Rowan Bulmer: London’s Bygone Photographer
Picture this: your dad turns up at the door with a singular, mysterious box. What is it? A box of your ancient teen-diaries and some Spandau Ballet vinyls that your parents have cleaned out of your old room to make way for their state of the art (DIY) gym, as a result of their burgeoning mid-life crises? Or is it a box that contains his latest eBay gadget he’s just bought online “cos it was an absolute bargain” but needs your help to set it up? Sure, as some unlucky offspring you may have experienced this somewhere down the line, yet Tahita Bulmer – singer of electropop band NYPC – was probably not anticipating what she was about to see in 2012. There was no mortifying teenage scrawlings, no melodramatic pop-stars in polo necks on a black-and-white album front cover, nor was she about to be irritated by Amazon’s echo. Crammed in this banal box was a group of magic photographs whose value outweighed any rare LP you bought back in the sixties.
Rowan Bulmer, born in 1943, grew up Chiswick under the guise of a conservative family. You know the type who make you take your shoes off inside the house and have a small panic when you don’t put your cup of tea on a coaster when placing it on the table. By the time he could get the hell out of school, he attuned himself to his liberal tendecies which manifested themselves in the sensibilities of the art-schools of the early sixties. He enrolled himself in Chelsea College of Art at sixteen and became part of the ingenuously cool Beatnik scene of the city. Think artistically slanted berets and taught turtle-necks and discussions of Kerouac’s next poetic endeavours over a cup of bitter black coffee.
The sixties was an epoch that swirled and spilled in excess: artists, musicians and groupies would seamlessly transcend one group to the next, and its expansive nature meant that London became the undisputed centre of a pop-culture revolution. The start of the R&B and Beatnik subculture revolved around clubs in Richmond and Ealing such as Eel Pie Island, the Crawdaddy Club and Richmond’s Station Hotel, in which Rowan was a regular. Nonchalantly hanging around these bars became a pastime for him, and he soon witnessed the emergence of R&B virtuosos such as The Pretty Things and Jimmy Powell. He was part of a musical mythology that only some of us can now dream of.
His advent as a photographer appeared to be a natural move as any; he was already schmoozing around with music’s finest luminaries, so why not take pictures of them? He even said after seeing a photographer photograph his model girlfriend: ‘well that sounds like an easy life’, and we suppose for Rowan it probably was.
With his arsenal of cool contacts in tow, Rowan became freelance’s finest, photographing bands, album covers and music festivals. In classic cases of who you know, not what you know, Rowan landed some prolific projects: Giorgio Gomelsky – owner of Crawdaddy and early manager to the Rolling Stones – invited him to shoot a promotional film about the band in 1963. Whilst his arty aura and pretty-boy features made him favourites amongst the most attractive, he also became a tough pseudo-security guard to Crawdaddy; Giorgio asked him to ‘keep an eye out for’ ‘troublemakers’ and kick them out if necessary. He was then approached by Ready Steady Go! in 1964 in order to talent-scout and photograph the bands that appeared on the show. He constantly filled his compendium of cool: he shot the first press photos for Biba; he became good pals with Jimi Hendrix, that began to allow him to take rare and intimate photos with the psychedelic pharaoh:
‘The ones of Jimi Hendrix were taken at the Speakeasy because he went down there most nights if he was in London to play. So I got to know him. And he wasn’t too keen on photographers, but we got on quite well and he would just say, ‘Oh go on take a picture of me’ or something, so I’d just take a snap of him.’
Besides from this, he fitted into the fantastical folklore of the swinging sixties socially: he was the match-maker to one of the greatest power couple of the sixties Mick Jagger and Chrissie Shrimpton:
“I knew [Chrissie] from Eel Pie Island and she was part of the crowd I knocked around with. And one night I was at the Ealing Club and I saw Chrissie come in and I went to say hello, she said she’d come to see the Rolling Stones, she’d only ever heard them. We went down the stairs and she got to the front of the club and stood there, jaw dropped open staring at Mick. I see this and I say, “What? Do you like him?” and she says, “Ah, he’s drop dead gorgeous!” And I said, “Would you like to meet him?” And she said, “Ooooh you bet I do!” So I took her and introduced them, you know, “This is Mick, this is Chrissie” and then later that night I saw them going off together. The rest is history. They went out for quite some time and it seemed that every time they had a row I was brought in as a mediator because I was friends with both of them.”
All of his stories appear so cool: he smoked weed with Duke Ellington, put up a penniless Eric Clapton, and even drank with Brian Epstein days before his death. He was also the manager to The Tridents when good friend Jeff Beck was in the band, and all the while managed to document his escapades with his camera.
It remains, however, that Rowan’s photographs have been lost or locked away: the tantalizing titbit that the photographer brought to his daughter is only a minority of the photographs. An unknown number of boxes of photographs and contact sheets were lost in the sale of the Marquee club, where he stored his photos into obscurity. Some forty years after he took the photographs, and he still doesn’t seem too fussed about his legacy; there’s no Taschen approved coffee table book, Google throws up little information about the photographer, and he’s only exhibited his work once at the ICA. He appears criminally concealed, but his extraordinary treasures are hidden as a result of his ordinary modesty: after his daughter asked why he hadn’t shown his work before this, he treated it as if it were a stamp collection that’d been kept in the loft: ‘no-one wants to see these old things’, yet looking through his photographs, we can adamantly say we do. The musical luminaries he intimately caught on camera as budding young artists are now globally renowned; his photos really are a magical piece of the history of the swinging sixties, and should be allowed their day, or lifetime in the limelight.
To see more of Rowan’s photographs you may just want to have a google search, or read THIS article that his daughter did with the Independent back in 2014.