The Bradford Review February 2016
Bradford Street Life in the Raw
John Bolloten is a street and documentary photographer, based in Bradford. His Bradford street photos show everyday life in the city. They’re uncompromising and often portray poverty and deprivation in a very direct way. As he says, “My Bradford pics are very unlikely to turn up in the tourist information office.” He has two books of photos to his credit, Bradford Street and Belgrade. He has lived here for 33 years and is originally from Brighton via Edinburgh.
How would you define street photography?
Street photography is usually defined as candid photography taken outdoors although in many ways it’s a meaningless term. Much of my work is done outside on the streets but I do a lot of posed portraits as well as different documentary projects.
Is it dangerous? Have you ever been attacked?
Reactions range from being not bothered about my presence through to the curious and overtly hostile. That’s a fairly normal situation for people who take pictures as I do. I’ve been sworn at a lot and did get attacked once but the guy was so drunk I just brushed him aside. We don’t have a street documentary photography tradition in Bradford so most people don’t really understand why somebody would walk around with a camera photographing people and everyday life.
Your photos often paint Bradford in a grim light – what do you think of the city?
I like Bradford a lot and the city has many positives, especially its down-to-earth people and lack of pretension. I also think the impact of immigration makes it uniquely interesting. However there are things I dislike about it, like the general apathy of a lot of the population and how many people treat it like one giant waste bin. As a photographer I never get bored photographing here but I’m not interested in presenting sanitised images of Bradford. Don McCullin photographed here in the late 1970s and his images are brutal compared to how the place looks now.
Have you ever held off taking a photo or not published because it invaded privacy?
Sometimes I’ve decided not to take a picture for various reasons and that’s often been down to whether I felt it was appropriate. Other times I’ve shot but deliberately not included someone’s face. All my photos are real and not staged, except for portraits obviously, so they’re all scenes I’ve witnessed and photographed. Some people may not like them but that’s more to do with how they perceive them or if they question my motives. Life comes in many forms and yet people often believe that some things shouldn’t be photographed, like funerals for example although everyone takes pictures at weddings. Both are equal parts of life. I’m interested in the world that most people don’t see, whatever that may be. I prefer people to either love or hate what I do, I don’t want to occupy any bland middle ground. Sometimes I haven’t published work because it might be misunderstood, and I hold those images back until I feel it’s the right time to get them out there, or put them in a book but not online.
What documentary projects have you been doing?
For the last five years I‘ve been photographing artists from the original era of UK punk rock – early 1970s to early 1980s. That’s well over 200 portraits now and it’s evolved into a deeper look at that whole scene, which is dominated by older people. So most weekends I’m out at some gig somewhere or doing a shoot. I’ve just completed a project about Bradford’s inner city cricket scene which I hope to publish as a small book in time for next season. I regularly photograph events and rituals within Bradford’s Shia Muslim community and last year I did a Barbers In Bradford project. Currently I’m selecting and editing photos for the Bradford Street 2 book. I have some ideas for new documentary projects that will once again focus on everyday life in the city.
You’ve already had a career as a musician, producer and performer – do you have any plans to resurrect that? Could we expect any more releases from The Rootsman, or a revival of the legendary Dub Me Crazy sound system?
I retired from producing my own music a decade ago and don’t have any plans to go back to that although I may do little things here and there. Same with DJing, I may play if the conditions are right or interesting but it’s not something I’m actively pursuing. Dub Me Crazy was a dub night I ran from 1991 to 1996 but I have little interest in that scene or music these days.
You’ve worked with many of the great reggae and dub artists – who was good to work with, who are your favourites, and why?
I worked with literally hundreds of great reggae singers and deejays, sometimes producing songs with them, other times just cutting sound system dubplates. The highlights were endless and a few great people to work with were Luciano, Michael Prophet and Horace Andy. Plus I have everlasting memories of working with legends who have passed away like Gregory Isaacs, Sugar Minott, Alton Ellis, Barry Brown and Junior Delgado.
Did you once tell me you were the band mascot for Ian Dury and the Blockheads when you were a lad?
Ha, I wasn’t a mascot but I wrote to Ian in 1977 when I was 12 and was thrilled to get a reply. I met him the following year at my first gig and after that I used to help out selling their merchandise and hang out with them when they came to Edinburgh. That lasted a couple of years and then I moved on from that. Ironically I’ve photographed nearly all the surviving Blockheads for my Punk Survivors project and have become friends with them again. Bassist Norman Watt-Roy used one of my photos of him in his CD booklet.
You’re passionate about Islam – what started that journey?
That’s a long story but I converted to Islam 19 years ago. Islam is a very misunderstood religion and Muslims are constantly demonised in the media. It’s funny when people say that Muslims should go home. Where can I go? I’m white and Bradford is my home!
Maura Magazine July 2015
“Golden girls and lads all must/like chimneysweepers turn to dust”
Walk back from the postal depot with an oversize parcel, I pass a coffeeshop I never glanced into before. Actually it’s a large black-and-white photo in the window that catches my eye: Joan Jett in LA in 1978, sat on a hotel bed in a homemade Sex Pistols T-shirt. From the date she must be 20, but she looks much younger. The picture’s familiar, and in fact a wall inside the shop is hung with a mini-exhibition, of work by US rock photographer Bob Gruen. Gruen made his bones on both sides of the Atlantic in the ‘70s chronicling punk and proto-punk as an outfall of pre-punk US and UK rock, classic rock as it’s generally termed now.
So far so uncomplicatedly nostalgic, I suppose: echoes of the passions of my youth still resonate, when I run into them unexpectedly. But this story begins with Gruen only by way of contrast. It’s actually about another photographer, Bradford-based John Bolloten, whose Punk Survivors project I discovered on the internet, while searching for current information on Gaye Advert of The Adverts. Punk Survivors is self-explanatory: Its key strand consists of full face portraits of figures from UK punk in full early blush, 1970-80. As they are now: some long retired; other still very much active (Bolloten also photographs the shows and the fans).
Now the first thing you have to remember about UK punk in full early blush is that it happened a long time ago and was over almost before it began. And Gruen isn’t wrong: It did emerge from what came just before it, especially in America, and remains very much part of the first third of the story of rock so far. But much UK punk was also very determinedly local, even parochial in tone and stance: America was a cultural illusion to be broken with, which meant declaring yourself in the brogue of your own birthplace, whether this be Newcastle or Manchester, Edinburgh or Belfast.
The second thing is that no two UK punks blooded in that first spasm will agree with one another on ANY aspect of its definition – who was in and who out, whether it succeeded, where it flourished most true, what it meant, when and how (and if) it ended. Schrödinger’s punk: You only know it’s dead when a squabble doesn’t burst up out of the coffin.
Bolloten explains that the project began quietly enough on the day in May 2011 that he took pictures of Steve Lake (of anarcho-punk band Zounds) and ranting poet Andy T, two figures busy in and around the Crass ambit. A couple of weeks later he photographed the fabled grand old man of Britpunk, Charlie Harper of the UK Subs, now in his 70s, and began to feel there was something worth pursuing here. Over the next three three years he drew up an extensive wants-list of subjects and began to track them down.
Who’s he found? A Pistol, an ex-Pistol and a quasi-Pistol: Paul Cook, Glen Matlock, Eddie “Tenpole” Tudor-Pole. All four founders of The Damned: Dave Vanian, Rat Scabies, Captain Sensible and Brian James. Of those who played the dawn of punk event, the 100 Club Festival, September 21-22, 1976, no Clash, no Banshees, no Stinky Toys, but two Buzzcocks, Chris Spedding and a Vibrator, plus Vic Godard of Subway Sect. Of those captured live on the live LP The Roxy London WC2 (Jan-Apr 77): two Adverts, a Slaughter and the Dogs, an Eater, a Johnny Moped, no Unwanted, no Wire, no X-Ray Spex (Poly Styrene of course died in 2011).
Not everyone said yes; some hated the project, perhaps not wanting “to be photographed so intimately,” as Bolloten thinks. Others, still in his view doing stuff connected to punk, no longer want to be associated with it. To date there are more than 190 portraits, though the website, recently revamped and scaled back , displays just 60 currently. More may be added as and when a shoot can be agreed in his area, but the project’s winding down: trips to London became a logistical nightmare, especially with the flakier subjects (he names no one). Still, some became good friends. No two punks…
From far outside London, two Rezillos, an Angelic Upstart, a Stiff Little Finger, a Saint. From deep in the definitional weeds – ‘Pub Rock’ versus ‘New Wave’ – one each of The Boys, The Cortinas and The Kursaal Flyers. Moving (inevitably) out into the never-punk-to-me faction: a Strangler, a Hot Rod, a Boomtown Rat, Bruce Foxton of The Jam. And from the openly political wing, which flourished as tippexed lists on a thousand leather jacket-backs, add to Crass and Zounds a Conflict, an Exploited, a Flux of Pink Indians, a GBH, a Peter of the Test Tube Babies, a Subhuman…
For a movement that opened up rock gender-wise, it seems light on women: Penetration’s Pauline Murray, Fay Fife of The Rezillos, Hazel O’Connor, but no Siouxsie, no Toyah, no Slits, no Poison Girls (Vi Subversa is now 79). Gaye Advert, reluctant and notoriously put-upon pin-up of the movement – alternately drooled over and spitefully mocked, until she quit playing bass for a quiet life – now gazes out of her portrait amused and wise. Others here have (disreputably enough, in punk terms) grown handsomely into their looks. Tom Robinson is a distinguished silverback elder, as are Adverts singer TV Smith and Skids singer Richard Jobson. A 14-year-old underage cutie in 1977, Eater’s drummer Dee Generate is become a mature male model. Strangler bassman Jean-Jacques Burnel, greyhaired yes, remains baby-faced and wide-eyed. His international eminence Lord Bob of Geldof is an over-familiar tousled brand perhaps, but game enough to join in and look wary. The ever-recessive Subway Sect’s Vic Godard maintains an austere, near-uncanny seriousness. Familiar perhaps from a murderous early cameo in Game of Thrones, reprieved after a serious recent cancer scare, R&B robo-guitarist Wilko Johnson, of the contrarily named Dr Feelgood, glares out at you, a wired assassin’s mugshot.
On punk’s career clowns there has descended a melancholy: Eddie Tenpole, Max Splodge, Spizz Energi. I’d add long-faced Jimmy Pursey of Sham 69 here. I once saw him entertain a small child trapped among adults at a film launch party (a recently widowed parent hadn’t found a babysitter). Clad top-to-toe in shiny red leather, he identified with the child’s bored misery and took it on himself to divert her. Recall him in 1979 clumsily attempting to gather radically alienated skinheads back into the folds of the wanted and the catered for: Even at his shoutiest, he had an earnest generosity to him, today morphed into a mournful struggle with suspicion.
There are faces here that are very lived in, and some 24-hour non-stop partied in, every drink, smoke, snort or needle responsible for another line or fold forming. A small few have prospered and remain in the public eye; some are down on their luck. Some have maybe clambered out of the class layer they felt then imprisoned them; some have tumbled back in; some stayed who they were and fought for others. The quote up top – from Cymbeline – is Shakespeare’s eloquent reminder of universal frailty and mortality: Even the gorgeous have it coming to them. The Buzzcocks put it more bluntly, at once scornful and self-absorbed, in the 1976 song “Boredom”: “I just came from nowhere/and I’m going straight back there…”
“Golden” isn’t how I remember the punk that called to me back then. Colour printing didn’t reach the UK rock weeklies until the early ‘80s (cue the track-switch spearheaded by Adam Ant, and video). Nearly all rock photography published in the weekly inkies in the late ‘70s was black-and-white. If this was a limitation, it was treated as a glory, like the three-minute length of a 7” single: an obstacle which forced you to jump. There’s an argument, not entirely frivolous, that UK punk broke out as a thing precisely because the picture-takers and the subjects then were so intuitively attuned to exploiting restrictions; the bleached-out xerox fanzine image was a style just waiting to be artistically inhabited. Much of the rhetoric at the time was about the proletarian voice emerging raw and untreated here and now – and Bolloten’s plain array of faces still clearly nods to this, the males most of all, gaunt or thickened or weary but undefeated. Yet the earliest break-out images in UK punk were often strikingly self-conscious, even mannerist: knowing teenage gestures towards the bright monochrome poses and shadowed modes of Weimar and German expressionism many decades before, from Caligari’s stricken eyelinered twitching to Cabaret. Think of the iconic shopgirls at Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren’s Seditionaries (formerly Sex, formerly Let It Rock) – Jordan, Soo Catwoman, tiny little Debbie Juvenile of the startled panda eyes – or of the Bromley contingent (Siouxsie and Steve Severin and Billy Idol and others), plus all-important sometime-Banshee and future-Ant Marco Pirroni. Gruen snapped them all at Louise’s, a late-night Soho lesbian club, as did pet Pistols lensman Ray Stevenson. Unlearned underclass punk realism catalysed out of high-style pre-rock memory, and vice versa. Hooks fashioned out of contradictions, a glam of bin-bags and trash.
Part of me wants to say Bolloten’s pictures are a corrective to such youthful foolishness: that if punk was (as Severin says somewhere) “about being 16 and saying no”, then Bolloten’s are humane and dignified portraits of what it means to grow and up and through and out of such glamourised, self-dooming poses; to look back and (for example) watch your own kids, or theirs, re-enacting echoes of all this. I look back over nearly 40 years and of course I see children in many of Gruen’s or Stevenson’s punk pictures: some gleeful and brazen, some angry, many unhappy and damaged, scared and fronting – Joan Jett soft-faced and frighteningly vulnerable; Sid Vicious reading on a plane, crumpled and dwarfed among hostile and uncomprehending grown-ups; Elvis Costello in 1977 yearning and gurning to come across twice his age, and failing. But I also see something else: They were all young then but I was younger, and I identified with some of them and admired them terribly; something about the dress-up nihilism, the erotic anti-sex cosplay, the topsyturvy daring, spoke implacably then to me, and still does a little. If they now seem impossibly youthful, they also sometimes seem far older than anyone round them, infinitely, horribly older. It doesn’t at all surprise me when people grasp at avatars from more distant pasts: from futurism and Dada, from the English Civil War, or Greil Marcus’s dark dreams of the antinomian pogroms of the middle ages.
“Nostalgia for an age yet to come”: the chorus from another Buzzcocks song, better performed by Penetration. What’s moving in Bolloten’s portraits is as much as anything the intimation of unfinished business. I don’t know that I even now know what this business is, or ever was – and if I claimed I did I’m certain that no two other punk survivors would agree with me, or indeed with each other.
Ox Magazine December 2012
Too Old To Die Young
John, please introduce yourself. Who are you, how old are, where do you live, are you professional photographer?
I live in Bradford in the north of England and am 47 years old. I am not a professional photographer and have only been taking pictures for four years. Apart from photography, I publish a blog and also hold down a full-time job.
How did you get the idea to this series of old - or should I see ageing? - punkrockers? Were they shot especially for this series?
I didn’t have any planned idea to do this project. In May 2011 I noticed that Zounds were playing near me and they were a group I really liked when I was a kid and I had never seen them live. So I emailed Steve Lake to see if I could take his portrait. He said yes, so I met him and did that and also took a photo of the poet Andy T who was also on the Crass label. In the days that followed I started to think about photographing these artists from this extraordinary period in British musical and cultural history but how they look now, some thirty-five or so years on. By the summer of 2011 it really started to take shape and I begin shooting a few portraits every month. Right now I have done around ninety-five but still feel that I have got quite a long way to still go. All of the portraits after the first two or three were shot for this series.
Punk is - or was? - a youth movement/rebellion, how does that go along with the images of men and women looking like parents or grandparents?
Some of these artists were very political in their music and views but others weren’t. In fact the whole punk genre contained a wide variety of viewpoints and different styles. Even back in 1977 there were many older artists like The Stranglers, Knox from The Vibrators and Charlie Harper from the UK Subs. Undoubtedly it was a very powerful youth subculture but not necessarily always about rebellion. For example, many bands adopted very nihilistic positions. For me personally, I have always valued music that comes with a social conscience regardless of the age of the artist. In this project I deliberately do not draw distinctions between the different sub-genres of the music or push one particular angle. I want the portraits to speak for themselves as honest portrayals of the subjects.
Did you tell those you photographed that they would be part of a series or did that idea come later?
As I stated earlier, there wasn’t a plan at the beginning but that did come soon after. Therefore, I always explain to people what I am doing and why I am doing it. Most of the artists I have met have been happy to be involved, some I have needed to persuade and a few have declined. What I am also trying to do is show the humanity of the subject and that they are people just like us, people who are getting older but have a very special history.
Looking at your photos: do you think punk makes people age faster than their contemporaries or does it keep one young - at heart and on the outside?
I think it is a general rule that if you live life in the fast lane for a long time with a lot of alcohol and substance misuse then it is likely to take a significant toll on your health and how you look. I don’t think that punk artists are any different from anybody else really in that sense. Certainly keeping physically and mentally active keeps the person sharper. How people look though is very subjective and what one person might see in a photograph might be very different to the next person. For me, I am always focussing on the eyes and trying to capture something that lies within.
Do women and men age differently?
It depends on the person and their personal genetic make-up and lifestyle choices. There are people in their early twenties in the UK who look totally battered and some of the subjects in my pictures are well over fifty and look amazing.
Ageism has in recent years become an issue. Is there a message in your photos?
My message is always to view the person as a fellow human being like you and me. We have never walked in their shoes and every person carries a particular burden with them. With some of the artists I am conducting interviews where I ask them to reflect on their lives. If I can ever get this work published as a book then the interviews will illuminate further the portraits that are shown. Overall, this is a documentary project about ageing, focussing on an extraordinary group of people.
Did you observe anything special in regards to how the portrayed dealt with their age? Like attributes of youth culture (leather jackets, colored hair, etc.)
It’s a big variety. Some people still dress in a similar way and others completely different. One thing I rarely do is photograph them “in character” like on-stage. All the pictures are taken in natural light with the subjects largely wearing non-stage clothes. I want to show them as real people not specifically as artists.
Did you ever have any feelings from looking at your photos like "Man, he/she really looks old and not too good ..." or "Wow, I can't believe he/she is in his/her mid-fifties!"?
Those feelings can naturally arise but I always try not to be prejudiced by things like that. I want the portraits to be very honest portrayals and I can look beyond the superficial once I am doing my work. Personally I don’t really care what someone looks like as long as my work comes up to a decent standard. What I have noticed though is that every person is different and some are very self-conscious about being photographed in quite an intimate manner. A small number have been quite threatened by this project and have not wanted to be involved. Although this is disappointing, I cannot force someone to be part of it.
Is there one photo that you find especially touching - why? (Can you mail this one for print?)
I think the portrait of Wakey, the singer from the English Dogs will always be a special one for me. He is a real crazy character on-stage but I wanted to capture the man behind the image. When we did the shoot, he was giving me lots of typical punky facial expressions and I did get some nice shots. Then I asked him to be completely natural for the camera and everything clicked into place. A photo is always an exchange between the subject and the photographer and this occasion felt really special somehow, like we had made a connection. When I finished shooting, we spontaneously hugged and have remained firm friends ever since. He really gave me a lot in that session and really trusted me to capture him in a non-judgemental way. At that time he was going through quite a rough patch and you can see that he has a black eye in the picture.
Any plans to do an exhibition - apart from on your website?
I would love to do an exhibition and also publish this work as a book, both of those are the correct mediums for this type of work. Websites are OK but there is something much more aesthetically pleasing for these images to be in a physical form. I still have quite a lot of work to do and I think I will easily spend another year on this project. I haven’t approached anyone yet about publishing it and I don’t really know where to start. But I am starting to get quite a lot of interest and I am hoping that this project will be an important documentary piece for the history of punk and the people involved in it..