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The Photographer From Clerkenwell

June 17, 2015
by the gentle author

Celebrate with me at the launch of Colin O’Brien’s LONDON LIFE at The Society Club, Ingestre Place, Soho, W1 from 6pm tomorrow Thursday 18th June and preview his photography exhibition.

Also, on Tuesday 23rd June at 7pm, Colin O’Brien will giving an illustrated lecture at Waterstones Piccadilly, showing the photographs and telling stories of LONDON LIFE. Please email piccadilly@waterstones.com to book your free ticket for this.

On the eve of publication of LONDON LIFE, I present this introduction to the work of Colin O’Brien

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

In the Clerkwenwell Rd, fifties

Skinner St, Clerkwenwell, 1963

Colin’s mother in the scullery at Victoria Dwellings, fifties

Linda Leinweber, 117 Victoria Dwellings, fifties

Colin’s father eats breakfast before work at the Mount Pleasant Sorting Office

Jimmy Wragg and Bernard Roth on a bomb site in the City of London, 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

Skinner St, Clerkenwell, 1954

Hazel Leinweber, Victoria Dwellings, fifties

Fire at Victoria Dwellings, mid-fifties

Colin’s mother outside her door, 99 Victoria Dwellings, fifties

At Woolworths, Exmouth Market, 1954

At Woolworths, Exmouth Market, 1954

Cleaning the windows, Clerkenwell Rd, 1957

Cowboy and girlfriend, 1960

Nun sweeping in the Clerkenwell Rd, sixties

Colin’s window at Victoria Dwellings was the third from the end on the top floor

An old lady awaiting meals-on-wheels in Northcliffe House, Clerkenwell, late seventies

Demolition of Victoria Dwellings in the seventies

Photographs copyright © Colin O’Brien

CLICK HERE TO BUY A COPY OF LONDON LIFE DIRECT FROM SPITALFIELDS LIFE

7 Responses leave one →
  1. David permalink
    June 17, 2015

    MY COPY OF THE BOOK THAT I PRE-ORDERED HAS JUST ARRIVED ALONG WITH THE SMALL BOOK OF PHOTOGRAPHS OF TRAVELLERS CHILDREN IN LONDON FIELDS.
    THEY ARE BOTH SUPERB AND WELL WORTH BUYING. A GREAT JOB BY ALL.
    THANKS

    DAVID

  2. June 17, 2015

    These photos moved me very much: so real and so sensitive to the humanity of these people.

  3. Peter Holford permalink
    June 17, 2015

    Great photos by somebody with a great eye. I wish mine were half as good.

  4. Barbara Hague permalink
    June 17, 2015

    I remember playing on a bomb site – must have been somewhere near Mile End, where my grandparents lived.

  5. June 18, 2015

    Fantastic, vibrant photographs. Am gutted that I can’t come to the launch but will buy the book. I particularly love the photographs of his family, and others living in Victoria Dwellings.

  6. Alison Ashfield permalink
    June 18, 2015

    I trained as a nurse at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital between 1979 and 1982, and then worked there as a staff nurse until June 1985. Whilst living in Shepherdess Walk, until 1996, I would either cycle, drive or walk – or if the weather was really horrid, take a bus to work. ‘A” shifts began at 07:30 and the early mornings in Hackney N1, Clerkenwell and the City of London were quite magical. Although I was usually pre-occupied with either the night before or the mornings’ work to follow, I felt history in the walls all around.

  7. Neville Turner permalink
    July 14, 2015

    A very involving collection of black and white photo’s that capture the period and particular the seasons of the 1960′s.An excellent purchase for very good real life photography,well done Colin O’Brien.

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