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.’
b]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.
C-Type Magazine, Thailand, December 2016
Say something about yourself?
I am John Bolloten and I am a social documentary and street photographer based in Bradford in the north of the UK.
What is this project?
Nothing To See Here explores the world of drug addiction, alcoholism, homelessness and prostitution in my city. Much of this is quite visible in certain areas such as the city centre although the more explicit activities happen away from the eyes of the public.
When/Why did you start making this project?
I started shooting this project from around the beginning of 2015 and completed it in the spring of 2016. I am interested in photographing different subcultures that exist and in particular those people who are marginalised in society. Because the situation in Bradford is quite significant I wanted to capture it and many of the people involved.
What message do you want to convey to the audience?
I don’t have any message to put across in this work as I don’t believe that that is a realistic thing to achieve. I just wanted to create an insight into this world through my eyes.
Any your news update; exhibition, book, new project, life, etc?
I am planning to publish this as a small book and like previous books I have done I will probably do it myself unless someone comes along and is interested in doing it. I have other images that I will include that I am deliberately not publishing them online. I hope to get this book out sometime in 2017, probably later in the year. Before then I wanted to publish the second volume of street photography from my city.
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.
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..