Book of the Road celebrates the 50th anniversary of Daniel Meadows’ pioneering 1970s documentary project Free Photographic Omnibus. Driving over 10,000 miles in a double-decker bus, the wild-haired young Meadows spent 14 months mapping the length and breadth of England, photographing 958 people and offering a free print to each of his subjects. Along the way, amongst countless breakdowns, parking tickets and random acts of kindness, he had chance encounters with the likes of Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant. Meadows’ determination allowed him to assemble all this material into a cartographic census of an evolving nation.
“This country is changing quickly… we might soon forget those interesting relics of the past that are disappearing under the redevelopment of the future.” This future is now here, and Meadows’ pictures remain as relevant as ever. Book of the Road cements the Free Photographic Omnibus as an essential document of 1970s England – an urgent and timeless visual record.
Just 21 years old when he set up the Free Photographic Omnibus, Daniel Meadows is now one of Britain’s greatest documentary photographers. He worked mostly on instinct, and many of his DIY techniques anticipate documentary media’s progress in the following decades. He remembers sewing a tape recorder into an old tweed jacket so that he could photograph while also capturing audio. The original bus – a low-bridge decker from Barton Transport – cost him just £360. Meadows’ subjects collected their free portraits the following day, after he had spent many restless hours developing film and printing in the bus’ makeshift darkroom.
Book of the Road gives readers the stories behind the photographs, from battles with angry parking attendants, nights of acute loneliness and moments of joy. This mix of images, diary entries and audio transcripts offers a unique commentary into the 1970s social climate – as well as Meadows’ mindset during the project. In Southampton in 1974 he met Florence, a part-time cleaner who he remained close with for five decades, eventually speaking at her funeral. “It was one of the great privileges of my life,” Meadows recalls.
The book offers a survey of English life when modernisation was seeping into everyday values and communities. Cobbled streets in tight-knit parishes and bustling city centres accompany familiar green pastures, but Meadows also takes us behind the curtain at marble competitions, circuses and beauty contests. Throughout, his subjects of all ages and social classes stand proudly for the camera, unaware that they were to become part of history.