So Long, Colin O’Brien
With deep sadness, I announce the loss of my good friend and long-term Contributing Photographer Colin O’Brien, who died unexpectedly last Friday aged seventy-six. Later this week I will publish our final assignment together, undertaken a week ago, when we enjoyed an excursion picking blackcurrants in Kent.
A recent portrait of Colin O’Brien in his Hackney kitchen by Bob Mazzer
One day, I was walking through Exmouth Market in Clerkenwell when a photograph caught my eye through the window of a restaurant and stopped me in my tracks. I went inside and was truly astonished by a series of large black and white photographs of car crashes upon the wall. I had never seen anything like these pictures before, but the grace and accomplishment of these breathtaking images convinced me that they had been taken by one of the great photographers of our time.
Imagine my surprise when I realised that all the photographs had been taken in Clerkenwell by a photographer I had never heard of, Colin O’Brien. Immediately, I wrote to Colin and was delighted to meet a man who was as modest as he was talented. Quickly, we fell into a working partnership, creating stories together using his photographs accompanied by my words. In subsequent years, we undertook more than fifty assignments together.
It was Colin who persuaded me to become a publisher and create ‘Spitalfields Life Books,’ when he asked me to publish his photographs of ‘Travellers’ Children in London Fields’ in 2013, beginning his collaboration with book designer Friederike Huber. Two years later, they worked together to produce his authoritative and tender monograph of the capital through seven decades entitled ‘London Life,’ which I also published.
Colin once said to me that while Don McCuillin went away to photograph war and David Bailey occupied himself with fashion and celebrities, he had stayed at home and simply photographed the life of people on the street. A purist who managed to resist any commercial imperative or editorial intervention, Colin took only the photographs he pleased, resolutely pursuing his own personal interests and focussing particulary upon the everyday lives of Londoners.
Colin’s brilliant portraits of children reveal his singular empathy with the young and also his unassuming nature, never putting himself above those he photographed, so that subjects discovered a rare freedom in front of his lens, liberated by his kindly nature to present themselves as they pleased.
In his teens, Colin was fortunate enough to receive a 1931 Leica camera from a neighbour in Clerkenwell who worked as a chauffeur and ‘discovered’ it left behind by a wealthy client. It was with this lucky acquisition that Colin took much of his precocious early work, some of which was exhibited to great acclaim last year at the Leica Gallery, delivering a satisfying poetic resolution to the narrative arc of his long photographic career.
I was grateful to Colin for his reliable ability to put people at their ease, his extraordinary stamina and resilient good humour, but most of all I feel privileged to have collaborated with such an inspirational talent. My admiration for Colin’s genius only increased over time. The sheer volume of his work between 1948 and 2016 is monumental – I believe his achievement in photography is unique and incomparable, and I know he was one of the great masters of our time.
Colin marches in the Clerkenwell Italian procession in the forties
Colin with his first camera, a Box Brownie
Colin photographed by Solly, a local Photographer in Exmouth Market
Colin’s parents with their young son the roof of Victoria Dwellings, Clerkenwell
Colin as Head Boy at Sir John Cass School, Aldgate
Colin with his first Leica
Colin photographs his mother trying on hats in Oxford St in the fifties
Colin on the roof of Victoria Dwellings with St James Clerkenwell in the background
A self-portrait, skylarking with pals at the Kardomah Cafe, Oxford St
Colin looking sharp in the sixties
Colin looking with-it in the seventies
Colin at his photography show on Waterloo Station
Colin at the Aldgate Press for the printing of ‘Travellers Children in London Fields’
Colin talks about photographing the ‘Travellers Children in London Fields’
Colin at L.E.G.O for the printing of ‘London Life’
Colin at the launch of ‘London Life’ (photo by Simon Mooney)
Colin with Friederike Huber who designed ‘London Life’ (photo by Simon Mooney)
Colin taking a photo in the Italian church in Clerkwenwell with his 1931 Leica (photo by Alex Pink)
Colin O’Brien (1940-2016)
The Gentle Author’s portrait of Colin O’Brien on the balcony of the flat in Michael Cliffe House, Clerkenwell, which Colin moved into with his parents when it was newly-built in 1966
You may like to take a look at this selection of Colin O’Brien’s work