Born in 1953 within the sound of Bow Bells, but raised in the wheat belt of Western Australia, Bleddyn Butcher is one of the prime rock photographers of recent times; emerging in the 1980s, he is responsible for key images of artists such as Nick Cave, The Go-Betweens, The Triffids, The Moodists and even the occasional non-Australian such as Tom Waits and U2. Utilising a style that was closer to that of the great Magnum photographers of the ’50s and ’60s, Butcher always sought to capture more than a clean ‘pop’ image, instead creating strong, character-driven portraits, imbuing his subjects who were mainly, but not exclusively, male, (a reflection of the music press in the ‘80s) with a trademark atmosphere and depth that stood in strong contrast to the brightly coloured shrillness of much music photography of the time. Here, Pete Astor, a sometime subject of Butcher’s gimlet eye during that decade, catches up with the venerable lensman to discuss portraiture, favourite snappers and the digital-versus-analogue debate.
Having been photographed by Bleddyn Butcher on numerous occasions, I can also con rm that he was one of the funniest, most no-nonsense people I encountered in a world not known for its straight talking or veracity. is meant that, in his working methods, he was as far from the Blow Up style fashion snapper as it was possible to get. Not for Bleddyn the ‘looking great guys… just a few more now… Love it, yeah!’ encouragements. I remember many occasions when he would berate me (in particular), saying, ‘Stop being so bloody co-operative, Pete’. He would pause and tell me I shouldn’t try to look so ‘damn meaningful’ and simply ‘regard the camera’. The latter instruction eventually made a kind of sense. When done right, this way of being photographed creates a kind of blank meaningfulness of it’s own, where the subject achieves an ‘otherness’ by looking beyond the lens, seemingly ignoring any potential audience. Think of the diametric opposite of any photo of Wham! and you get the idea.
Pete Astor — What do you think were some of the significant photographic images at the beginnings of the rock’n’roll era?
Bleddyn Butcher — Among the key images would have to be the intimate series taken by Alfred Wertheimer of Elvis Presley in 1956. Jim Marshall’s photos of Muddy Waters and Jimi Hendrix should never be forgotten. The Beatles and the Stones always had good photographers but, as image-makers, Robert Freeman and Gered Mankowitz deserve special mention. Michael Cooper should get a Guernsey, too.
PA — Who are your favourite photographers? Rock or otherwise.
BB — Henri Cartier-Bresson, Richard Avedon, Barry Feinstein, Pennie Smith, Anton Corbijn and Steve Gullick.
PA — What made you want to become a photographer? Were there any key, Bowie-and- Ronson-doing-Starman-on-TOTP moments?
BB — Ethan Russell’s 1972 “Patience Please… A Drug Free America Comes First” portrait of Keith Richards may have been, brie y, my idea of the epitome of cool but, before that, and forever after, Elliott Landy’s portrait of The Band on the cover of their second album has always been my ideal of group portraiture: soulful and iconoclastic.
PA — Black and white or colour?
BB — Horses for courses… Black-and-white by preference but draining the colour out of digital pictures does seem kind of perverse.
PA — Analogue or digital? It’s a false dichotomy. I prefer lm but digital is way easier to use. Had we but world enough and time, this stubborn preference were no crime… Maybe film, like vinyl, will make a commercial comeback but, unless and until it does, sticking with it to the exclusion of all other formats seems – that word again – perverse.
PA — Your best subject?
BB — Nick Cave, hands down.
PA— Your most difficult shoot?
BB — Apart from The Weather Prophets, you mean? Ziggy Marley: there was a lot of waiting – days and days of it on the irie, irie island – and, when the dread moment finally came, Ziggy was as lively as a waxwork undergoing MRI.
PA — What makes a good music photograph?
BB— Rapport. Access.
PA— Any particularly asinine things you were instructed to do in photos in the glamorous but dark days of the 1980s?
BB — Get a haircut (Ian Pye, NME editor, 1986).
PA — The most difficult or pompous subject you’ve ever photographed?
BB — It’s a crowded field. Austrian brain-box Falco is perhaps the most unpleasant person I have ever encountered, but his astonishing arrogance only just eclipses the supreme self- satisfaction of William Hurt, Kirk Brandon and, of course, Morrissey.
PA — The most dignified?
BB — “Dignified” is probably not the right word for it but the two times I photographed Joe Strummer, he seemed very comfortable in his own skin: no airs, no graces, just down-to-earth decency. Alternately: Ziggy Marley – who want some Aussie baldhead clutterin’ up their yard?
PA — Any technical gold for us?
BB — Whatever works…
PA — Photography now?
BB — Sodom tomorra…
LISHED A ‘LITERARY’ BIOGRAPHY OF HIS LATE FRIEND DAVID MCCOMB, OF THE TRIFFIDS, SAVE WHAT YOU CAN, WHICH IS AVAILABLE AT WWW.TREADWATERPRESS.COM.AU