vrijdag 5 februari 2010

the North's True Colours by John Bulmer Photography

John Bulmer might have decided to study engineering at university, but his eye for a good picture ended that notion when he was hardly out of his teens. He was sent down from Cambridge University after a series of magazine commissions played havoc with his studies, culminating in a night-time assignment about madcap students climbing the university's buildings after dark.

"Unfortunately the police arrived when I was trying photograph someone doing the Senate House leap," he says (a terrifying 8ft jump from Gonville and Caius College). Luckily, the expulsion propelled him into professional photography. Within five years he was one of a 1960s group nicknamed the Young Meteors. Other members included Don McCullin and David Bailey.

War and swinging Britain interested them all, but Bulmer, brought up in Herefordshire by the famous cider-making family, turned elsewhere: north. He was commissioned by the Sunday Times colour magazine to illustrate a long piece by Arthur Hopcraft whose title began: "The north is dead …" Accounts of this groundbreaking piece often leave it at that, but the headline actually went on: "… long live the new north", and Bulmer was key to that novelty. An exhibition called Northern Soul, which has just opened at theNational Coal Mining Museum near Wakefield, shows why.

There are cobbles and chimneys – plenty of women and washing, miners and grime – but for what might have been the first time, a photo-documentary in a national magazine showed them in colour. Previously considered "entirely a black-and-white subject" – or so an academic appropriately called Grimley observed some years later – in these pictures the north emerges in all its real-life variety and beauty.

By today's technicolour standards, it was a muted revolution. The limits of colour film meant, as Bulmer's fellow photographer Ian Beesley observes in the catalogue that accompanies the show, that pictures were best taken "in subdued or fading light and after rain". This allowed a degree of grimness, to be sure, but it also created a gentle, almost pastel effect.

Genial and modest, Bulmer also got on well with his subjects, who often found their well-spoken, well-tailored visitor as exotic as he found them. Looking back at the exhibition's opening, he recalls: "It was wonderful – another country altogether. I know that the north had a powerful image at the time, but I genuinely came up here without preconceptions." And beyond the conventional compositions there are other images too: landscapes with the delicacy of an Atkinson Grimshaw nocturne, or local shops, especially Asian-owned ones, where the colour seems almost fauvist.

Bulmer went on to photograph all over the world, making famous images of John and Yoko, Peter Cook, Thelonious Monk and many others. But for character, the northern matriarch hanging out washing on the cover of the Sunday Times special edition matches them all. Thanks to Bulmer's lilacs and gentle blues, she could be a monarch; her billowing sheet a ballgown.

Martin Wainwright.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010

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