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BLEDDYN BUTCHER Nick The Astonishing

A Little History. Bleddyn Butcher
A Little History – Nick Cave & Cohorts, 1981-2013 Photography: Bleddyn Butcher

“I didn’t want to do a picture book of just pictures of Nick. That’s sort of just too hagiographic and he is very happy to acknowledge that he’s always collaborated with people. He is the writer and the guiding voice. It is his obsession and insights and affections that guide any individual project, but he does require assistance.”

Photographer Bleddyn Butcher talks with SHANE PINNEGAR about his new book, A Little History – Nick Cave & Cohorts, 1981-2013, which collects images of Cave with his bands The Birthday Party, The Bad Seeds and Grinderman.

In 1981 Bleddyn Butcher first saw The Birthday Party with Nick Cave and was astonished.

An aspiring photographer, he had moved from Perth to London with a vague notion of somehow being involved in the nascent post-punk scene, and he knew instantly the urge to try and capture the essence of the band with his camera.

“These things are very hard to put a finger on,” he says, trying to articulate what struck him so deeply about that first encounter. “I was just amazed. The first level of astonishment was that I had gone all the way to London in order to participate or document being involved in the post-punk scene, which I thought was much more exciting than punk because it was much more various.

The first band that I saw that could play live and were remarkable in the way that they were going about it and their sheer bloody-mindedness was The Birthday Party.” He continues with no little awe, “That aggression wasn’t all there was to it: there’s clearly a lot of thought and humour involved in the mixture of sounds that they made. What was remarkable about this is they were obviously intelligent and yet they’re making this irritating noise.”

A Little History charts a journey for not only Cave and his many ragtag fellow musicians, but also for the photographer himself. From an early-20s Cave writhing shirtless on a London stage strewn with broken glass to the 50-something be-suited auteur looking decidedly more sombre, the book shows the growth of the artist, his confidence and how he grew into himself from a young man through middle age, which mirrors Butcher’s own progress from fan to professional photographer shooting the likes of Joe Strummer and U2 for UK’s NME magazine. Some of his work now hangs in the permanent collection at Australia’s National Portrait Gallery in Canberra.

“I think that progression is kind of natural,” says the photographer and author. “Though my thoughts about style are that you don’t necessarily want to superimpose yours on your subject. I remember 30 years ago my idea of a portrait was a black and white photo of someone against a seamless white background. As effective and as telling as those compositions can be, I didn’t want to just keep dong the same thing over and over again.”

Crossing paths many times over three decades, “Fortunate that we stayed on good terms all those years,” Butcher captured many astonishing images of Cave and those around him, saying that “Making sure that the people that contributed to Nick’s career are acknowledged was also an important aspect of the book.”

It’s a further testament to Butcher’s skill behind the lens that many of the photographs don’t merely capture their subject, but capture the essence of that moment and what was going on around the scene at that time.

“Yeah, well that’s what I’m trying to do,” he attests. “I didn’t want to do a picture book of just pictures of Nick. That’s sort of just too hagiographic and he is very happy to acknowledge that he’s always collaborated with people. He is the writer and the guiding voice. It is his obsession and insights and affections that guide any individual project, but he does require assistance.”

Cave himself describes Butcher as a ‘soul stealer and a dream catcher’. Butcher concurs that’s part of the goal every time he looks through a lens.

“In the sense that a dream catcher is someone who illustrates the world of his subject, yes. I suppose because I identify so closely with Nick, I think that I can get glimpses of his world as well, which is what I want to illustrate. At times want to illustrate – at other times I just want to take pictures of the man.”