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Colin O’Brien, Photographer

July 21, 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 next Thursday 26th July from 7-9pm. Today I am republishing the first story I wrote about Colin and over the next week I will be publishing more stories that I have done in collaboration with him, accompanied by photos that span an extraordinary career extending from 1948 until the present day.

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 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, that Colin portrayed in spellbinding photographs which evoke the poetry and pathos of those 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.

Girl in a party dress in the Clerkwenwell Rd, nineteen fifties.

Solmans Secondhand Shop, Skinner St, Clerkwenwell, 1963.

Colin’s mother puts tea in the teapot, in the scullery at Victoria Dwellings, nineteen fifties.

Linda Leinweber takes a nap, 117 Victoria Dwellings, nineteen fifties.

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

Jimmy Wragg and Bernard Roth jumping on a bomb site in Clerkenwell, late fifties.

Accident at the junction of Clerkwell Rd and Faringdon Rd, 1957.

Mrs Leinweber ekes out the the Shepherd’s Pie among her family, Victoria Dwellings, 1959.

Rio Cinema, Skinner St, Clerkenwell, 1954.

Hazel Leinweber, Victoria Dwellings, nineteen fifties.

Fire at Victoria Dwellings, mid-fifties.

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

Boy at Woolworths, Exmouth Market, 1954.

Two women with a baby in Woolworths, Exmouth Market, 1954.

Cleaning the windows in the snow, Clerkenwell Rd, 1957.

Cowboy and girlfriend, 1960.

Nun sweeping in the Clerkenwell Rd, nineteen sixties.

Colin’s window at Victoria Dwellings was on the far right on the top floor.

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

The demolition of Victoria Dwellings in the nineteen seventies.

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.

15 Responses leave one →
  1. July 21, 2012

    Wonderful shots, and a wonderful evocation of Colin O’Brien’s community.

  2. July 21, 2012

    looking forward to seeing the others. I love the little boy in Woolworths. All the best with the exhibition.

  3. July 21, 2012

    Beautiful photographs. Thank you. We always called the area Clerkenwell, Finsbury or Smithfield. Today’s young iPhone clutching generation call the locale “Farringdon”. Why the sudden ref to a tube station which has existed for 100+ years?

  4. Ros permalink
    July 21, 2012

    I hope to be there on Thursday evening and am looking forward to the exhibition and what is bound to be a palace of delights very much. Agree with the above statements and the little boy in Woolworths is just marvellous. Oh and Mrs Leinweber divvying out the shepherds pie looks remarkably like Doris Lessing.

  5. Cherub permalink
    July 21, 2012

    The photo of the the little boy in the cowboy hat with his arm round his little girlfriend is very touching. It reminds me of when I started school in 1966 and a little boy round the corner would come for me and on Wednesdays he would bring me one of his mum’s home made cakes. A lovely memory, so innocent! I wonder what happened to all the people and where are the ones are who are still alive?

  6. andrea permalink
    July 21, 2012

    What wonderful, interesting photos! Thank you Colin and Gentle Author.

  7. Allan permalink
    July 22, 2012

    My grandmother lived at no 72 Victoria Dwellings but I have never seen a photo of them before. Thank you, Colin.

  8. Mick permalink
    July 22, 2012

    I’d be interested to know what cameras Colin used for his early indoor photos.

  9. the gentle author permalink*
    July 22, 2012

    Come along to Colin’s opening on Thursday Mick, and ask him for yourself!

  10. July 23, 2012

    Some of the most emotional pictures I’ve seen in a while – they true capture the moment

  11. July 26, 2012

    Every photo brings an emotion or memory, even smell. A beautiful talent, the little boy dressed as a cow boy brought a tear to my eye. A successful exhibition before it starts, enjoy ever minute both of you. Annette

  12. Sheila Powis permalink
    August 19, 2012

    Thank you for a most memorable trip down memory lane. Promoted by a visit on 16th July to Clerkenwell to experience again the ‘Italian Procession’.

    I lived in Corporation Row from 1944 to 1957 and your photos are so evocative of the times…..wonderful……..I had been looking for records of The Rio/Globe …..and there it was in your photo……….to perfection!!!!

    I wish I had known about your opening on 26th July….is it possible to still visit?

    Also do you have any other photos of Clerkenwell?

    Thank you again.


  13. Alan Garner permalink
    February 7, 2014

    My maternal Grandmother lived at 9 Gloucester Way, where used to visit quite regularly with my Mother in the early 1950’s. She lived on the second floor (top), and I remember we had to knock three times on the street door, whereupon she opened the sash window and threw the key down in a matchbox. The house was split into three flats, not self contained – just sets of rooms off of the ground floor, and first and second floor landings. When you got to the top landing an antiquated lavatory stood before you. There were two rooms either side of the landing.
    I remember everything was extremely dark – no electricity as everything was lit by gaslights.
    The door on the left opened into a small room which served as the lounge, kitchen and bedroom.
    On the right stood an old sideboard adorned with family photographs, a radio and my Gran’s snuff box. She usually sat next to the sideboard by the window. An old fireplace stood on the facing wall and a brass double bed stood on the left. I don’t remember my Grandfather. He worked at Hay’s Wharf and died years earlier.
    The door on the right of the landing led into a larger room which contained, if my memory serves me well, an old double bed, a single bed and an enamelled tin wash-bowl on top of a small wooden table. Unbelievably, when they were young, this room was shared by by my mother, her sister and four brothers! Before living in Gloucester Way the family lived in Vineyard Walk.
    My mother came from Clerkenwell and married my father, who was from Battersea. in 1938.
    I was brought up in Battersea, but my mother’s side of the family still live in the Islington Area.
    Every year, from about 1949 to 1957, I was always taken with my sister to watch the Italian Procession. In the early 1950’s the crowds that watched the Procession along the Farringdon Road were astonishing.
    It’s amazing how things stick in your memory – jumping off a No. 19 bus with my mother, walking through the market in Exmouth Street, turning right into Skinner Street, the Globe Cinema in front of you and the Skinner’s Arms pub on the left – which reminds me, my Gran used to go in the Skinner’s Arms and drink Reid’s Stout.

  14. January 15, 2015

    brilliant, a time gone by

  15. Paulina boffa permalink
    August 4, 2023

    Iam paulina Boffa my parents names are Antonio Boffa Margaret Boffa, they both lived in clerkenwell rd, they both went to St Peter’s Italian school, related to Paul Boffa, Vincent Boffa, Jeanne Boffa, Joseph Boffa.

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