Changing view from up North

Girls in rollers in Elland, West Yorkshire in 1965. Photos: John Bulmer
Girls in rollers in Elland, West Yorkshire in 1965. Photos: John Bulmer
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Andy Manning reports on a collection of photographs which vividly capture life in Yorkshire at a time of social upheaval.

The cover photograph of John Bulmer’s book is an unmistakeable visual signpost to “The North”.

Two mill girls pictured in Elland, in 1965, hair-rollers in, head scarves on and eating chips. The “look” less a swinging 60s fashion statement , more a safety consideration in keeping their hair out of the machinery they worked on. One girl is glancing away from the camera with an embarrassed, self conscious smile, while the other looks directly at the lens. We’ll never know what she was thinking, but it was probably “What are you looking at?”

The North summed up by a single frame of 35mm colour film.

The pictures, taken on a series of visits in the 1960s and 70s, reflect the emergence of a new age of colour documentary photography. The world of Bill Brandt’s dark satanic, and most definitely black and white, mills from three decades earlier is still there, but John Bulmer’s use of colour gave a new perspective on how we viewed the world.

Photographs of pit-ponies, cobbled streets and women hanging out washing are well-used totemic images when any depiction of the North is called for. Those pictures are here but there is much more.

The use of colour and John Bulmer’s eye give the images an unselfconscious honesty. With the exception of some shop front displays, the colours don’t have a Hollywood vibrancy. Instead it’s a variety of pastel browns, greens and oranges, the same palette as family photographs and slides, perhaps taken on an eponymous Kodak Brownie. It’s that which helps create a sense of domestic familiarity which puts the viewer next to Bulmer as he presses the shutter.

The Sunday Times pioneered the use of colour in its magazine and gave the photographer an added sense of worth, following in the great traditions of visual essays as pioneered by publications such as Picture Post and Life magazines.

As the Sixties progressed, institutions and conventions were being re-invented as reflected in the rise of youth culture, music, fashion and politics. It is the physical nature of change in everyday lives that is reflected in these images which give some idea of the pace and scale of the social disruption which eventually saw the dismantling of old industries and the way of life associated with them.

What is clear, as this collection of gently powerful images reveal, is that we are looking at a region and it’s people with a strong sense of identity at a crucial time of change. The images reflect John Bulmer’s simple genius, which was to record and reflect people in their time and landscape, through his camera and a great creative sense of empathy and humanity.

John Bulmer studied engineering at Cambridge University and was then already an enthusiastic photographer, contributing to the university paper, Varsity. He sold a picture essay on the Night Climbers of Cambridge to Life Magazine. After graduation he went to work for the Daily Express which, was at the time, at the cutting edge of editorial photography working, on many assignments, in association with Paris Match. With the likes of Terence Donovan, Don McCullin and David Bailey he shot stories for Town Magazine. It was a fashion magazine which quickly gained a reputation for its use of photography and included innovative stories on The Black Country, Nelson, The North and equally exotic destinations such as South America, New Guinea and Indonesia.

The Sunday Times started its colour magazine and Bulmer shared the first front page with David Bailey. The switch to colour printing was sudden and Bulmer was at the forefront of change.

Throughout the Sixties and early Seventies he travelled widely, documenting from across the globe.

As the tastes and direction of newspapers changed John Bulmer moved into documentary film making with subjects as diverse as the life of Van Gogh and the lives of remote tribes in the most inaccessible parts of the world.

The North by John Bulmer, pubished by Bluecoat Press, priced £19.99 is 
out now. To order a copy from the Yorkshire Post Bookshop call 01748 821122. www.johnbulmer. 
co.uk