Falling into a photographic life

Blake Sharp-Wiggins

Bleddyn Butcher

Bleddyn Butcher

A black pork pie hat appears to float over the top of a bookshelf. It hovers, stopping and starting up and down the isles of a cluttered bookstore as its owner scans dozens of crime fiction novels. Rough, shaggy grey hair escapes the hat. Some of it rests on the collar of a black leather jacket and salmon pink shirt. If the hat’s owner had a guitar, microphone, a stage and a big crowd he’d look very comfortable among the many musicians he’s documented throughout his life. He finally comes to a stop in the corner of the bookstore. “George Pelecanos,” he says, bending to pick up a paperback. “It’s the only one I haven’t read yet”.

In 1958, it’s a month-long journey from England to Australia by boat through the Suez Canal. Bleddyn Butcher describes this journey to Australia at the age of five as not his first memory but his most vivid. His family of five settled in the wheat belt of Western Australia, which stretches from Geraldton to Albany, where his father became the local doctor.

Describing himself as a 10 pound pom, Bleddyn says he found it difficult to fit in at school. “I got bashed up for having an English accent, then we moved to Perth and I got bashed up for having an Australian accent by all the pommy kids living in our suburb. It was a bit of a violent society.”

It was during these school years that Bleddyn developed “a visual eye”. “I was always into visual stuff and I used to draw a lot as a child and as a teenager and, as time went by, as my friends became musicians, I did a couple of band posters and after the second or third poster, someone said, ‘Hey, you’ve got a visual eye, why don’t you do some photography?’ and that’s how it happened. I didn’t have a camera so I had to borrow a camera and take those photos but after that, I got my own camera and taught myself.”

From there he knew what he wanted to do with his future and step one was to get out of Perth. “If you’ve grown up in Perth, basically there are two types of people – people who stay there forever and people who get the hell out at the first opportunity.”

However, with the Vietnam War raging since 1955 and Australia joining forces with the United States in1962, Bleddyn’s generation faced the possibility of conscription.

His idea to escape this fate was inspired by an older boy he grew up with in Perth, “He was kind of my hero. I bought lots of blues records from him because he got better copies from the record shop he worked in and because he got out of the draft by conscientious objection and fled to Melbourne.” So before he could be conscripted, Bleddyn left Australia and, using his British citizenship, returned to England.

Once in London, Bleddyn found himself squatting in Stepney in west London although it wasn’t long before he found his way into the professional photography world working for New Musical Express magazine. Originally starting in the fashion department, Bleddyn started photographing musicians such as Alex Chilton, Joe Strummer, Michael Stipe, the Pogues and U2.

One of the most iconic and influential bands he documented was the Birthday Party and front man, Nick Cave. “I was kind of lucky – but then everybody has to have some luck – when I bumped into them in London. I remember thinking so highly of the Birthday Party that I became, well, obsessed is too intense a word but they were the only thing that was happening that was worth going back to see again and again.”

Eager to document the band, Bleddyn got to work. “I jagged good candid photos of them and I guess that impressed them so I got another go. It was a chance to do some studio photos but the studio photos were beyond hopeless. I hadn’t learnt that they, above all people, had to be bossed around; they were very difficult to handle, they were probably the epitome of difficult, let’s leave it at that, and so dealing with them was the trial by fire.”

Despite that, Bleddyn and Nick forged a friendship that has lasted 32 years, in time in which both of their crafts have evolved with their relationship.

Looking back on his career, he says there are people he wished he had photographed and people he wished he had photographed more.

“I had friends who hated having their photos taken, they would beg me not to take their photo but I wish I’d paid no attention. I would like to have had a document of our friendship.” He pauses, shrugging his shoulders “ I just like taking portraits.”

Bleddyn Butcher joined 2SER music director Andrew Khedoori, The Church’s Steve Kilbey and novelist and essayist Jonathan Lethem to discuss Telling a Life: Music and Biography on Saturday. His most recent book, A Little History, Photographs of Nick Cave and Cohorts, 1981-2013 was published last year.