Colin O’Brien’s Brick Lane Market
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 tomorrow, Thursday 26th July, from 7-9pm. Throughout this 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.
Shall we take a walk through Cheshire St, Brick Lane, Sclater St and Club Row with Colin O’Brien to experience the life of the market in the nineteen eighties?
“I loved markets as a child, because I grew up during the nineteen forties in Clerkenwell and I used to go to Leather Lane to hear the patter of the stallholders. There is this mystique about markets for me. I love being surrounded by people and I feel safe in a crowd.” Colin told me, his grey eyes shining in excitement, as we made our way through the crowd onto the bare ground between Cheshire St and Grimsby St where traders sold their wares upon the frozen earth, by the light of lamps and candles.
“I’m a bit of a collecting sort of person, myself.” Colin admitted as we scanned the pitiful junk on sale, so carefully arranged in the frost, “I like old things.” It was a bitterly cold morning which led me to ask Colin why we were there. “I tend to go when it’s snowing,” Colin revealed cheerfully as we picked our way through the slush on Brick Lane, “there is a comradeship and drama.”
Examining Colin’s pictures later, just a fraction of the total, I realised that most were taken when the market was clearing up and portrayed individuals rather than the crowd. “Packing up is when everything happens,” he explained to me, “they dump all the unsold stuff in the street and the scavengers come to take it. You look at what’s discarded and it’s the history of the time.”
I noticed that the woman sitting at the centre of Colin’s photograph “Coming and goings at the corner of Brick Lane” was surrounded by five men and yet not one was looking at her. I realised that he had photographed her invisibility, and that the same was true for his other soulful portraits of market-goers, market-traders, homeless people, old people and marginal characters – all portrayed here with human sympathy through the lens of Colin O’Brien, yet gone now for ever.
Coming and goings at the corner of Brick Lane.
At the time of the miners’ strike.
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.