On the Road with the Free Photographic Omnibus around 1970s Britain

On the Road with the Free Photographic Omnibus around 1970s Britain
Photographer Daniel Meadows took off around the UK in an old bus to capture a unique portrait of a changing nation.

In spring of 1970, Daniel Meadows saw the Bill Brandt exhibition at the Hayward Gallery in London. The photography show proved a powerful turning point in the British teen’s life.

“I was eighteen and I’d been locked away in boarding schools for ten years. I hadn’t thrived. All I’d learnt was that the price of a ‘privileged’ education was measured in competitiveness, cruelty and muscular Christianity,” Meadows says. “Brandt’s photographs showed me that there was another world; and it was one I wanted to be in.”

Drawing inspiration from Irving Penn’s ‘Worlds in a Small Room’, Meadows opened his first pop­-up studio in Manchester’s Moss Side during the spring of 1972, where he honed his practice making portraits and recording people’s stories.

Brasher sisters. Left Lyn, right Stella, Hayling Island, Hampshire
Attercliffe, Sheffield, October 1973

Recognising the photography studio was not an inherently static place, Meadows put the project on wheels, using the camera as a compass to guide him into other worlds. He purchased a red low bridge decker bus for £360 (£3,800 today) and dubbed it the “Free Photographic Omnibus” as a nod to the Latin term “for all the people”.

On September 22, 1973, Meadows set off from York on a 10,000-mile journey across England over 14 months, photographing 958 people and providing each with a free print.

“In the evening, after the day’s portrait session was over, I’d start up the generator, go into my darkroom aboard the bus and make the prints. This often meant that I didn’t get to bed until after midnight,” he remembers. “Next day, people would return to collect their photographs and that would provide me with an opportunity for yet more conversation.”

Workington, Cumbria, October 1974

Meadows recorded conversations with the people he met, keeping a journal of his experiences. When the series was complete, he exhibited and published Living Like This in 1975. Now he returns to where it all began with the recent publication of Book of the Road (Bluecoat Press), bringing together the portraits, photo reportage, interviews, and travel notes for the first time.

“By engineering a stream of random encounters with strangers I discovered just how many interesting conversations there were to be had,” Meadows says. “Originally I made audio recordings so that I could be sure of accurate caption information. But they soon turned into more than that. When the digital age arrived, I discovered that — by using non­linear video editing — I could realise the ambition of years and combine the sounds with the photographs. Suddenly I was making multimedia sonnets, from the people.”

In one passage, Meadows includes a conversation with “Angry Man” whose main business is proper admonishment. “I don’t want my photograph thank you but keep these children off the car park it’s dangerous,” Angry Man harrumphs at the end of the conversation.

But more often then not, people were keen to collaborate. Meadows kept it short and sweet: “I used to tell people two things: ‘I’m gonna put you in the history books’; and ‘I’m only going to take one picture, so let’s make it a good one’.”

Attercliffe, Sheffield, October 1973

Daniel Meadows’ Book of the Road is out now published by Bluecoat Press.

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