Thursday 25 July 2013
Rowan Bulmer - Swinging London's Forgotten Photographer
From Biba's advertising campaign, London, Kensington, 1966
Recently, I've been flicking through London fashion/culture magazine Jocks & Nerds, where I found the article about 1960's London photographer Rowan Bulmer. Unlike his contemporaries David Bailey, Terence Donovan, Brian Duffy, Robert Whittaker and many others, Rowan Bulmer and his work remain almost completely unknown today - which is unusual, considering Bulmer's high profile in the 1960's. He was friends with The Rolling Stones (reportedly, he introduced Mick Jagger to Chrissie Shrimpton), he photographed and hung out with Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Rod Stewart, he was an official photographer for Mod meccas - TV programme Ready Steady Go! and Marquee club. He did first ever Biba advertising campaign and countless fashion photoshoots. Normally, a photographer of such calibre would today have his work published in a Taschen coffee table book, exhibited in museums, and the prints would sell a £100+ per pop. But not Rowan Bulmer. There are various reasons for that. As Chris May wrote in Jocks & Nerds: Driven by passion rather than careerism, Bulmer never bothered to archive his work. What's more, The Marquee club, which stored a large chunk of Bulmer's negatives, had unfortunately lost them when it moved out of Wardour Street in 1988.
Rowan Bulmer dancing the Twist, Eel Pie Island, 1962
In 2011, Bulmer's daughter Tahita (who is a lead singer in indie band New Young Pony Club) has found a large box of old prints that her father left in UK after moving to South of France year earlier. Box contained unseen photos of Stones, Hendrix , The Who and other legendary musicians as well as fashion photos and various snapshots of Swinging London scene. According to Chris May, Bulmer seemed surprised that anyone would be interested in his story (or his photos).
And what a fascinating story it is (A classic case of right place, right time - Chris May). Bulmer was born in 1943 and grew up in Chiswick. At 16, he enrolled at Chelsea College of Art. Like many of his art school pals, Bulmer was a jazz and Rn'B enthusiast and quickly became a regular on Soho's beatnik/coffee bar scene. One of his favourite hang-out at that time was Duke Of York pub in York Alley, Soho. He remembers: The Duke Of York is probably where it all started. It was very important. Rod Stewart, Long John Baldry, they they all hung out there. everyone was drinking and smoking dope non-stop. Everyone was scoring and there was Benzidrine and heroin. I never got into drugs myself. I saw it wreck too many people and made a decision early on. Around 1962, Bulmer started hanging out in the Ealing Club, Richmond's Station Hotel, Crawdaddy Club and Eel Pie Island - a places now considered a cradle of British Rn'B scene. He witnessed early gigs of The Pretty Things, The Downliners Sect, The Artwoods, Cyril Davies All Stars, Alexis Korner's Blues Incorporated, Jimmy Powell and The Five Dimensions (featuring Rod Stewart), The Tridents (Jeff Beck's first band). He witnessed Eric Clapton, Peter Green and Mick Fleetwood learning their trade before they hit superstardom. I first went to Eel Pie Island when I was 15 - he remembers. I became a pot boy, collecting empty glasses from the tables. It was a traditional jazz club and then they brought in Rn'B on Wednesday nights. I loved it all.
Keth Moon photographed by Rowan Bulmer
Around that time, Bulmer became a photographer. All these musicians I knew started to need photographs, and I thought, 'I can do that'. And because they were my friends, I took a lot of shots just for myself. Among his numerous musician friends were The Rolling Stones whom he met through Giorgio Gomelsky - owner of Crawdaddy Club and Stones' early manager, when he was shooting promotional film about The Stones in 1963. They were filming at station Hotel - Bulmer remembers - I was well known as a dancer and they were waiting for me to arrive before they started filming. The Stones were playing 'Pretty Thing' and the girl I was dancing with happened to be Brian Jones' girlfriend Linda Lawrence. She later married Donovan, hence the song 'Linda'. Anyway, I went to a work-in-progress screening at the Intrepid Fox pub on Wardour Street and afterwards I was chatting to Giorgio and he realised that I knew everyone. He was worried that he would get troublemakers at the Crawdaddy and he asked if I would work with him and keep an eye out for these characters. So I stopped going to Eel Pie so often and I was with Giorgio. This was when I got to know the Stones well.
Mick Jagger photographed by Rowan Bulmer in 1967
Bulmer was very close to Brian Jones - at one point they even considered moving in together. Bulmer says: We went flat hunting together a lot. We looked at lots of places, but somehow it didn't happen. Some people didn't like Brian, but I did. He was generous and he was really passionate about the blues. Evidently, Bulmer was less impressed by Andrew Loog Oldham - a young manager, who snatched The Stones from Giorgio Gomelsky. He was alright. A bit arrogant. I didn't really know him before he took over the Stones. There were a lot of people trying to get the Stones at that time. I was surprised when he got them.
By 1964, Rowan Bulmer was approached by the producers of new TV programme called Ready Steady Go!. He became an official photographer for this soon-to-be-cult Mod show. His other role in RSG! was finding new hot bands for the show - perfect for somebody with his connections and position on the scene.
Roll of film Bulmer shot at RSG! around 1965 - if you clack on it you can see Cathy McGowan and some soul band - anybody knows who they are?
Ronnie Wood, Chris Barber and Jeff Beck at the Marquee, 1967
Bulmer also took a lot of photos at The Speakeasy Club.
Jimi Hendrix Experience at The Speakeasy, 1967
Drag artist at The Speakeasy, 1967
Eric Clapton onstage with Cream, National Jazz and Blues Festival, Windsor, 1966
Mods, National Jazz and Blues Festival, Windsor, 1966
Geno Washington, 1965
From 1964 onwards, Bulmer also worked as a fashion photographer.
Fashion shots featuring model Wendy Richards, circa 1965
When Barbara Hulanicki opened Biba, she hired Rowan Bulmer to do the advertising campaign.
Photoshoot for Biba, Kensington Church Street, 1966
Fashion shoot at Yellow Submarine club, London, 1966. I don't know who the designer was but the clothes look amazing. I wish we could see a better quality version..
Same goes for this menswear ad from around 1966
London Mod/Psych band The Syn (their line-up included Chris Squire - future member of Yes) modelling newest Carnaby Clobber outside Marquee Club, 1967
Immaculately-looking Rod Stewart with female friends, 1967 ( I wonder where this photo was taken. I can see some David Bailey prints in the background...)
Rowan Bulmer continued working as a photographer in London in the 1970's. In 1980's, he moved to Ilkley,Yorkshire. He created large-scale sculptures on the Yorshire Moors. Around that time he also had his own art exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London. In 1984, Bulmer, passionate anti- Thacherite, joined a picket lines during miners' strike (I've always been on the Left - he says. My parents were Tory councillors; it's a reaction to that).
In the 1990's Bulmer returned to London. He opened his own studio on King's Road in Chelsea, where he worked until his retirement in 2010. Today, he lives in Dordogne in southwest France.
I don't know how much is left from his 1960's work, but I sure hope to see more. Rowan Bulmer doesn't seem interested in 'cashing-up', but the reasons for restoring and publishing the remains of his 1960's work do not have to be financial. Contrary to what he might think, there is a lot of interest in this, now legendary, era.
All the photos and quotations come from Chris May's article in Jocks & Nerds magazine, Volume 1 Issue 7, p 48-57.