EAST END by John Claridge
Thanks to the generous support and investment of you, the readers of Spitalfields Life, I am able to announce the forthcoming publication of John Claridge’s EAST END by Spitalfields Life Books – a handsome 270 page clothbound hardback for £25 – collecting together over 200 of John Claridge’s astonishing photographs of the old East End in print for the first time.
You are invited to raise a glass with John Claridge & me at any or all of the three launch celebrations we have planned in the first week of June, at Vout-O-Renees in Aldgate, at The French House in Soho and Waterstones Bookshop in Piccadilly.
Wednesday 1st June : EXHIBITION OPENING of John Claridge’s EAST END photography from 6pm at VOUT-O-RENEES, 30 Prescot St, Aldgate, E1 8BB. (Exhibition runs until 21st July)
Thursday 2nd June : BOOK LAUNCH PARTY for John Claridge’s EAST END from 6pm upstairs at THE FRENCH HOUSE, 49 Dean St, Soho, W1D 5BG.
Friday 3rd June : JOHN CLARIDGE IN CONVERSATION talking about his EAST END photography with Stefan Dickers at 7pm at WATERSTONES PICCADILLY, W1J 9HD. Email email@example.com to reserve your free ticket.
Len & Doll Claridge, 1964
Over lunch at The French House, John Claridge told his story to The Gentle Author
(Extract from introduction to EAST END)
“I was an only child so I asked my mum, ‘Will I have a sister or a brother?’ but she said ‘You’re enough.’ I was never quite sure if that was a compliment.
My father went to sea when he was thirteen. He could rig a ship – top to bottom – by hand and he was invited to go on the Scott expedition at thirteen. He was a bare-knuckle fighter in the East End and sold booze in the States in the thirties during Prohibition. But my mum, she stayed a machinist most of her life in the Roman Road, Bow. On school holidays I used to go in the van, delivering shirts around the East End. By the time I was growing up, my father had stopped going to sea and was working down the docks as a rigger, testing the cranes and that type of stuff. When he took me down there, it was sheer wonderment.
I used to get up with my dad, before he went down the docks at five o’clock in the morning and I did my paper round. We got up an hour early so we so could talk over a bit of toast and a cup of tea, and he would tell me stories about the sea. That was my education in wonderment. I really wanted to go to sea and see the world, but I did it through people sending me around the world to take photographs, so that ambition was fulfilled in another way.
I used to go to the shops with my mum every Saturday morning, and she would meet people she knew and they would be chatting for maybe an hour, while I went off and played on a bomb site. We would go into these shops and markets and they all smelled different. They each had their distinctive character, it was wonderful. People had a pride in what they were selling or what they were doing.
As a child, from my bedroom in Plaistow, I could see the lights of the docks at night and I used to go to sleep listening to the sound of the horns on the Thames whenever there was fog, which was quite often. You could smell the river if the wind was blowing in the right direction. A lot of the men in my family worked down the docks. When my father worked for the New Zealand Shipping Company, he took me down to the dock gate and onto the wharves – and I used to go out with my camera at weekends, or any spare time I had, to take pictures. I went out to see what was going on, I reacted to what was there and, if I saw something, I photographed it. It was instinctive, I never thought I was documenting. I had a need to take pictures, it was as natural as breathing.
Bomb sites were my playground and I was very aware of the war because a lot of my family were in it, and they showed me the medals they came back with. At that age, what you understand is limited but you are aware. We had rationing yet people had faith that things were going to get better. The only luxury would be something that was knocked off from the docks, be it a lump of liver or a bit of cake or whatever. I remember the end of food rationing, we got more bananas.
When I was eleven, I started boxing at school. South West Ham Tech in Canning Town was an all-boys school and it was mandatory for all the kids to get into the ring. It was a big old gym and they were big on sport, but my mum did not want me to do it because she did not want me to spoil my face. All the family were boxing, and they said, ‘You should do it because you have the ability to do it,’ and I quite enjoyed it actually. It was good fun. If you met someone you had been in a ring with, you always bought them a drink or they bought you a drink. I had reasonable success but I have small hands. I have got my mum’s hands not my dad’s hands.
One day when I was eight or nine, I was at at fair on Wanstead Flats and there was this stall, throwing rings for prizes, and I wanted this plastic camera. I did not know why I wanted it, except I wanted to capture everything and take the memories back with me. You know, I already understood that if you have a camera, you can take it all back with you. But I did not win it. Instead, I did a paper round, saved up and bought an Ilford Sportsman. I do not really know why I needed a camera and I needed to take pictures. Photography was a natural language to me. I developed them myself which I thought was pretty cool. I got a little catalogue that said put developer in there and this in there and wash it in there. We only had an outside toilet, so at night, that was where I developed all my film. It was not difficult. It was magic.
I left school at fifteen and I went down to the West Ham Labour Exchange. There was this lovely bloke, a nice man. He said, ‘What do you want to do?’ I said, ‘I’m going to be a photographer and take pictures’ and I expected him to say, ‘Yeah, that’s really good.’ Instead he said, ‘It’s not that easy,’ so I replied ‘Yes it is, you just take photographs.’ ‘Ok,’ he said, ‘there’s a job up the West End, but you won’t get it, let me tell you now – you won’t get it.’ This was for an assistant in a photographic department at an advertising agency. He said, ‘They’re interviewing people with qualifications from universities and colleges, and you’re too young but I’m going to send you anyway, so you can see how these things work.’ That sounded all right to me. I wore a black four-button herringbone suit, a tab-collar shirt, a knitted tie and winkle-pickers – I thought I looked the business. How could I possibly fail?
It was at McCann Erickson and when I walked into the reception, there were about four, five or six blokes sitting around waiting. Obviously they were lot older than I was, they had tweed jackets with leather patches on the elbows. I said ‘All right?’ and they totally blanked me. They had never seen style before. The interview was with Eddie Brown who had been a Captain in the Scottish Highlanders and had come up the hard way. I was the last person to be interviewed and when I walked in, he did not say anything, he just looked at me. He did not know what to say, so he asked, ‘What film do you use?’
I said, ‘I won’t use anything else but HPS and FP3, I think it’s the best around’. And he said, ‘So do I – you can have the job.’ I said, ‘Oh, the other thing is I take pictures.’ I had brought with me some small prints of the Thames and views of the East End that I had made at home on an old enlarger. Those posh boys had qualifications and no pictures, but I had pictures and no qualifications, so I got the job – that was it. And I loved every moment of it.
First of all, I started by mixing up the chemicals and doing general stuff in the darkroom, but very quickly I was asked to do some printing. Before long, I was getting art directors coming down and asking me to do their prints. Later, I made prints for for Jeanloup Sieff, Don McCullin and Saul Leiter, when I was still only seventeen. I remember Saul Leiter asked, ‘Can you do something with this?’ The film looked like someone had processed it in tomato sauce, so I worked on it to see what I could get out of it and, when I had finished, he was very pleased with it.
At McCann Erickson, I met Robert Brownjohn – who everyone knew as ‘BJ.’ He had just come over from New York. He was a brilliant designer who had worked with Moholy-Nagy and became famous for doing the title sequences for ‘From Russia With Love’ and ‘Goldfinger.’ I always remember BJ in an Ivy League jacket and buttoned-down shirt. He would come to the Photographic Department and ask, ‘Hey kid, hey kid, can you experiment with this?’ BJ introduced me to a different way of looking. We would look at pieces of type and everyday objects together, considering them as design in their own right. He taught me to appreciate their abstract quality by having me look at a face or a hand as a piece of sculpture, and lighting it accordingly. BJ opened my eyes and then he said, ‘Kid, you’re gonna have an exhibition whether you like it or not.’ I was sixteen then.
The show was in McCann’s gallery and the subject was the East End. What surprised me was the response. People really thought a lot of the pictures. Dennis Bailey, Art Director of Town Magazine said, ‘There’s shades of Walker Evans.’ I did not know who the fuck Walker Evans was, so I thought, ‘Is this a compliment or is he taking the piss?’ But then I saw Walker Evans’ work and it is some of the most beautiful photography you are ever going to see – in my opinion – ever.”
The house in Plaistow where John Claridge grew up
Mr & Mrs Jones were the Claridges’ neighbours in Plaistow in 1968
John Claridge (right) with his mate Keith Horton (left), 1961
John Claridge takes a photograph in Spitalfields, 1964
Photographs copyright © John Claridge