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Route 66 in the '60s: Through English Eyes

In 1967, John Bulmer traveled America's fabled highway. Fifty years later he spoke with FOTO about his timeless pictures from an age of American innocence.

There are longer highways in the U.S., and older ones, too, but no phrase sparks visions of road trips and dreams of blacktop ribbons racing to the horizon quite like "Route 66." The Mother Road, as it's long been known, opened in 1926 and rolled for more than 2,000 miles across eight states, from northern Illinois to southern California — a route British photographer John Bulmer and writer Philip Norman traveled on assignment for the Sunday Times of London in October 1967. Bulmer recently shared memories from that trip, along with his pictures of a country, unknowingly, on the cusp of upheaval: the assassinations, riots, and culture wars that defined the revolutionary year of 1968 were just months away. Here, then, is a portrait of two Americas — one that has largely vanished, and another that remains, in spirit, indelible.

GRAVEYARD IN THE SUN John Bulmer/Hulton Archive/Getty Images GRAVEYARD IN THE SUN Cannibalized cars bake under a cloudless sky in the American Southwest, 1967. Bulmer's career was in full swing by the time he and Philip Norman embarked on their two-week trek along Route 66. (They drove a Ford Mustang. What other vehicle could better fit the theme of wide open spaces?) In photographs for the Daily Express — at the time, the premier British newspaper for photography — Paris Match, and others, Bulmer covered stories in scores of countries, photographing actors and musicians, nomadic African tribes, conflicts in the Middle East, poverty in Appalachia, Kim Il-sung's North Korea, and more. (Note: This photo did not run in the Sunday Times article. Some of the Route 66 pictures shown here originally appeared in Bulmer's 2014 book, "Wind of Change.") READY FOR GRILLING John Bulmer/Hulton Archive/Getty Images READY FOR GRILLING Bulmer's picture of a parking garage in Chicago, the city where Route 66 begins, not only speaks to America's obsession with cars, but neatly captures the aesthetic of the era: wide, boxy automobiles, with marvelously distinctive grills. "It looked to me," the 80-year-old Bulmer told FOTO recently, "like an art gallery to the motor car."

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UNDER THE ARCH John Bulmer/Hulton Archive/Getty Images UNDER THE ARCH In later years, much of Route 66 was supplanted by freeways, but its original incarnation ran through St. Louis, crossing the Mississippi within sight of the city's iconic Gateway Arch. At 630 feet, the monument is the world's tallest arch and, when Bulmer photographed it in 1967, was still brand new, having opened to the public months earlier. Bulmer told FOTO that, after shooting for years in often trying conditions all over Africa, South America, and Asia, his trip across the U.S. "felt so easy it was almost a license to steal. Flying in to Chicago, renting a car without any trouble, finding good food everywhere we went — it was luxurious. And, of course, because the Times had assigned the story and covered our expenses, we were willing to spend an extra few dollars on clean motels, instead of pinching pennies and staying in a fleabag room each night, or sleeping in the car." (From "Wind of Change.") A DIFFERENT DRIVE John Bulmer/Hulton Archive/Getty Images A DIFFERENT DRIVE Bulmer recalls that in places like New Mexico, where he followed a huge cattle drive for a time, he would sometimes maneuver his Mustang right into the desert, seeking the best angles and vantage points for his pictures. At one point, he told FOTO, after he rounded a hill and startled the herd, a cowboy explained that Bulmer was cutting into his bottom line. "He told me that every time I drove up without warning, it cost him a hundred dollars," Bulmer told FOTO, "because it spooked the cows. One cow losing a tiny bit of weight because it bolts at the sight of a car is nothing. But multiply that by thousands of head of cattle and the lost weight adds up."
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John Bulmer/Hulton Archive/Getty Images MOBILE HOME John Bulmer/Hulton Archive/Getty Images MOBILE HOME A fellow named Tarkin — "the healthiest looking man on Route 66," Philip Norman wrote in the Times article, which ran in April 1968 — and his wife Penelope wait by the side of the road near Oklahoma City, with their baby, hoping for a ride. They were vacationing in Oklahoma and rolled their station wagon, Tarkin told Norman and Bulmer, leaving the family with no means to get back home to California. Today, Bulmer looks back at his time on Route 66 "as the calm before the storm in America, in a way." The post-Tet Offensive disillusion and anger about U.S. involvement in Vietnam; the assassinations of MLK and Robert Kennedy; chaos and violence at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago — all those upheavals, and more, were only months away. But in October 1967, to Bulmer's eyes, "the United States felt old-fashioned in some ways. Or at least it did when you got away from the cities and visited small towns. Europe felt far more modern than America — as it does today, in fact." NEW MEXICO BELLE John Bulmer/Hulton Archive/Getty Images NEW MEXICO BELLE Margot Nanette, an artist, in Magdalena, New Mexico, 1967. "She drove a tinny Rambler," Norman wrote, "which she claimed to have received in exchange for a painting.... [S]he joked with the cowboys, getting close to none of them, and, from time to time, chewed on dark strips of jerky." Bulmer recalls that he was "a bit surprised that none of the cowboys' wives were bothered by her, as she seemed to be something of a cowboy groupie. But I think it was all innocent fun between her and them." (From "Wind of Change.") KEEPING IT SIMPLE John Bulmer/Hulton Archive/Getty Images KEEPING IT SIMPLE "At the time I took this photo, truckers needed a license plate for every state they worked or traded in," Bulmer notes. "But what I like about the picture is that I took what could have been a busy, confusing image and sort of distilled it down to its essence. When I was shooting documentary pictures in black and white a few years earlier, I always tried to reduce the number of elements in a shot, and I did the same thing once I started shooting regularly in color. This is an example of that — simplifying an image to the point where the color isn't distracting, or doesn't take your eye all over the place." PASSING TIME John Bulmer/Hulton Archive/Getty Images PASSING TIME "I don't recall speaking with this man," Bulmer said of the remarkably relaxed figure in this picture, taken at a gas station somewhere in Oklahoma. "My normal policy is to shoot first and only ask [for permission] if they confront me. But this was taken with a fairly long lens — you can tell that by the depth of focus in the shot." (From "Wind of Change.")
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John Bulmer/Hulton Archive/Getty Images YOUNG AND RESTLESS John Bulmer/Hulton Archive/Getty Images YOUNG AND RESTLESS "There were quite a few cars filled with teenagers in Las Vegas, just cruising up and down, to see and be seen," Bulmer told FOTO. "They just went around and around the block, endlessly. I suppose it was because they were too young to drink or gamble, so they stayed in their cars and just drove all night. This girl and her friends asked me to join them, so I rode around Vegas with them for a while. I remember them all being very friendly and sort of flirty, in a teenager kind of way." (From "Wind of Change.") ROLLING A PAIR John Bulmer/Hulton Archive/Getty Images ROLLING A PAIR Officers from the Clark County sheriff's department patrol the streets of Las Vegas on their Harley-Davidsons, October 1967. ALL IN THE FAMILY John Bulmer/Hulton Archive/Getty Images ALL IN THE FAMILY At a truck stop along Route 66, Bulmer struck up a conversation and shared a coffee with a long-haul trucker. "When he opened his wallet," Bulmer said, "it seemed to just spew pictures of his family. He seldom saw them, as his life was on the road." THE ROAD GOES EVER ON John Bulmer/Hulton Archive/Getty Images THE ROAD GOES EVER ON At one point in the Sunday Times article, writer Philip Norman notes that "always, the highway runs away into a sunset... It has twin dreams: Uniformity and Peace." But two other essential dreams have always unfolded along Route 66, as well. One is the dream of freedom, of course, however one chooses to define that loaded term: freedom from work, responsibilities, cares. But as Bulmer's photographs attest, the allure of the open road — whether it's Route 66 or some other irresistible two-lane blacktop — is a dream in itself, a dream of discovery and of what's around the next corner, over the next rise, and that dream never ends.

See more of John Bulmer's work here.

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