yourself a photojournalist and then you can do whatever you want.” Capa saw the term as a means to an end, it was through photojournalism that he could get his ideas published. For today’s image makers this imperative has changed as the viewers have turned their backs on journalism. Capa’s quote should be reversed. Now calling yourself an artist gives you a freedom to do what ever you want.