Deep in the Woods with Bleddyn Butcher

Nick Cave 2012 Bleddyn Butcher
Nick Cave photographed in Alice’s Tunnel, Kemp Town, East Sussex, England, on 24 October 2012. © Bleddyn Butcher

After criss-crossing the globe, Perth-raised photographer Bleddyn Butcher tells us the story of how Australian music and its people made their mark through his nothing-but-black-and-white lens.

We dream of being somewhere else. We imagine looking at a different piece of the sky’s puzzle. We fantasise how we can turn a dream into reality, despite all obstacles. Then sometimes we begin to do what we dream and figure everything out along the way.

The ascendancy of the Australian music industry in the ’80s was something Bleddyn Butcher saw from the beginning. From the sounds of Perth to the sounds of London, calling in an influx of new independent Aussie bands.

Butcher’s photography of places, people, and concepts surmount the mundanity of today’s smartphone convenience. His casual, laconic approach and studied style of subjects like Nick Cave has augured tremendously to establish him as a photographic enigma who has captured Australian music culture like no other.

Bleddyn Butcher Lee Scratch Perry
Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry photographed at Beehive Studios, Chalk Farm, London, on 31 July 1987. © Bleddyn Butcher

HAPPY: You were born in London but grew up in ‘sleepy’ Perth. You’ve documented the journeys of musicians, but how did your photographic journey begin?

BLEDDYN: I got out of there as soon as I could. I was at uni and eventually, although there were no fees in the Whitlam era, you still needed money. I started working by designing posters for bands. I got a job in the Guild doing repro which was, in those days, to print from an internegative in which you basically had to photograph the copy and then give it to the printers and they made an engraving. They had the equipment in the Guild but nobody knew how to do it. I had to learn how to do that in one day because there was no one to teach me. They said I could have the job if you can figure out how to do it. So, I figured it out. I don’t know how, there must have been some instruction manuals.

The person that I first started photographing was a friend from school, Jim Fisher. And then I was doing these posters and a band that I was very fond of said, “oh you can draw, why don’t you take photos of us?” and I told them that I didn’t have a camera to which they said “well, we’ve got a camera, I’ve got a camera!” So, that’s how it started. Then I found I could do it. And in my era, the action was in London, so I went back to London so I could be a photographer. There was no magazines in Perth. The thing that they always say, and it applies to me in Western Australia as well, you end up playing to the same 400 people over and over again, but you can’t progress from there. You had to go to where the action was basically.

HAPPY: You weren’t trained as a photographer, so what were you studying at UWA?

BLEDDYN: I was studying English literature, I did a BA and an honours degree in that. That’s kind of what I wanted to do. My generation was kind of lucky in that we got to basically doss around while we figured out what we were going to do with our lives. Three or maybe four years, and that’s what I did. I mean, the first two years of university I don’t think I did any work, I was out in the world doing other things; girls, music, and beer. I think my first year of uni was pretty atrocious grades like Bs – shame! Then you sort of find that, oh well if I’m gonna do it, I’m gonna do it properly. And so, I did and I finished it.

And because I had to work for any spending money, I had started doing photography, so then I found I was good at that. I still don’t think I was that good, but I had taken photos I was really proud of and that I still like. But I wasn’t very good at dominating people, I mean it’s a horrible verb but it’s what you have to do to get people to look good. It takes a while – or it took me a while – to get used to the idea that you actually have to be in charge when you’re taking photos. In those days, and probably still, people don’t like posing, they don’t like to think that they’re a poser, you know, because it’s ‘pretentious’.

HAPPY: It’s a tricky thing to master, telling people what to do.

BLEDDYN: They [bands] didn’t want to be bossed. I mean, you try. Nobody else was ever gonna do it, but try bossing around Nick, Tracy, Mick Harvey, and Rowland [of The Birthday Party] at the same time.

HAPPY: It just doesn’t work!

BLEDDYN: Exactly! But I just realised that I was just gonna have to do it because the photos where I didn’t do that were shit. They weren’t gonna concentrate on me unless I was giving them the shits, basically.

HAPPY: In a way it’s like babysitting some kids: “come on, pack your toys away and I’ll let you watch TV!”

BLEDDYN: Well, you just have to think… they’re not going to respond to any direction like that, so you either have to become David Bailey and tell them stupid jokes or you have to talk to them about something they’re interested in, or you have to play the fool, or any other number of different things. But you have to actually realise that you’re on the mic and they’re the audience. You’re basically taking photos of their reaction and you try to get them in a good place when they’re doing it. It took me a couple of years to actually figure that out – not with them, I did one terrible session with them, and then I realised that I wasn’t gonna do it again like that. You know, I wasn’t gonna let them dominate me because they were just gonna piss around, you know, they’re drunk and stoned. There was no way the photos looked any good, they just looked like some passerby taking a photo out of a bus window.

HAPPY: Having said that, did you feel any influence from Perth with photography, or were you kind of thinking about the bigger picture the whole time?

BLEDDYN: I had a lot of mistakes and ideas before I went to live in London. I thought these really stupid, mystical things, like I thought the light was better in the northern hemisphere. What I didn’t realise is that that’s basically just soft light, it’s cloud cover. It’s always raining. I just didn’t know anything. Perth’s a pretty flat city, I mean it’s got the Darling Ranges, everybody needs to have a car. I wanted to live in a big city. I’ve been back to Perth three times this year and I have a different attitude to it now.

But then, ‘arty’ types… it was really sporty. I mean, Australia is much more in your face with sports. I had just never been interested in it, so you’re already in a minority. Punk was really exciting for everybody. There was a punk scene in Perth – The Scientists, The Victims, The Triffids kind of came out of that – but you wanted to go where it was actually happening. There were two choices, go to New York or go to London. I knew it’d be much easier to survive in England because it wouldn’t be so expensive and also because I liked English punk as well. They were the motivations for going, they weren’t actually photographic, they were more social and what my interests were.

Plague Doctor (Brian Waldron) photographed in the grounds of St Gregory’s
Plague Doctor (Brian Waldron) photographed in the grounds of St Gregory’s, Kurrajong, NSW, on 28 August 2020. © Bleddyn Butcher

HAPPY: I think those things weigh into your photography though. Your gig shots, that’s a social thing. You mentioned The Triffids, they’re Perthonalities. How was it photographing them and working with them?

BLEDDYN: That was quite different from The Birthday Party. I had something of a reputation by the time The Triffids came to – I went to the same school as David [McComb], but I’m much older than him, he was still in primary school when I left. He actually first wrote to me before he came to England. He sent me the two records they had out then, and I was very pleased to be able to say “already got ‘em mate so I’ll give them to someone else at NME”. He was very pleased about that, and they arrived and travelled as a band. David was much more organised – he’s kind of like Nick and Mick Harvey rolled into one, if you know anything about those personalities. He was the guiding principle in that band always, it was always his band. I met him within five days of him landing in England and I liked him immediately. We just got on forever, until he died basically.

Yeah, they are different, they’re much more disparate. David’s actually very like Nick, he just has a different upbringing. He’s the youngest in his family, he was always reading and listening to music and was always a full bottle about everything. He’s like a lot of musicians, he’s a real consumer of music so he was wholly across everything that was happening. For someone with similar obsessions, he’s easy to talk to, there was always a million things to talk about, and to disagree, like Nick, they don’t agree with you but they actually like arguing and saying “oh no that’s shit”, just like friends do. But why is he West Australian? He definitely had that sense that you get in Perth from being away from the rest of the world, of being right on the other side of the world.

My whole family still lives there, I’m the only one who left. I don’t like it, and I feel trapped there. I’ve driven across the Nullarbor six or more times. I’ve obviously flown millions of times now but when you’re 20 you have no money and you’re at uni. You don’t have any support from your family which I didn’t, then you have further difficulties, in Perth you have to have a car. The public transport is just the railway or spending an hour and a half on two buses to get anywhere. It was always a great deal of laborious boredom to deal with. Living in London, people can live as far away from you as they might live from you in Perth, but you didn’t have to have a car because you got the Tube, which you can read on so you can kill two birds with one stone. I had to go to a school on the opposite side of the [Swan] River, which was two buses everyday, a three-hour commute to go to school. When I left home I moved north of the river, you just got sick of having to take 90 minutes to get somewhere all the time.

HAPPY: When did you end up leaving London, if that’s where it was all happening for you?

BLEDDYN: In 2006.

HAPPY: To Perth or Sydney?

BLEDDYN: My wife Judy got a job out in Sydney which is why we came back, she knew that I would never voluntarily move back. She worked for an English television station and she put her hand up as soon as she heard they were opening an office in Sydney. They decided she would be the best person to do it. We always came back and we were gonna move back here in ’93 because Judy had enough of England. Our kid got a scholarship for high school, otherwise we wouldn’t have been able to afford to pay the fees, so that’s the reason why we stayed there. By 14 he was not wanting to visit Australia anymore. It’s just not like me – Jim Fisher’s the only friend from high school left, and it’s mostly friends from university or people like Dave Warner who I know from Perth, Terry Serio. Other than that they’re all people I met in England, but a lot of them are Australian. That’s the weird thing, a lot of people I call my friends are actually Australian musicians who came to London in the ‘80s.

HAPPY: Was there any shift in your photography work or the way you started approaching it after being in London for so long?

BLEDDYN: When we moved back I had to finish writing the book about David and The Triffids which took two years. So, I didn’t immediately have any sense of it at all because I wasn’t actually taking photographs at that time. But after that there was a definite shift. If you can sum it up in one word, it’s ‘digital’, which actually changed the whole world. It devalued photography as a profession, a whole lot of magazines just ceased to exist because the advertising disappeared. One of the great things of working for NME was I basically got to meet a whole lot of people I would never ever have met or been asked to do work for. No matter how big an article was in NME, they always wanted their own photographs. It’s luck of the draw, some of those people weren’t worth meeting or didn’t go on to have careers or were just playing in bands for a year and a half and didn’t get anywhere and gave up. By the same token I met a lot of my closest friends from that.

But that culture doesn’t seem to exist anymore. Did it change my approach to photography? I realised that I had to work for myself and generate everything myself which is a part of what the Plague Doctor cards are about. My friend Brian Waldron was making masks and downloading the patterns from the internet. He wanted me to take pictures of them. He made a dog, a bear, and a crocodile. I kind of said, “yeah well, these are just photos of you with a stupid mask! Can’t we do something that we can turn into a character?” He suggested the dog but I said that there’s no literary resonance, there’s no meaning in a dog. He then suggested the crow and I said, “yeah! That one’s a plague doctor let’s do that! Can you make the hat as well?”

This was last March, the first two weeks of the pandemic. I just thought, we can do this because we can be serious, we can be funny, we can be stupid. There’s a whole lot of things we can do. And we can travel around so some of it can be political, some of it can just be a joke. And so I realised I was gonna have to work for myself and generate my own subject matter. That’s what I realised when I came here. Before this, I realised my subject matter is my friends, the people I really respect in music. Then I realised that my fascination, or my interest in Nick for instance, has actually lasted so long that I could do a visual biography.

HAPPY: Yes, there’s this unique rapport between you two. What was your bedside manner with Nick to be able to achieve that?

BLEDDYN: It started because I was a fan and a big time supporter of what he did, I came to England in 1980 just like they did. I met them through Chris Bailey from The Saints. When I was at NME, people weren’t interested. It’s hard to conceive of now. I was constantly saying, “he’s just got a new record out, it’s really good”, those sort of things a fan boy says. You have to think about what’s contemporary. What was contemporary in 1982 to ’83 was Duran Duran and Culture Club. I sort of went, “yeah that’s all good pop music but will it last? I think what he’s doing will last”, which turned out to be true, I was lucky to bet on red and red came in.

It started out with me being an advocate and the payoff for that was that I would get to do the photos. It took him a while to actually give in. It took four months to persuade him to do the photo that’s supposed to be, or that he really likes, the famous one of him in that cluttered room we made together in Berlin. The idea of that was he’d given me an early draft of his first book, the novel he wrote, and I wanted to do something whereby he was pretending to be the character because it would give us a background and a setting. There was one failed photo session which was kind of hilarious, he was stoned as he always was in those days. I wanted to take him out into the woods and take flash photos in the woods so that the leaves would catch the flash light as well as him. But he wasn’t very interested in posing – that thing I said about posing – when he’s not interested in posing, he just looks stiff and shithouse, he just looks awful. He was very nervous in front of the camera.

Plague Doctor photographed in gallery beneath Canning Bridge
Plague Doctor photographed in gallery beneath Canning Bridge, Canning River, Western Australia, on 1 June 2021. © Bleddyn Butcher

HAPPY: This is a bit similar to what you were doing with Brian and the masks.

BLEDDYN: Yeah, there was a context. You make it striking and somehow inexplicably so, it’s intriguing. Taking photos is easy, because if you can do it, it’s just like that. It’s about timing, about getting on with someone so that they’ll be silly with you. In the course of doing it, if you get on, there are a whole other lot of moments that come up that if you’re quick enough, you can catch those as well. So you get a whole range of stuff, even if someone’s wearing a cardboard mask. If you’re taking a proper portrait you probably articulate an idea, but that’s never the only thing you’re gonna do – you’re always gonna do whatever you can – but you try and realise the idea and you get whatever else comes out of it.

It’s playful, it’s fun. I really like doing it, and the thing about it is that it might only take a hundred and twenty-fifth or two hundred and fiftieth of a second to get the image. There’s a lot of post-production, even with digital stuff. Essentially that’s time consuming and it’s just like office work, really. But if you liked what you did it doesn’t matter, because you’re just making it better. When I worked on film, being down in the darkroom… if it’s a good image, it might have only taken a second to take, but to make it last you have to put in hours.

HAPPY: I’m interested in your techniques, a lot of your photos are predominantly in black and white. Is there a reason for that, does that play into the development or post-production of it?

BLEDDYN: Once upon a time, black and white was cheaper and I could develop it myself. I’ve had a go at making colour prints but it’s much harder. You had to have a temperature to control a darkroom, things that were much more expensive than what a 21/22 year old could really afford. That’s not the case now, but that was the case then. In the ‘80s when I was working for NME I was developing everything at home. I excavated the basement in our London house and built a darkroom in there. When we first moved there I had to go to the other side of London to use a public darkroom – very unsatisfactory. There were a lot of stupid rules but you had to observe them otherwise they wouldn’t let you use the place.

Before I had a proper darkroom I had a two-month-old baby and my wife needed support, so building a darkroom in our house was a way of not being away from home. It was a practical thing. NME only ran coloured photos on the cover, everything inside was black and white. I also actually just like that format, and will still sometimes go against the digital thing and reduce things to black and white if I think it’s going to be more effective or if someone particularly wants black and white – Peter Walsh wanted black and white photos because he wanted himself to look like a picture of Graham Greene that he uncovered. He wanted to be a man in a white Panama suit. If it was in colour he would think it would look stupid. Black and white’s good. It’s even more artificial now because you have to take the colour out. Whereas with film it was only able to render things in black and white.

HAPPY: You had said it’s easy to take a photo, you just click, but I don’t think it is as easy as that. How did you approach the composition of being able to encapsulate the energy of live music?

BLEDDYN: You’re at the mercy of the lighting at gigs. You portray the relationships by finding places where you can put two or more of them together. It’s hard to show those relationships. How do you control it? I don’t know. The Birthday Party’s a bad example because they hated group photos. It was like they were on a mission not to do group photos – but there are group photos of them. There were times they said to me, “can you just go to the record company and say they won’t do group photos?” They just wanted four individual photos and that’s what the record company had to accept because that’s what they wanted. They wanted to be seen as individuals, as a group of individuals – it’s a contradiction in terms. They didn’t want to be like other groups. One of the ways of not being like other groups is refusing to do the things that other groups agreed to do.

Tracy Pew The Birthday Party Bleddyn Butcher
Tracy Pew (The Birthday Party) photographed onstage at the Lyceum, Strand, London, on 7 March 1983. © Bleddyn Butcher

HAPPY: It’s wonderful to hear all of this because I will never see them live, all I know is what I perceive from photos and video footage and how wild they are. There’s this one photo I love that you took of Tracy and it looks like it was taken from off-stage, and he’s doing some amazing back bend thing, apparently he didn’t do any yoga and had never done that movement before.

BLEDDYN: Nobody knows how he did that! I just got so lucky that moment. There’s a video of him doing it again on a TV show, I think in Germany. He was wearing leather trousers and thrusting, it was pretty gross. It started out as him trying to see how ridiculous he could make himself look and still be playing at the same time. I think when I saw him do that, he hadn’t done it before. I was allowed to be on the side of the stage that day and when he started doing it I was scuttling sideways like a crab to try and get the light behind him while at the same time trying to take the photo in case it was all over. I didn’t quite get the light behind him because he then had to pull himself up before he fell over. It was fantastic but it happened very rarely, so you just had to get it when it happened.

HAPPY: Do you think a lot of your photos of The Birthday Party is a bit of luck?

BLEDDYN: Of course it is, it’s all about luck. But luck is mysterious. If you don’t prepare, you don’t get lucky. As with any other kind of creative thing – endeavour – if you want to catch a lucky break, you have to be ready. If you didn’t know that Tracy was liable to steal the limelight, you might not be watching him, you might be watching Nick. You have to insert yourself into the moment somehow, so that you’re ready for whatever surprises your subjects might spring. It was an incredible gig, the one where that photo was taken, at the Lyceum in London in March 1983. The previous year, 1982, it had been hard to persuade anybody about them, but when they came back from Australia in 1983, they were impossible to deny. The band didn’t last much longer but everyone who saw that gig knew they’d seen something special.

HAPPY: Was it any different or seamless to go from photographing The Birthday Party to The Bad Seeds?

BLEDDYN: Nothing was ever easy, but it was much easier for me that I had a relationship with Nick by then. With Mick and Rowland they knew I understood them to the extent that they were prepared to accept that anybody understood them. I would have been a known quantity and that they would have seen that when we did stuff together, they liked it. I suppose you could say seamless, but it wasn’t. It was always problematic. But it wasn’t as hard as getting to know them, which was the main battle and to become accepted on a certain level. The level you have to be accepted on is the professional level and then after that you can become friends. Once you’re friends it’s usually okay. A couple of times Nick’s come out here and said, “are you still taking photos?”, and it’s a stupid question because he knows that I am but it’s a tease.

HAPPY: That’s your relationship now.

BLEDDYN: Our friendship is a whole other part of it that I cherish as well. We have a whole way of talking that’s nothing to do with photography. We have a lot of interests in common, we have different opinions on various things and tease each other about every time. For instance, he likes Ian McEwan and I don’t, he’s always writing about adultery in whatever he pretends he’s writing about, it always boils down to adultery. It always means I have to read Ian McEwan books so that I can tease him about it.

HAPPY: The effort, I love it. Do you think working with The Birthday Party was good preparation for how you worked with photographing other musicians?

BLEDDYN: Well, almost everyone’s easier. I can only think off the top of my head of two or three people who weren’t easier, whereas I never minded the difficulty of working with The Birthday Party because I love them. The two bad experiences I had with people who were just totally obnoxious, I didn’t like them so I didn’t care. Falco – he was Austrian, he had this huge disco hit with Rock Me Amadeus and I had to take photos of him for NME. He tried to tell me that I was only allowed to take one picture. Then he got the journalist in a bear hug and said “take it now!” He was very angry when I said “we’ll have to do another one because we’ve got to have some choice. It was a shithouse picture. I took one for you, now you take one for me.” Nothing has ever been as hard. Pictures are hard to make. To get someone looking like themselves and also revealing something, it’s not necessarily easy. Usually if you don’t have that Rock Me Amadeus situation, you can usually do it. In any sort of circumstances, if you’re equipped and prepared. You might have to use a flash but other than that, you can do it.

All images © Bleddyn Butcher / Treadwater Press
Interview by Pandora Craufurd-Gormly