Diane Bush grew up in Buffalo, New York. In 1969, at 18, she married a draft dodger and moved to England, where she took up street photography.
In July, a small English press published a volume of her photos, The Brits. A companion book, More Brits, is scheduled for December release, and a third volume is in the works.
Bush talked with Double Scoop about how approaching strangers on the street didn’t come naturally to her—and how hard it can be to gain recognition as a photographic artist.
Bush has lived in Las Vegas since 1997. Her books are available from Cafe Royal Books.
As a young photographer in London, you transitioned from shooting architecture to photographing people. What was that switch like?
I was so young. I was 21, 22 at the time and still lacking a lot of confidence. It was extremely hard for me to get these intimate pictures because I had to learn how to speak to strangers—and I was terrified.
How did you do it?
Well, I just had to force myself to do it. It was almost a Diane Arbus adrenaline experience. It wasn’t something that I was comfortable doing. … Some days I’d come back with nothing because I never had the courage to butt in on somebody else’s life. … When they say “take” a picture—you’re taking. You’re taking their time. You’re taking somebody else’s time, and I wasn’t really sure what allowed me or gave me that permission to do the “take.”
Did it ever get easier?
Oh, yeah. It got much easier as I got older and I gained more confidence. Now, I think nothing of it, of course. Eventually, the adrenaline rush was part of it, and after a while I realized people didn’t find me threatening. Because I was a young girl, and people don’t find women threatening. … It became rewarding, and it became easier.
What kind of assignment did you give yourself back then?
Well, I was working with a photographic collective called Exit, and the first thing Exit published was a little booklet called Down Wapping. Wapping was an area of London … It’s an east-end dockland area that’s now been totally gentrified, but at the time it was working-class dock area, and streets were called Cinnamon and Nutmeg and things like this because there was a lot of spice importing. It was an odd area. You just saw a lot of high walls. Behind the walls were warehouses. There are a few schools and a few pubs, and just these very, very high walls. We were documenting the area because it was being gentrified, and working-class housing was being removed for hotels and upper-class apartments.
Would you choose a photo from the book and talk how it came to be?
“Pensioners Dance”—I was photographing the city of London for a project that Exit was working on, and unfortunately the project was never published because we never received funding. … I accompanied a busload of ladies from a senior center, and they had a little party where they could dance—they call it a knees-up”–and the bus driver is the one who’s dancing with the senior in that photo. I like that picture a lot because I had time to compose. I like negative space.
Was your work shown in London?
It was shown at the Photographers’ Gallery, which was very prestigious. It’s still there. At the time it was the only photographic gallery in London. … It was shown at outdoor festivals. It got some exposure and also got reviewed in the British Journal of Photography and also, I think, the Economist.
What kind of life has the work had since then?
Back in the ’80s I had the money and the time to go to an international photo festival in Houston. … I had some success with showing it around and managed to get it published in an Austrian photo magazine and another magazine out of Amsterdam, and a very famous German photo collector bought a couple prints from me, and I thought that was really going to push the work to a point where somebody would contact me and say, “Hey, I’d like to publish a book.” But that did not happen.
I went to a couple of other photo festivals after that. It was kind of downhill from there for the genre, perhaps. … That sort of helped me put aside that black-and-white street photography, and I was getting into political satire at that point.
What was your political satire work like?
I started shooting abstracts off a TV screen with a macro lens in the early ’80, while I was teaching photography … Then, the Gulf War broke out, so, instead of abstracts I started photographing the talking heads on CNN. This was the phase that CNN was born. They came on air at the same time as the Gulf War, so this kind of visual was new. I was surprised that we were at war again, because I was a Vietnam War baby, and what surprised me even more was the fact that I wasn’t seeing troops, like we had seen during the Vietnam War—on TV, during the newscasts. So, the censorship was very disturbing, and that’s what my work started to address was censorship.
What are you working on now?
My last big political project was Dishing It Out, in 2016, which was in conjunction with Rock the Vote to register voters, and I did an exhibit or performance every month for 11 months straight, up until the election. … I took a year after that to recover from stretching myself so thin, and now I’m kind of sitting back and waiting to see what happens next.
How did the Cafe Royal book come about?
This is kind of odd. I’ve been in communication with Paul Trevor, the creator of Exit. Exit disbanded a while ago, but we’re still in communication. We’re good friends. And every now and then I’ll find out there’s been a publication in the U.K. or something is going on in the U.K. about women photographers of the past, which I’m always omitted from. … I always felt very left out. … Paul said to me, “Why don’t you show your work to Craig Atkinson, who does these little books, these little zines?” … I just thought, “Aw, these are little zines. It’s not the big, coffee-table, splashy book I’m looking for. … But I looked at the web site, and I saw that Martin Parr had had his work published by Cafe Royal Books, and I thought, ‘If it’s good enough for Martin Parr, it’s good enough for me,’ because Martin Parr is recognized as one of the most important British photographers out there.”
How do you see street photography as having changed since the ’70s? Are there trends that you like or don’t like?
I love what I’m seeing because I love the expansion of mixed media and putting [mixed media images] on buildings that can be seen from the sky. … I’ve had my work on a billboard here in Las Vegas. It’s a lot of fun. I’m really looking forward to going into projection. I’m just waiting for that kind of thing to get a little cheaper.