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Colin O’Brien’s Clerkenwell Car Crashes

July 24, 2012
by the gentle author

Please join me at the opening of Commonplace, an exhibition of photography by Spitalfields Life Contributing Photographer Colin O’Brien at the crypt of Christ Church, Spitalfields this Thursday 26th July from 7-9pm. Over this coming week, I will be publishing stories that I have done in collaboration with Colin, accompanied by his photographs that span an extraordinary career extending from 1948 until the present day.

Accident, daytime 1957

When Colin O’Brien was growing up in Victoria Dwellings on the corner of Clerkenwell Rd and Faringdon Rd, there was a very unfortunate recurring problem which caused all the traffic lights at the junction to turn green at once. In the living room of the top floor flat where Colin lived with his parents, an ominous “crunch” would regularly be heard, occasioning the young photographer to lean out of the window with his box brownie camera and take the spectacular car crash photographs that you see here. Unaware of Weegee’s car crash photography in New York and predating Warhol’s fascination with the car crash as a photographic motif, Colin O’Brien’s car crash pictures are masterpieces in their own right.

Yet, even though they possess an extraordinary classically composed beauty, these photographs do not glamorise the tragedy of these violent random events – seen, as if from from God’s eye view, they expose the hopeless pathos of the situation. And, half a century later, whilst we all agree that these accidents were profoundly unfortunate for those involved, I hope it is not in poor taste to say that, in terms of photography they represent a fortuitous collision of subject matter and nascent photographic talent. I say this because I believe that the first duty of any artist is to witness what is in front of you, and this remarkable collection of pictures which Colin took from his window – dating from the late forties when he got his first camera at the age of eight until the early sixties when the family moved out – is precisely that.

Recently, I accompanied Colin as he returned to the junction of the Clerkenwell Rd and Faringdon Rd in the hope of visiting the modern buildings upon the site of the former Victoria Dwellings. To our good fortune, once we explained the story, Tomasz, the superintendent of Herbal Hill Buildings, welcomed Colin as if he were one of current residents who had simply been away for the weekend. Magnanimously, he handed over the keys of the top flat on the corner  - which, by a stroke of luck, is currently vacant – so that Colin might take pictures from the same vantage point as his original photographs.

We found a split-level, four bedroom penthouse apartment with breathtaking views towards the City, complete with statues, chandeliers and gold light switches. It was very different to the poor, three room flat Colin lived in with his parents where his mother hung a curtain over the gas meter. Yet here in this luxury dwelling, the melancholy of the empty rooms was inescapable, lined with tired beige carpet and haunted with ghost outlines of furniture that had been taken away. However, we had not come to view the property but to look out of the window and after Colin had opened three different ones, he settled upon the perspective that most closely correlated to his parents’ living room and leaned out.

“The Guinness ad is no longer there,” he commented – almost surprised – as if, somehow, he expected the reality of the nineteen fifties might somehow be restored up here. Apart from the blocks on the horizon, little had changed, though. The building on the opposite corner was the same, the tube embankment and bridge were unaltered, the Booth’s Distillery building in Turnmills St still stood, as does the Clerkenwell Court House where Dickens once served as cub reporter. I left Colin to his photography as he became drawn into his lens, looking back into the midst of the last century and upon the urban landscape that contained the emotional history of his youth.

“It was the most exciting day of my life, when we left,” admitted Colin, with a fond grin of reminiscence, “Canvassers from the Labour Party used to come round asking for our votes and my father would ask them to build us better homes, and eventually they did. They built Michael Cliffe House, a tower block in Clerkenwell, and offered us the choice of any flat. My parents wanted one in the middle but I said, ‘No, let’s get the top flat!’ and I have it to this day.  I took a photo of lightning over St Paul’s from there, and then I ran down to Fleet St and sold it to the Evening Standard.”

Colin O’Brien’s car crash photographs fascinate me with their intense, macabre beauty. As bystanders, unless we have specialist training, car crashes only serve to emphasise the pain of our helplessness at the destructive intervention of larger forces, and there is something especially plangent about these forgotten car crashes of yesteryear. In a single violent event, each one dramatises the sense of loss that time itself engenders, as over the years our tenderest beloved are taken from us. And they charge the photographic space, so that even those images without crashes acquire an additional emotionalism, the poignancy of transience and the imminence of potential disaster. I can think of no more touching image of loneliness that the anonymous figure in Colin O’Brien’s photograph, crossing the Clerkenwell Rd in the snow on New Year’s Eve, 1961.

After he had seen the interior of Herbal Hill Buildings, Colin confided to me he would rather live in Victoria Dwellings that stood there before, and yet, as he returned the keys to Tomasz, the superintendent, he could not resist asking if he might return and take more pictures in different conditions, at a different time of day or when it was raining. And Tomasz graciously assented as long as the apartment remained vacant. I understood that Colin needed the opportunity to come back again, now that the door to the past had been re-opened, and, I have to confess to you that, in spite of myself, I could not resist thinking, “Maybe there’ll be a car crash next time?”

Accident in the rain.

Accident in the rain, 2.

Accident at night, 1959.

Snow on New Year’s Eve, 1961.

Trolley buses, nineteen fifties.

Clerkenwell Italian parade, nineteen fifties.

Firemen at Victoria Dwellings, nineteen fifties.

Have a Guinness when you’re tired.

Colin’s new photograph of the junction of the Clerkenwell Rd and Faringdon Rd view, taken from Herbal Hill Buildings that now stand on the site of the former Victoria Dwellings.

Colin O’Brien sees his childhood view for the first time in fifty years.

Photographs copyright © Colin O’Brien

Commonplace, Photographs by Colin O’Brien 1948-2012, runs at the Crypt of Christ Church, Spitalfields, 28th July – 26th August. Open Tuesdays, Saturdays & Sundays 1-6pm. Colin O’Brien will be talking about his work on Sunday 29th July 2pm.

7 Responses leave one →
  1. Marina B permalink
    July 24, 2012

    Magnificent!

  2. Jane permalink
    July 24, 2012

    Another wonderful post — thank you.

  3. July 24, 2012

    Great series!

  4. Ruth permalink*
    July 24, 2012

    I love the fireman’s ladder and their old fashioned helmets. The wedding-cake on wheels of the Italian parade is surreal.

  5. July 24, 2012

    How wonderful to see so many views that I recognise even now…shame the chimney and distillery are long gone…

  6. Libby Hall permalink
    July 24, 2012

    Finding your book, and then the Blog, and now these most wonderful photographs, has been an enormous treat for me. There are so many resonances, on so many levels, of my 45 years of living in the East End.

    I am very much looking forward to coming to the exhibition on Thursday. I will bring a couple of books for you, and some other East End bits and pieces, as very inadequate token thank you for the tremendous pleasure, and consolation, I get from your writings and the photographs you share.

    In the meantime I have put a photograph on Flickr for you and Colin O’Brien. It was taken a few yards down the road from where he took his Farringdon Rd photographs, and from more or less the same height.
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/libbyhalldogs/7637036870/in/photostream

    And here is a link for Colin of a photograph I took with my Box Brownie, like his, in 1948. In New York City. I had been given the camera for my 7th birthday. http://www.flickr.com/photos/libbyhalldogs/5397887066/in/set-72157627283443030/

  7. John Campbell permalink
    July 24, 2012

    Another fantastic post! How wonderful for Colin to be able to return and occupy the same piece of atmosphere from all those years ago. Must have been surreal to be in a completely different building and yet look at his old view. Really enjoy these pictures, thank you!

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