Then There Was Us March 2021
A human approach to documenting society with John Bolloten
Being firmly interested in photography for around ten years now and viewing it on a daily basis ever since then, I can only recall one photographer who has documented Bradford in a way that has really caught my attention. Last year I managed to get to the Don McCullin exhibition at Tate Liverpool, where I saw the huge collection of McCullin's work from the 60’s and 70’s that documented industrial scenes from towns in the north-west. Earlier this year I was introduced to a photographer based in Bradford who continues to make gripping work no matter what he’s documenting and shares similarities in his work to the great Don McCullin. John Bolloten has documented everything from local cricket teams, to homelessness and drug users. Building a remarkable amount of trust with these people and documenting them in a way that is honest in his approach, I got the opportunity to catch up with John and speak about his career in photography.
JT: Can you give us some background about yourself and how you got into photography?
JB: I was born in Brighton and moved with my parents to Edinburgh when I was 9, then moved to Bradford when I was 18 in 1983 and I never left. I always liked photography but I can’t say I was really into it. I was more interested in music, reggae in particular, and had a long career involved in that. During a decade-long retirement from that world, I was hungry to do something creative and decided to buy myself a DSLR at the back end of 2008 when I was almost 44. I taught myself and after some years, started to find my way in it. The last few years I have been able to carve something of a niche out for myself with the type of work and images that I shoot.
JT: You started photographing at the age of 44. How do you feel all the years of building up inspiration from various avenues has affected what you wanted to photograph when you picked up a camera for the first time?
JB: I think that by coming into photography later in life has been an advantage. I have been through a lot of challenges in my life and I am able to approach what I do with the viewpoint of someone older. I am 56 now but in my head I still feel that my mind is really fresh, like someone in their 20s maybe. I am very passionate about photography and the work that I am doing. I have always been somewhat manic so I shoot a lot and cram loads of things in whilst at the same time holding down a job.
JT: Your work has been described as “documenting people and subcultures that exist on the margins of society”. Can you tell me what interested you about documenting these themes?
JB: Pretty much all of my photography is around people and scenes that are not part of the mainstream. I did a few projects at the grass roots of society in Bradford and much more in-depth work around injecting drug users, grime music and currently bare knuckle pit fighting. I also have other ongoing work that I cannot talk about at this time. For me personally, ever since I was taken to Scotland as a kid and having a very difficult childhood which led me to having problems with drugs, I have always had a feeling of being some kind of outsider in society. I am somewhat socially awkward and feel much more comfortable connecting with people with my camera. I must be reasonably good at it because I have got into some really deep scenes and people seem to be comfortable and accepting of me being there.
JT: In your series titled ‘Nothing To See Here’ you have described the close relationship that you built with Gary and Maree over documenting their lives consecutively for 8 months. How as a photographer have you built this trust with the people you photograph?
JB: Working with vulnerable people with drug dependence, homelessness and mental health issues is a very controversial subject in the photography world because many people think that it is always a case of the photographer somehow exploiting people for their own gain. Much of the time those critics have no real idea as to the realities of life at the very bottom of society and wouldn’t ever get their hands dirty by spending a long period of time deep inside it. I spent five years of my life documenting this world and a group of around two dozen people within it. It was all done in my spare time and without any backer or even anyone to support me. At the heart of all this work is trust. One just cannot turn up with a camera and start taking these images. I had a very close relationship with the people I photographed that often took a long time to develop. I collected 18 life stories and these are all told in people’s own words and will fill a substantial portion of my forthcoming book This is Not a Life, It’s Just an Existence. With Gary and Maree, I had met them in the early period where I was shooting a lot on the street and after the first volume of this work, Nothing to See Here, had been published, I wanted to my photography to become more personal and intimate. They both kindly let me into their lives over an 8-month period where I made this book Love Story. Tragically, Gary died in January and I attended his funeral with Maree so we could say goodbye to him.
JT: I’m curious to whether photography has been used as a form of not only documenting but as a replacement for problems which you had earlier in life, almost as if photography has been a form of meditation. Would you say this is true and if so have you introduced photography to the people you work with on a daily basis and have any of them taken an interest in it?
JB: I can’t say that photography for me is a form of meditation, but it definitely has a positive impact on my mental health and I try to shoot daily if I can. Because I have an addictive personality then it could be fair to say that I am addicted to photography. I need to channel my energy into things that are creative, productive and constructive and I immerse myself deeply into all the projects I am involved in. Intimacy is at the heart of all the different projects I am doing and I need to be close to people, so most of my work is shot with a wide-angle lens.
When I was out working a lot with injecting drug users as a photographer, I did get some old digital cameras donated which I gave to people for them to document their lives and do something creative. However, it turned out to be unsustainable mainly through the cameras getting lost.
JT: You have photographed non-league football teams and cricket teams and then as you mentioned above, bare knuckle pit fighting and drug users. How has your relationship as a photographer differed between these groups and do you approach each subject and theme that you work with differently?
JB: I usually approach all my work in the same way. The hardest part is actually starting something new as in all these pieces of work, I didn’t know anyone at all when I began. The most complicated and complex aspect was working people who had drug dependence and homeless issues – not surprisingly. However, I always take the approach of being honest and genuine about what I am doing and being a human being. It is common being with people or in places and not actually taking any photographs. As I have progressed and developed over these last years, I now find it much easier to scope out a whole piece of work in my head now and envisage it as a completed project.
When I started working with drug users I was coming at it from a more street photography angle and as that work progressed I became much more focused on doing a body of work, personal and intimate, and also collecting people’s own life stories. Now I approach everything as a documentary photographer but with the smarts of someone who is used to being on the street and can work there without fear. When I went to my first bare knuckle event I literally didn’t know anyone there but after speaking to a few fighters I quickly worked out in my head what this work is all about. It is about the people who do it and why.
JT: In your work surrounding drug users and the people who sit on the margins of society, I’m curious to know whether you’re making this work for a reason that has an endpoint?
JB: First and foremost, I make the work for myself. I don’t have any commissions or backers or anyone funding me. At the same time it is also because I believe that this work has a value especially in relation to having a record of how we are living in these times. When I was doing the first part of my work with drug users I literally didn’t know anyone in the photography world, but I knew that what I was shooting was important. With austerity, Brexit, and Covid-19 lockdowns we are living in a truly extraordinary period of time and there is a wealth of things to document. These latest lockdowns I have probably been doing more work than I usually do but that is through the many connections I have built up over the years. All of my work I will approach with an honest, compassionate, empathetic and non-judgemental attitude. If people who see my work end up having a more empathetic feeling towards less fortunate in society then I will be satisfied with that outcome. You will probably never see my stuff in major galleries or collections, either because people like me cannot get access into that world, or simply because my work is often too uncomfortable. However, for all of the criticism, bitching and sniping that I have faced, the people I work with never seem to have any problem with what I am doing. So go figure!
JT: If you could document anything in the future, what would it be?
JB: Right now I am not thinking of any other possible projects to do as I have ongoing work in the bare knuckle pit fighting scene that will take a few years and I am still shooting amongst young people up here in West Yorkshire who are doing grime and associates rap music. I also have another ongoing piece of work that will last throughout this year which I cannot talk about right now plus I am putting together my big book This is Not a Life, It’s Just an Existence which will take a few months. I will also release a new zine soon of various photos I have taken abroad over the last decade. That’s enough for me to deal with for a while.
Creative Light magazine February 2020
What motivates you to capture and create your powerful documentary images?
I take photographs of things I am personally interested in or curious about. I started photographing amongst people who use drugs as I did that myself when I was younger and I understood about the psyche and mentality of those people. I like to photograph things that I can connect with in some way.
Your favourite lens for your photography?
Fuji 18mm on my Fuji XT1.
What advice can you share for people interested in documentary street photography?
Shoot what you are interested in or passionate about. Aim to do work that reaches a high standard photographically that has power, emotion and intimacy. Stay around for the long haul with patience, determination and persistence.
What have you found most challenging in your area of photography?
Spending five years photographing at the roughest end of injecting drug use was very challenging mentally, physically and emotionally. Now that work is completed I have no desire to go back into that environment again. Working in low light environments and trying to take strong, well-composed photos was always a difficult technical challenge.
Have you found yourself in situations photographing your subjects where you have felt afraid or scared for your safety?
I never felt uncomfortable around people who were using drugs and I think the people I worked with by and large didn't feel uncomfortable with my presence. However, it was a challenging and sometimes very dangerous environment with some characters who were particularly unpleasant. I was in a few situations where I was fortunate to emerge unscathed. Having said that, most of the drug users I worked with were pleasant and I formed some really strong relationships with around two dozen of them.
Post-processing are you a Lightroom or Photoshop user?
Lightroom only. I aim to get my photos correct in camera and I usually only spend a couple of minutes per photo in post production, if that. Some small tweaking, usually correcting any exposure issues, and using the contrast, blacks and highlight sliders. I am not a fan of heavy post-processing like excessive use of the clarity slider or HD.
Lighting of your images, what is your preferred light source choice for your photos?
Always natural light unless it is simply too dark and I have to use flash. In my work with drug users, it was common to be shooting at 3200ISO, f2.8 and at 1/30 or 1/60 maximum handheld.
Where do you find your inspiration from?
I am inspired by people and subcultures at the margins of society so all my social documentary work has this at its heart. I am also inspired by the work of some other photographers but I always aim to shoot for myself and not copy what has gone before. I am a naturally curious person and there is nothing more interesting than people!
Can you recommend any photography books?
My shelves are straining with books. Most important to me are books by Eugene Richards, Josef Koudelka, Miron Zownir, Boogie, Tom Stoddart, Jim Mortram and Brenda Ann Kenneally to name just a few.
Interesting facts about you?
My grandfather was Jewish, my father was a Christian and I am a Muslim.
The photographer Don McCullin has inspired you, can you explain why?
McCullin, apart from being a brilliant photographer, understood that one didn’t need to go abroad to photograph war. He knew that there was a war in our own inner cities and this needed to be documented. McCullin also shot some incredible images in Bradford in the late 1970s that had a big impact on me.
Love Story of Garry and Maree is powerful. How difficult was it to build the trust to document the emotion and depth of the story?
Although working with drug users has trust at the heart of it and this could be very difficult to get, I got on well with Gary and Maree from when we first met about a year and half before I starting working on Love Story. Because of this relationship it became obvious that I would approach them when I started to think about doing a very personal and intimate story. It sounds obvious, but one just cannot turn up with a camera and start shooting this stuff.
How many books have you written on documentary photography?
I have published six photography books to date and written none although the big book that encompasses all of my work with drug users is due to be published by Bluecoat Press in 2021 and will feature a number of stories in peoples’ own words about their lives. I knew instinctively that these incredible stories couldn’t be told any better than in their own words.
Do you exhibit your work in galleries?
Although the gallery/curators world is largely made up people who make very safe decisions, I was fortunate enough to be asked to exhibit my work with drug users at Photo North Festival in 2018. This led to me exhibiting at Hull International Photo Festival in 2019 and a return to Photo North for their second edition. I also exhibited in Belfast for homelessness awareness week. I am hoping that more people will approach me so that I can show these images and talk about this work. We need more contemporary documentary photography in the galleries and media and not wait until thirty years later when we can see it with some kind of misty-eyed nostalgia.
Favourite place in the world, and why?
No one favourite but I would be happy to return to all of these - Damascus, Istanbul, Mexico City, Belgrade, Belfast and Manila. They are all places I have felt connected to in some way and really enjoyed photographing there.
Three words that describe you?
Thoughtful. Emotional. Determined.
Your favourite food?
No absolute favourite but living in Bradford, I am always happy to eat decent Indian food.
I am publishing a book on the cockfighting scene in Manila called Gladiators on Fistful of Books and am continuing to work in the grime and battle rap scenes.
Tales From The Brazier's Grotto October 2019
John Bolloten’s Human Approach To The Marginal World
John Bolloten is a Bradford based documentary photographer whose most noticed work is about the homeless people and drug addicts in his hometown. His newest release, Love Story, is his sixth book. At the moment Love Story together with Nothing To See Here is seen as an exhibition at Hull International Photography Festival.
I met John Bolloten by accident four years ago at Brudenell Social Club in Leeds where we both were photographing Walter Lure’s gig. John photographed Walter also for his project Punk Survivors on that night. Anyway, we started talking and John gave me his business card. I studied his website and noticed at once that this guy is worth following; visually great, influential, touching and intense photographs; social documentary photography that is nowadays far away being a trend.
I couldn’t believe when I found out that John had started photographing very, very late; at an age of nearly 44. John says that he feels that he is still learning. “The things I’ve involved myself in I really do kind of addictively, I’ve merged myself in the work I am doing, I’ve become very…sometimes quite obsessed by it.”
John works really hard on his subjects, and that can be seen in the results, in his photographs. I do also think that as he was not a fledgling when started photographing – I mean dealing with different kinds of live situations because of his age – he has had sort of courage to step into the world of photography and he has definitely not chosen the easiest themes. His creative mind, age and experience in general and hard work has started bearing fruit and he has started to get recognition in the photography world.
His latest book, Love Story, published by Fistful of Books was released in May this year and as I was in the UK in April, it was a time to have a good talk about his work. The interview took place in a Pakistani café in Bradford with Pakistani breakfast and after that we went to meet Peter, one of those people whom he has photographed and who is also involved in Nothing To See Here book.
John tells that he has always been very creative. He had had a long career in music, and when he retired from that he felt that he needed to do something creative to fill that hole. He thought, why not buy a camera and learn to use it.
“I always liked photography, but didn’t really know anything about it. I didn’t know anything really about documentary photography or anything. That came much later. It was mainly about how to use the camera. I was photographing stuff I was interested in. It was about six, seven years ago when I really found myself; the kind of stuff I wanted to photograph that is largely people, subcultures on the margin of society. That’s what really interests me.”
Don McCullin and Bradford
John appreciates Don McCullin a lot who also photographed homeless people in the east end of London decades ago. McCullin also photographed in Bradford. He has said (quoted from the McCullin exhibition sheet): “I wish I’d been born in Bradford, and had its beautiful dialect and its warm, relaxed attitude… Bradford’s full of energy and enthusiasm – and exciting, giant, visual city.”
This is what McCullin has written in one of his books about Bradford:
…Bradford, where I found a microcosm of the dark satanic legacy that we had inherited from Britain’s industrial heyday. On the other hand, I was met everywhere by warm and courteous people who were surprisingly tolerant towards the growing influx of immigrants from Asia and the Caribbean. In Bradford I experienced a new freedom, wandering through the quiet dilapidated streets where, for the first time for years, I encountered a great deal of hospitality and the welcome absence of violence. I discovered here a city, a living city, and in so doing I rediscovered myself – not always a comfortable process. (Don McCullin, Sleeping with Ghosts, Vintage 1995)
John about Don:
“The work he did with homeless in London, the pictures he shot in Bradford in the late 70s, it is unbelievable. They are a big source of inspiration to me. The thing about Don McCullin is that he is able to connect with people. He is able to approach people, he is able to talk to them and he is able to take incredible photographs. You can’t go to university to learn that. You either have it, or you don’t have it – the ability to connect people, the ability to see something or ability to just get things happen. For me being British, I think Don McCullin’s best work is here. He has always understood that there is a war on our own doorstep. There are people suffering in this country and he has always recognized that you don’t have to go abroad if you want to photograph war […] And I think that’s the most important thing about Don McCullin. You don’t have to go abroad to be inspired. You can photograph where you live and document life in an interesting and powerful way.”
It’s easy to see why he appreciates Don McCullin’s work so much. He continues that when Don McCullin came to Bradford he saw it with the observer’s eye as he was not from Bradford. John is neither from Bradford. “Even though I have lived here 36 years, I still see it with that observer’s eye”, he says. But then he continues that young photographers should feel that they can photograph where they live for a long period of time. Knowing the place add the depth to the material. On the other hand – this is anyway a matter that divides the documentary photographers in two camps – if you are an outsider, observer, you see all the peculiarities etc. of the area which can be ignored totally by a local.
Nothing To See Here
John’s fourth book Nothing To See Here is about homeless people and people with drug problems. John had worked in public health for many years and has lots of knowledge of the subject matter when it comes to people using drugs. But the photography is on the personal level.
“The main thing is that you obviously just cannot turn up and take these pictures. Originally I was interested in people who were homeless.” That was my starting point, tells John. He started by taking portraits on the streets of homeless people. Doing this kind of work is based on trust, making connections and not judging the people.
“I was forming some relationships then. And that led on to some situations where I was able to photograph other things in their lives like use of drugs and so on of those people who were having drug problems. And I think the way to gain trust… people can smell bullshit straight away. First of all I always approach my work as a human being first and being as genuine as possible and I don’t work with anybody else, so I am going to the situations being vulnerable.”
“Once you meet enough people who really trust you and respect you, they just introduce you to another person. The number of people I work with is relatively small, a couple of dozen and there are about 2000 people in Bradford who are using heroin for example. […] Once that trust is there, people understand what I am doing. But it takes time. Some people I’ve photographed for my new book, I’ve known for six or eight months, they kept me arms length and that’s fine, and then suddenly they completely changed and became really close.”
John was interested in starting a project where these people could document their own life, partly as therapy and partly giving them a chance to do something creative, something that would lead to something good. But cameras went missing and finally John had to give up. But he still thinks there should be more opportunities to give people chance to do something creative… something they get interested in as a therapy or recovery.
How have those homeless people whom John has photographed reacted being a subject of a photographer?
“Pretty much all the homeless people I have photographed, if not all of them, have never had a problem of me photographing them. Because I am engaged on it, I just don’t turn up, taking a picture and then running away. I am interested in them, their stories and I am aware where that sits in a wider context as well. I think lots of depends on your approach as a photographer”. John continues that pictures of homeless people at doorways are not interesting at all unless they are part of a wider context, of a deeper story.
“A lot of the time people have strong opinions against photographing homeless people or people who use drugs. They don’t have any understanding of that world. They wouldn’t go into it.” John continues that because he himself was somebody who used drugs when he was younger, he understands that world. “I understand the mentality of people and so on. I don’t feel uncomfortable there. People can sense that, I think. I am not interested in taking drugs, but people are not uncomfortable me being there and I am not uncomfortable being there. So there is lots of trust.”
I must ask if John has ever been afraid when photographing these projects.
“At the beginning I was lot more apprehensive, because I knew very few people. When I started doing this work I was meeting people on the street. So I didn’t really know who people were, because I was not very well connected. The connections, they were built up naturally over a certain period of time. So sometimes I did feel quite vulnerable.”
He continues that when completing Nothing to See Here (published in April 2017) and started doing much more personal work, he stopped hanging out in public spaces with people.
Nothing to See Here was kind of like an overview of the world where people use drugs. After that he wanted to do a much more intimate, personal piece and he asked a couple that he knew from Nothing to See Here if he could visit their flat and photograph and they agreed. Those people were Gary and Maree.
That project took eight months of 2018. At the time Gary was 44 years old and has used heroin for 30 years. He had his leg amputated on the previous year. Maree is twenty years younger and she smokes crack. During the time John was photographing Gary and Maree, Gary was in a therapy for getting a prosthetic leg.
“People are doing lots of homeless portrait projects, I found that uninteresting; it’s just people’s faces. I am interested in the deeper stories. And I think that the people I photograph, they know that. When I go to see somebody I am in their place three, four hours, sitting there, talking to them, just chatting about life or we are talking about something deeper. Sometimes I am interviewing people for my new book. Sometimes the stories are absolutely heartbreaking. They trust me enough to tell me about those things. It takes lots of time to get into that point where the really great stuff happens.” When he was working on the Love Story book, he visited Maree and Gary every week, usually from three to five hours during those eight months he was following their life.
The result is a collection of photos of a troubled couple, but you can sense the love between them. Some of the pictures are really tough, some are absolutely beautiful. You couldn’t be able to take those pictures without a deep trust between this couple and a photographer.
Has there ever been a situation that has been too hard to photograph?
“Yes, there have been. Not so much in private spaces. Because when you are in a private space the people know that you are there.” John tells that when he was taking photos for Love Story, Gary and Maree said, ‘you can photograph anything’. So John had a kind of permission to photograph everything unless something quite awkward happens. “On the street that’s a different matter because there might be a situation of people overdosed”. John has witnessed these situations and then it’s time to help, not taking photos. “And there have been quite a lot of times that I haven’t wanted to photograph.” The first thing is to help, he says.
John tells that he always feel like an outsider, he lives totally different kind of life than the people he is photographing. He can be in the same room where people are using drugs, and thus he feels very privileged to be inside of those moments that can be very intense. But he is anyway an outsider: “I always hesitate to use the words like ‘friends’, because primarily I am working as a photographer. So I wouldn’t say that people I am photographing are my friends, but some people are very close to me and some people I really care about a lot and I have a very close relationship with them. So I think I can be seen as a friend, a close friend, more than just a photographer – definitely.”
John is not photographing anybody using drugs anymore. All that part of the project is finished, he says. He has concentrated working on the new book. “It’s about the lives of people who use drugs, mainly heroin, but also crack. People are telling their life stories in their own words as well as lots of very intimate pictures inside that world.” It will be published by Bluecoat Press that is specialized in British social documentary photography, both old ones from archives as well as contemporary. If a book is coming out on Bluecoat Press, it means that it’s something to wait for. I mean I have several photo books published by this company and they are all great. The book is scheduled to be out in late 2020.
Other marginal subculture projects
One of the projects John has been working recently is a Generation Grime -project. John explains that grime is music that emerged in the UK around 2003. “What is interesting is that it’s peculiarly British phenomena, people are rapping in their own accents, recording videos in their own neighbourhoods and the music is peculiarly British with elements from garage, hip hop, reggae even”, explains John. “It is something that’s gone pretty much into every working class community in the UK. White kids, black kids, mixed race kids, Asian kids, refugee kids, all are rapping grime.” Grime came from east London, but John wanted to document it in a northern city that is very multi racial. In West Yorkshire where he did most of the work, people are different, architecture is different, and so on, John tells. He started photographing grime culture in February 2017 and the work is largely finished now. The plan is to publish that in the future on Fistful of Books.
“I don’t see any contradiction between me working within grime music and drug addiction. I have the same principles and approach with everything I do. John tells that also in the grime scene there were situations where people were not sure about him photographing them. But he was carrying Nothing To See Here with him and when showing it, people realised that this photographer had already been inside in some heavy scenes, he was trusted, he was ok.
John has also published books on cricket and football.
“I spent a couple of years photographing cricket in Bradford. I just fell into it, it was really, really enjoyable, because the people were so lovely, so welcoming. So I made this little project, which is called Shabash, which is a Hindi word for ‘bravo’. I really enjoyed that and self-published it as small edition. I finished that and I thought maybe I would do a football one. And I have always focused on the lowest possible level. So the cricket was the lowest league and the football was on the lowest leagues.”
Cricket was photographed in the summer, in a nice weather, whereas football was a winter thing, photographed in an absolutely freezing cold weather, John tells. And it was not just the weather that was tough: there were hostilities sometimes John being there with camera. “I guess people were just getting paranoid when seeing camera. There were some guys smoking cannabis and I wanted to take pictures and they were quite paranoid about that.” But again, John showed pictures from his Nothing To See Here project and again that worked. “That was really enjoyable project to do. Just one season and published on Fistful of Books. The book, Field Of Broken Dreams, got a good reception.
John has also photographed abroad. But photographing abroad is much, much more difficult because of the language barrier, he explains. In Bradford he is able to talk to people and is well connected. Abroad he is doing more street photography, even though he is nowadays more interested in stories than the average street photography kind of stuff, funny scenes and so on.
But when being in another country it’s not possible to dig deep during a short period of time. He tells that he had some contacts in Delhi and that made it possible for him to photograph drug users there and visiting rehabilitation centres. People also speak English in India. In India in general people are fairly warm to photographer, says John. Last year John visited Mexico a couple of times photographing homeless people. He notes that Mexico City is quite a dangerous city, but most people are really warm, too. “I think people can sense who you are, so I never had any problems there”, he says but adds that concerning the work, he was just scratching the surface. He might anyway make a publication that gathers together pieces of work from different countries.
In the beginning of the story I mentioned John’s Punk Survivors project. The project is pretty much finished now, but he does not yet know what to do with the material. It was his first long term project. He started it in May 2011 and worked on it about six years. With this project he became serious about photography. John says that it was not easy, he was just learning to be a photographer, and he had no magazine or anything behind him. Some of the pictures he would have shot in a different way now.
For the project he took portraits of around 220 people, people who were connected in punk and new wave, from the early seventies to the early eighties. So the collection includes also some people from the pub rock era, before the punk phenomena.
What might be a bit surprising about that project, it’s not about portraits of punk or new wave artists, but the whole project is about ageing. John says that in those days, in the heyday of punk 1976–83 (when hc punk sort of replaced the first two – or three if we go to America, this is how I count it) the whole scene was documented very heavily by the contemporary music press and other photographers. It was an incredible snapshot of youth and youth culture, says John. People in that scene were young.
“But I realised when I started working on Punk Survivors – when people were generally fifty, over fifty, maybe early sixties – that they hadn’t been documented as older people and who they were as older people in a very intimate way. I didn’t necessarily like people being a character. I’d like to photograph just as very ordinary peoples, not any stage clothes or anything, just very ordinary… to just show them as they were, but also in some ways to have a final stage of documentation of who they become later in their live.”
John has a couple of exhibitions to come; Love Story and Nothing To See Here are part of the Hull International Photography Festival that is open from 4 October to 27 October.
Love Story will be included in the short Photo North Festival that takes place 30 November–2 December.
Big Issue in the North Magazine September 2019
John Bolloten’s new book is a hard-hitting but intimate portrait of a couple with longstanding addictions. The Bradford-based photographer tells Steve Lee how he won Gary and Maree’s trust and became good friends with them.
John Bolloten describes himself as having “always been a creative person”. But although he began experimenting with photography around a decade ago, it wasn’t immediately that he found his true artistic calling. “After buying my first camera in 2008 I spent a lot of time on a long-term project called Punk Survivors, which looked at artists from the original punk scene and what they’re like now,” Bolloten, now 54 and a long-term resident of Bradford, explains. “I enjoyed doing that but knew that while it helped me work out what made for a great picture, it wasn’t anything really unique, special or deep.”
Projects examining Bradford’s gritty amateur football scene and the bottom tier of his city’s cricket leagues followed. As he steadily honed his craft, the work of unflinching documentary photographers such as Eugene Richards, Boogie and the great Don McCullin began to catch Bolloten’s creative eye. “Although people romanticise war photographers who work across the world, these people show that you only need go on your own doorstep to find another kind of war. I think that’s really, really empowering and an important thing to document.” Always fascinated by those on the margins of society, Bolloten began to focus on Bradford’s darker recesses – those inhabited by the homeless and habitual drug users. Nothing to See Here, “an exploration into homelessness, destitution and drug and alcohol misuse in Bradford”, was the first of his projects examining the disenfranchised.
Following directly from that has recently come a collection titled Love Story, probably Bolloten’s hardest hitting, most intimate work yet. Self-published in softback earlier this year, Love Story examines the world inhabited by a couple, Gary and Maree. Gary has been injecting heroin for almost 30 of his 44 years and is also a heavy drinker. Maree, 20 years younger, is a crack addict who also drinks daily. “I met Gary and Maree while working on Nothing to See Here,” Bolloten says. “Their story is really interesting on many levels so I just asked them if I could come and photograph them where they lived. It’s something that’s evolved organically over a number of years.”
The resulting collection of images is hard-hitting and often disturbing. We see the couple laughing, fighting, relaxing, clowning for the lens, injecting and smoking, almost exclusively within the confines of a claustrophobic, squalid flat. “We get to witness the kind of stuff your average person wouldn’t be comfortable letting you see, but they understood my work and understood the need for honesty,” the photographer explains, adding he now regards the couple as very close friends. “They were convinced I was honest and genuine as both a photographer and as a human being. Gary said a couple of times that if they didn’t like me, I wouldn’t be there. But there were some not so good times: it was often very challenging and very, very awkward.”
The fact that around two years ago Gary had his leg amputated adds further poignancy to the images. As the book progresses we see him receiving a prosthetic leg and, in the only shots taken outside the couple’s flat, learning to walk again, first in a local medical facility and later outside his and Maree’s home. Where Bolloten’s images could so easily have felt voyeuristic and intrusive, the obvious affection he holds for his subjects and dedication to depicting their situation warts and all make them disquieting, disturbing and occasionally extremely touching. What do Gary and Maree make of the finished work?
“Gary spent quite a lot of time looking at the copy I handed him and I could tell it was difficult for him to take. But after I’d been there about an hour and I was about to leave he just said: ‘Come and give me a hug – the book’s absolutely amazing.’ Then he texted me three days later when Maree had reappeared and told me she loved it too. I think they felt validated as human beings – that there was somebody who cared for them who was willing to show their lives in an honest way with no agenda.”
Amateur Photographer Magazine June 2019
Love Story may have a romantic title but the images contained within are from the traditional notions of romanticism. This 72-page zine from Bradford-based documentary photographer John Bolloten documents the relationship between Gary and Maree. John spent eight months withe the couple, getting a close and personal insight into their daily lives - one which, as Bolloten points out, is generally hidden from public view.
While this kind of work is uncomfortable to look at - indeed, you may very well be tempted to turn some of the pages as quickly as is possible - its importance can not be understated. Projects like this teach us valuable lessons in understanding and empathising with those left languishing on the fringes of society.
The print run for Love Story is limited to just 200, so you might need to act quickly to grab the last remaining few copies, but you'll be handsomely rewarded if you do.
Amateur Photographer Magazine May 2019
It wasn’t until John Bolloten turned 43 that he first picked up a DSLR. In 2008, looking for a new way to be creative, he bought an entry-level Canon camera and taught himself how to use it.
More than a decade on and he’s created some incredibly hard-hitting documentary work, mostly focused around the city in which he lives – Bradford, West Yorkshire. I met John at 2018’s Photo North festival. Giving a presentation in conjunction with the homeless charity Simon on the Streets, you could see he felt nervous.
Considering he spends his photographic life with characters and in situations that could be described mildly as ‘uncomfortable’, it’s ironic that a small room full of polite listeners should bring on such uneasiness.
Never judgmental in his approach, he photographs with a kind of empathy that shows the lives of those on the fringes of our societies, let down by the systems which are supposed to protect them.
Often, documentary and news photography highlights problems on foreign shores – it can be easy to forget that right here at home we have more than our fair share of potential conflict waiting to be documented.
John has been photographing in and around the streets of Bradford for several years. His superb book Nothing to See Here was published in 2017 by Fistful of Books, and has since gone onto a second edition when the first quickly sold out. Wanting to go even deeper, he chose to enter the private spaces of the couple seen across these two pages for his new book, Love Story.
Born in Brighton, John moved to Scotland at the age of nine before settling in Bradford at the age of 18 in 1983. Always having felt like somewhat of an outsider, it’s this which helps him to resonate with his photographic subjects. ‘When people talk about photography being a mirror, I absolutely believe that,’ he tells me in a chat after the talk has finished. ‘When I’m photographing people who use drugs, because I did that myself when I was younger, I feel like I’m photographing myself – or how my life could have turned out.’
Relationships are vitally important to John – he doesn’t ‘smash and grab’ pictures and then move on to the next. It can take weeks or even months to build up to the stage where those in front of his lens feel completely confident with his presence. That’s not to say that once that trust has been established, it’s an easy ride.
‘They [Gary and Maree] said to me at the beginning “you can photograph anything you want,” but when you’re there and it’s very late at night, and the atmosphere is quite strange, you’re constantly thinking, “do I photograph this, or do I not photograph,”’ he explains. ‘You’re just learning on the job day by day.’
Shot over a period of eight months, John would spend several hours with Gary and Maree in their flat. It was a dirty and dark place, and at the time the UK was in the grip of a heatwave – which didn’t help. Gary and Maree have a largely on/off relationship, characterised by intense periods of being ‘on’, with arguments and fall-outs which inevitably led to break-ups.
‘She [Maree] was really hyper,’ John says. ‘She was the life of it, really. If I’d photographed just him, it wouldn’t have worked, but it was the dynamics of their relationship – and the intimacy and toxicity – that made it.’
Gary’s leg was amputated in the summer of 2016, and he’s been a drug user for the best part of 30 years. Maree is a lot younger, but is also in the grip of a drug problem. Clearly, these are vulnerable people – something which John is always mindful of. ‘People might talk about, is it right for a photographer to take images of people like this – but I think the bigger scandal really is how people are living when they’re ignored and people aren’t taking care of them,’ he says.
There’s no denying that these pictures are difficult to look at, something which John acknowledges but doesn’t shy away from. ‘Doing the talk today, there was a woman in the front row who could barely look. I don’t want to put people in distress, but it’s important work. All I care about is making honest pictures.’
The work came to a natural conclusion on a happier note: Gary received a false leg and was just beginning to learn to walk again, hopefully getting his life back together in due course. It’s clear nobody would rather see that happen than John – ‘I’m very close to them both. I care about them. Sometimes this project might have been draining, but sometimes it was absolutely wonderful.’
Grain Magazine December 2017
British photographer John Bolloten is based in the northern English city of Bradford, one of the most deprived places in the UK. One hundred and fifty years ago Bradford was one of the richest cities in the world due to the riches generated by the industrial revolution but for many years now it has faced economic decline and has significant levels of poverty. It is also one of the most ethnically-diverse places in the UK where over a hundred nationalities live and has experienced enormous levels of immigration. The present government’s brutal austerity policies over the last seven years have hit residents hard and has led to large amounts of homelessness and even more difficult challenges for the city’s dependent drug users.
It is within this context that John spent two years working on his latest book Nothing To See Here (published by Fistful Of Books), a monochrome tome that bears witness to the gritty underbelly of Bradford. Images of people injecting heroin, smoking crack cocaine and overdosing from spice are mixed with photos of local sex workers, alcoholics and a close look at the hard lives of homeless people.
At 52 years of age, John was a late developer when it came to photography and only bought his first camera eight and a half years ago. Like most, he says that the first three or four years was spent taking “rubbish shots” until he found his own style and started to specialise in social documentary photography, often with a large dose of classic street photography thrown in. His first long-term project (six years) focused on the ageing figures of the original era of UK punk rock called Punk Survivors, a large archive of work that has not yet been published. His first book of street photography Bradford Street came out in 2014 and soon sold out and was followed the following year by Belgrade, shot over the course of 6 days in the Serbian capital. John was inspired to visit and shoot in Belgrade after discovering Boogie’s book about the city, a book that John describes as a “textbook way to photograph one’s own neighbourhood in depth”. He met and spent some time with Boogie while there and states that “I learned a lot from a photographer that I really admired and it helped me focus more on the type of photography I really wanted to make”.
After flirting for a couple of years with pure street photography, John says he got bored with a lot of it and much of the gimmicks in the genre and decided to mainly focus on work that was deeper and more meaningful. Asked for his key influences, he immediately mentions names like Don McCullin, Boogie, Miron Zownir, Eugene Richards, Scot Sothern and Josef Koudelka. He says ”all of these photographers immersed themselves into particular communities and (sub)cultures and produced stunning work that really hits you on an emotional level. I knew I had to go much deeper with my own work and head to the frontlines”.
He goes on, “my city has always had a dark side but no-one had ever gone this far before in documenting the harsh reality of Bradford life. I knew Bradford well having lived and worked here for over 35 years and understood the mentality of the people. Therefore, I didn’t need to go elsewhere. I could go out everyday and build up a strong body of work. Photographing on the street here is never easy and people are suspicious of photographers. Getting insulted, or even worse, a physical confrontation is an ever-present hazard. However, on the whole people can be quite warm and friendly once they have sussed you out so the best tools I really had was being genuine, honest and being interested in them. I didn’t want to just grab random shots of homeless people camped out in doorways. I wanted to get to know them and document their existence honestly.”
Nothing To See Here took him to his physical and emotional limits. He says “I knew that making this work had many risks attached to it. I was spending time with very vulnerable people with unbelievably challenging lives and I could only successfully complete this project if I had their trust. On many occasions I photographed people injecting heroin and crack in outdoor shooting galleries and was around people clearly worse for wear through their heavy drug and/or alcohol use. I got verbally abused a few times and once I was physically assaulted. However, I chose to dig deep and keep working so that I could make sure that I had enough material with depth.”
Many of the photographs in Nothing To See Here make grim viewing. A man with a badly-bruised eye and another with a deep cut to his forehead after being hit with a beer can. A young woman with a badly-scarred arm from cutting herself. A female spice overdose casualty with her eyes to the sky, appearing to be somewhere between life and death (“she almost did die” John says). Various photographs show partial nudity and bodies bearing the physical effects of years of abuse. But there are other softer, more heart-warming and humorous moments too. The sense of community, some larking around and a tender embrace between a younger couple. John stresses that “the important thing for me was to be a human being first and photograph all of these people with respect. I was not interested in putting across any moral view about the individuals I photographed or the activities they were doing. I just wanted to capture these moments without judgement.”
John also says that “my book is simply just a witness to what I saw in the world of drug dependence, alcoholism, destitution, homelessness and prostitution. It has no other role than that. This kind of work can be easily misunderstood, including the motives of the photographer, but I am not interested in engaging in discussion about this as often those who express dislike or disgust will likely never understand this work anyway. Like those photographers who say that one should never photograph the homeless. Why not? They are part of society like everyone else. If someone hates the work then I am happy with that as I would rather get a strong reaction than indifference.”
Nothing To See Here has had a very positive reaction. For John the biggest reward has come from other photographers that he deeply admires. He says “I have been blown away with it being endorsed by Boogie, Miron Zownir, Scot Sothern as well as fellow British photographers like Peter Dench, Ricky Adam, Derek Ridgers and Jim Mortram. All of these are known for strong social documentary work. When you get recognised by some of the bravest photographers on the planet then that tells me that I am going in the right direction. I also got positive reviews from as far as Turkey and Thailand. I am a great believer in never stopping learning and I want to keep pushing myself to do raise my game.”
So what about the people in the book. What did they think of it? John replies that ”everyone who has seen it has really liked it and were happy to be in it. I knew it would be a book before the project finished so I was telling people I was taking these photos for a book and not one person objected to that. They trusted me that I wasn’t looking down on them or ridiculing them and what they were doing. Even though I have sold out of all my copies, every week I am asked for a copy by people living on the street. I also still have friendly relationships with many I have photographed and still follow their lives closely and how they are getting on. Since the book was published five months ago though, 4 people in it have already died. In some ways, they are immortalised and live on in my book. They did exist and I was proud to know them and have fond memories of the moments that we shared.”
John continues to shoot in his city. “I try and photograph every day and am always working on a main project and a couple that that exist in between. I published a book called Shabash about the lowest level cricket league in Bradford that was well-received nationally and has led to me being commissioned by the English Cricket Board for some work. A season spent photographing the grass roots football in Bradford will be my next book Field Of Broken Dreams which is currently being edited. I also have an ongoing project based inside the Shia Muslim community in Bradford. My current long-term project is a detailed investigation into the grime music scene in the north of England which is currently titled Generation Grime. This has also been challenging but it is coming together slowly and surely into coherent work. All of my projects are gritty in feeling and while obviously some are more hardcore than others I would like them all to be taken as a whole to be recognised as a record into the real life of the city of Bradford. Much of this work is based within communities and subcultures that are off the mainstream radar.” He states that “it is really difficult to be recognised as a photographer and work on very limited resources but I just keep pushing on. First and foremost I shoot for me but hopefully I can get more people interested in my work.”
Japan Camera Hunter October 2017
“Nothing to see here” is anything but as it take you into the dark underbelly of central Bradford. These 64 pages of A4 black and white photos will smack you in the face with reality. It’s a bleak peak into some rough neighborhoods of England. Brutally honest, his subjects hold nothing back for his lens. It’s an achievement how comfortable he makes them feel to give him such an honest expression. A lot of the images can’t really be featured here, as it shows some graphic drug use. Drug abuse’s brutality is candidly represented as John gives us access to a grim world. Shocking, yes. But perhaps something that does indeed need to be seen.
Photobite April 2017
When I graduated from university in 1995 with a degree in Photographic Studies, it was generally understood, if you didn’t make it as a photographer, you had failed. If you ‘hung on’ in the industry working as a technician or gallery assistant, you had failed. Now the smart thing to do is excel in a profession that may not be related to photography at all, IT perhaps, and apply yourself to photography in your spare time without the pressure of having to earn a living. And shoot local. I had drinks recently with the commissioning editor of a national newspaper supplement. He asked me if I knew any skilled photographers in Newcastle, Norwich or the Bradford area. I said I could travel on assignment to Newcastle, Norwich or the Bradford area. He said a local photographer would keep the budget to a minimum. I said, “Oh”. Then I recommended photographers in Newcastle, Norwich and the Bradford area.
Editorial budgets are now rarely available to send a photographer across the globe. I no longer expect to be flown to Los Angeles to document a dwarf convention, or to Illinois to snap a town celebrating the superhero Superman. Shooting local makes sense. For today’s commissioning editors, a local photographer is crucial; they have the knowledge, contacts and confidence. They can execute a commission more effectively, quicker and more cheaply.
A combined archive of documentary photography shot by photographers resident in an area can arguably deliver a more effective and accurate portrait of a nation. Here, I’m thinking of Jim Mortram’s reportage, Small Town Inertia, which comprises intimate, compelling and often challenging portraits of people living on the margins in East Anglia and Tom ‘Photie Man’ Wood’s images of strangers, neighbours and friends living in and around Mersyeside. And there’s Document Scotland, a collective of five Scottish documentary photographers brought together by a common vision to witness and photograph the important and diverse stories within their nation and the collective, A Fine Beginning, offers a platform to discover and showcase photography being made in and about Wales.
When not at his job working in public health, Bradford-based photographer John Bolloten shoots local. I don’t recall how I came into contact with Bolloten, but I’m glad I did. I’m not sure how four of his publications are on my bookshelf, but I’m glad they are. Nothing to see here, was the latest to arrive: an exploration into homelessness, destitution and drug and alcohol misuse in Bradford. I’m usually uncomfortable with photographers who photograph the homeless. They don’t usually ask, applying the brasher, smash and grab approach popular with some modern street photographers. I usually advise aspiring photographers not to photograph the homeless. But why should the homeless be ignored? Bolloten hasn’t ignored them. He asked them to collaborate. You can tell he asked because they stare unflinchingly into the camera. They show Bolloten their drugs in pin sharp detail; they show him injecting their drugs; they show him their tattoos, their bruises, and some women, show him their breasts. It’s Britain photographed at it’s most brutal and bleak; it’s Bradford and uniquely Bolloten.
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..