Colin O’Brien, Photographer
Observe this tender photograph of Raymond Scallionne and Razi Tuffano in Hatton Garden in 1948, one of the first pictures taken by Colin O’Brien – snapped when he was eight years old, the same age as his subjects. Colin forgot this photograph for over half a century until he discovered the negative recently and made a print, yet when he saw the image again, he immediately remembered the boys’ names and recalled arranging them in front of the car to construct the most pleasing composition for the lens of his prized box brownie.
Colin grew up fifty yards from Hatton Garden in Victoria Dwellings, a tenement at the junction of Faringdon Rd and Clerkenwell Rd – the centre of his childhood universe in Clerkenwell, which Colin portrayed in spellbinding photographs that evoke the poetry and pathos of the forgotten threadbare years in the aftermath of World War II. “We had little money or food, and shoes were a luxury. I remember being given my first banana and being told not to eat it in the street where someone might take it,” he told me, incredulous at the reality of his own past,“Victoria Dwellings were very run down and I remember in later years thinking, ‘How did people live in them?’”
Blessed with a vibrant talent for photography, Colin created images of his world with an assurance and flair that is astounding in one so young. And now these pictures exist as a compassionate testimony to a vanished way of life, created by a photographer with a personal relationship to all his subjects. “I just wanted to record the passage of time,” Colin told me with modest understatement, “There were no photographers in the family, but my Uncle Will interested me in photography. He was the black sheep, with a wife and children in Somerset and girlfriends in London, and he used to come for Sunday lunch in Victoria Dwellings sometimes. One day he brought me a contact printing set and he printed up some of my negatives, and even now I can remember the excitement of seeing my photographs appear on the paper.”
Colin O’Brien’s clear-eyed Clerkenwell pictures illustrate a world that was once familiar and has now receded far away, yet the emotionalism of these photographs speaks across time because the human detail is touching. Here is Colin’s mother spooning tea from the caddy into the teapot in the scullery and his father at breakfast in the living room before walking up the road to the Mount Pleasant Sorting Office, as he did every day of his working life. Here is Mrs Leinweber in the flat below, trying to eke out the Shepherd’s Pie for her large family coming round for dinner. Here is the Rio Cinema where Colin used to go to watch the continuous programme, taking sandwiches and a bottle of Tizer, and forced to consort with one of the dubious men in dirty raincoats in order to acquire the adult escort necessary to get into the cinema. Here is one of the innumerable car crashes at the junction of Clerkwenwell Rd and Faringdon Rd that punctuated life at Victoria Dwellings – caused by lights that were out of sync, instructing traffic to drive in both directions simultaneously – a cue for Colin to reach out the window of their top floor flat to capture the accident with his box brownie and for his mother to scream, “Colin, don’t lean out too far!”
At fifteen years old, Colin’s parents bought him Leica camera. “They couldn’t afford it and maybe it came off the back of a lorry, but it was a brilliant present - they realised this was what I wanted to do,” he admitted to me with an emotional smile. “My first job was at Fox Photo in the Faringdon Rd. I worked in the library, but I spent all my time hanging around in the dark room because that was where all the photographers were and I loved the smell of fixer and developer.” he recalled, “And if I stayed there I would have become a press photographer.” But instead Colin went to work in the office of a company of stockbrokers in Cornhill in the City and then for General Electric in Holborn -“I hated offices but I aways got jobs in them” – before becoming a photographic lab technician at St Martins School of Art and finally working for the Inner London Education authority in Media Resources, a role that enabled him to pursue his photography as he pleased throughout his career.
Over all this time, Colin O’Brien has pursued his talent and created a monumental body of photography that amounts to over half a million negatives, although his work is barely known because he never worked for publication or even for money, devoting himself single-mindedly to taking pictures for their own sake. Yet over the passage of time, as a consequence of the purism of his approach, the authority of Colin O’Brien’s superlative photography – distinguished by its human sympathy and aesthetic flair – stands comparison with any of the masters of twentieth century British photography.
Members of the Leinweber family playing darts at the Metropolitan Tavern, Clerkenwell Rd, 1954.
Girl in a party dress in the Clerkwenwell Rd, nineteen fifties.
Solmans Secondhand Shop, Skinner St, Clerkwenwell, 1963.
Colin’s mother puts tea in the teapot, in the scullery at Victoria Dwellings, nineteen fifties.
Linda Leinweber takes a nap, 117 Victoria Dwellings, nineteen fifties.
Colin’s father eats breakfast before work at the Mount Pleasant Sorting Office.
Jimmy Wragg and Bernard Roth jumping on a bomb site in Clerkenwell, late fifties.
Accident at the junction of Clerkwell Rd and Faringdon Rd, 1957.
Mrs Leinweber divides the Shepherd’s Pie among her family, Victoria Dwellings, 1959.
Rio Cinema, Skinner St, Clerkenwell, 1954.
Hazel Leinweber, Victoria Dwellings, nineteen fifties.
Fire at Victoria Dwellings, mid-fifties.
Colin’s mother outside her door, 99 Victoria Dwellings, nineteen fifties.
Boy at Woolworths, Exmouth Market, 1954.
Two women with a baby in Woolworths, Exmouth Market, 1954.
Cleaning the windows in the snow, Clerkenwell Rd, 1957.
Cowboy and girlfriend, 1960.
Nun sweeping in the Clerkenwell Rd, nineteen sixties.
Colin’s window at Victoria Dwellings was on the far right on the top floor.
An old lady listens, awaiting meals on wheels in Northcliffe House, Clerkenwell, late seventies.
The demolition of Victoria Dwellings in the nineteen seventies.
Photographs copyright © Colin O’Brien