This Was My Landscape
My Backyard, E.13 (1961) by John Claridge
“My bedroom and darkroom. What more could you want? Somewhere to get your head down. Somewhere to get your print down.”
When William Wordsworth was growing up, he had an overwhelming epiphany of the power of the landscape while out in a boat upon Grasmere beneath a starry sky, and photographer John Claridge had an equally influential experience at a similar age - in a very different kind of environment – while out on a night’s ratting expedition at a piggery next to the London Docks. “There was the glow of the lights of the dock, but all around us were vast expanses of darkness,” he told me in his excitement at recalling the wonder of the East End during his childhood in the nineteen fifties, in the days before the halogen glow which obscures the stars today.
“It was a different kind of landscape – without fields – but it was a landscape I loved, the landscape I grew up with,” John confessed, remembering the acres of bombsites and craters, wasteland and allotments that he once knew, and which he recorded in this vibrant set of pictures published today for the first time. “When I was fifteen, I was interested in motorbikes, girls and photography, though I couldn’t say in what order,” he admitted to me with a laugh.
There is a certain cast of occluded light shared by many of these photographs that is partly the result of the London smog of that era, partly mist off the river and partly the light of the early morning when John delighted to explore the East End. “I’m still an early riser, from the days of getting up at five to do my paper round.” he explained, “I’d have breakfast with my dad and listen to his stories – that was my education – then I’d cycle around in the dawn delivering papers before school each morning. You always expected something to happen, but you had to let it happen – that was part of the excitement of seeing something that you weren’t expecting to see, and then you wanted to share it.”
In the post-war East End, prior to redevelopment, the open spaces created a landscape of possibility where nature thrived, where anyone could have an allotment, and where John liked to go scrambling on his motorbike. It was a landscape that offered emotional freedom and creative space to John, who as a fan of Dan Dare and Flash Gordon, was off on his own imaginative journey.
Then, at seventeen, John had his first exhibition of photographs and Dennis Bailey, Art Director of Town Magazine, declared “They have shades of Walker Evans and Bill Brandt.”
“I didn’t even know who they were,” John revealed to me with a shrug. Yet John’s talent took the young photographer on a journey far from his native landscape, giving him a career filled with globe-trotting assignments. Today these early pictures record a place that no longer exists except as a personal landscape of memory. They show how the first landscape that met John’s eyes became the landscape upon which his vision as a photographer was shaped. And it is an epic landscape.
East End Blossom, E.1 (1960). “Blossom on a bomb site.”
Canning Town Bridge in the Fog, E.16 (1965). “Shot from my motorbike (Triton) – stopped, of course.”
Sewer Bank Rd, E.13 (1964). “My house was just over the fence to the right.”
Ford & Vauxhall, E.15 (1960). “Turner Prize?”
Clearing a Bomb Site, E.13 (1961). “The next street to where I lived.”
Iron Bridge, E.16 (1964). “An iron bridge across the railway line, not far from the docks.”
The East End Horse, Allen Gardens, Spitalfields (1972). “The horse takes a break from the harness of a dray cart.”
Smoke, E.16 (1963). “Winter’s morning looking towards Canning Town. I used to take my old scrambler motorbike and ride the bomb craters there.”
Vicky Park, E.3 (1962). “Where I used to take the occasional girlfriend.”
Canal, E.3 (1968). “Early morning, grey day but full of expectation.”
After the Rain, E.16 (1982). “That beautiful smell after everything’s had a good wash.”
Scrap Yard, E.16 (1982). “Sometimes it got muddy.”
The Path, E.7 (1960). “Neglected cemetery, always so quiet.”
Allotments, E.6 (1963). ” This area always had a strange presence, a symbiosis between industrial and natural.”
The Small Creek, E.3 (1987). Daybreak.
Along the Track, E.16 (1973). “Shot from a parapet, early morning above the rail-track. I wanted a bit of height.”
Rooftops, E.3 (1982). “There was always a great man-made sculpture around, not to every one’s taste but I liked it.”
Slag Heaps, E.6 (1963). “This area seemed to always have a greyness that sat in the sky.”
Spillers, E.16 (1987). ” I loved these buildings, it was like walking into an early sci-fi movie.”
Photographs copyright © John Claridge
You may also like to take a look at