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John Claridge’s Darker Side

December 29, 2012
by the gentle author

Photographer John Claridge sent me this set of pictures entitled “East London, A Darker Side And Objects of Affection,” yet when I asked him which of the images referred to darkness and which to veneration, he became evasive. Justly celebrated for his subtle appreciation of tonal contrast in photography, John sees darkness and light as inextricable from each other in life too.

For John, these images are tokens of the East End that he knew and of the East End that made him. They are plates from an unwritten autobiography. When, at fifteen years old, John went up west to work in advertising at McCann Erickson, the college graduates would not speak to him at first, dismissing him as being from the “wrong side of the tracks.” But John refused to apologise for his origins and quickly discovered that he was accepted by creative figures at the agency such as the designer Robert Brownjohn who recognised his nascent talent.

Many of the objects in these pictures are still in John’s possession today, carried all these years as talismans of his youthful emotional universe in the fifties and sixties. Yet they also speak of the violence of that society, a violence which John witnessed and knew personally, but does not sentimentalise. “It’s a world I flirted with, but film delivered me to another life,” John admitted, choosing his words carefully and looking back with a clear-eyed gaze. It was his and our good fortune that – out of the variety of implements portrayed here – for John the camera proved to be the most eloquent means of self-expression.

The Beginning -“My first serious camera when I was fifteen, bought by hire purchase. I still have it, but it’s resting now.”

Once Upon a Time in the East End – “A Magnum twelve gauge shotgun laid upon the grill in an East End St.”

Eldorado & The Dark Corner – “My first car was a V8 Ford Pilot, but an American car was the most desirable and I photographed a friend’s Eldorado Cadillac on a street off the Highway.”

Zip Gun – “At school, we used to get hold of toy guns and use them to create real guns. You use small ball bearings, pack it with gunpowder and it fires. It was what we did.”

The Starter “I found a razor in the street once. There had been a fight and it was left behind. I remember seeing Teddy Boys in the market buying razors with mother of pearl handles, and they’d put them in their top pocket to see which matched their clothes best. Their opening line was, ‘Do you want to start something?'”

This is Not a Negative “I used to carry a flick knife, it wasn’t a negative characteristic, it was my life. You learnt to survive.”

How Things Grow

The Unknown Boxer – “My father was a bare-knuckle fighter but he was also the gentlest man you could imagine.”

The Hammers – “The symbol for West Ham , the hammers refer to ship building. I used to compete in athletics for West Ham and I still have my badge.”

Rolling Thunder -“I crashed my bike and got smashed up really badly. I broke an arm, a leg, cracked three vertebrae, broke eight ribs, one rib punctured a lung and I was in a coma for a week. But when I got out of hospital, my mates put me on a bike and made me take the same bends again. It was the biggest adrenalin rush of my life. Motorbiking was an important part of growing up, and I still ride a Ducati 916 and a Harley.”

Stewed or Jellied – “Obviously, I adore eels, stewed or jellied. We’d go on holiday to Southend and eat fresh seafood, so I thought I’d send this postcard back to everyone.”

This is NOT the wrong side – “When I started at McCann Erickson at fifteen, the college graduates wouldn’t speak to me – I was told I was from the wrong side of the tracks.”

Photographs copyright © John Claridge

You may like to read these other stories of the darker side of the East End

Lenny Hamilton, Jewel Thief

Billy Frost, the Krays’ Driver

Sammy McCarthy, Flyweight Champion

or take a look at these other pictures by John Claridge

John Claridge’s East End

Along the Thames with John Claridge

At the Salvation Army with John Claridge

In a Lonely Place

A Few Diversions by John Claridge

This was my Landscape

John Claridge’s Spent Moments

Signs, Posters, Typography & Graphics

Working People & a Dog

Invasion of the Monoliths

Time Out with John Claridge

Views from a Dinghy by John Claridge

People on the Street & a Cat

In Another World with John Claridge

A Few Pints with John Claridge

A Nation Of Shopkeepers

Some East End Portraits by John Claridge

Sunday Morning Stroll with John Claridge

John Claridge’s Cafe Society

Graphics & Graffiti

Just Another Day With John Claridge

At the Salvation Army in Eighties

John Claridge’s Boxers (Round One)

John Claridge’s Boxers (Round Two)

John Claridge’s Boxers (Round Three)

John Claridge’s Boxers (Round Four)

John Claridge’s Boxers (Round Five)

John Claridge’s Boxers (Round Six)

John Claridge’s Boxers (Round Seven)

John Claridge’s Boxers (Round Eight)

John Claridge’s Boxers (Round Nine)

23 Responses leave one →
  1. Libby Hall permalink
    December 29, 2012

    These grave, emphatic images have so many resonances for me. The first being simply that my first ‘good’ camera was a Pentax and I loved it almost viscerally.

    Many of the other photographs are of a world that Tony partly inhabited. His images of pubs were often of quiet gentle afternoons, but he also lived in a world less gentle. I remember Tony explaining to me, when a violent fight broke out in a pub we were in, that fights were much less scary if you were a part of them, rather than a spectator on the side. (But I never tested out his theory – I remained resolutely on the side! )

    Tony also rode motorbikes – and also came off them. I wish Tony and John Claridge had known each other. I think they might have been mates.

  2. Greg Tingey permalink
    December 29, 2012

    Very dark, indeed!

  3. Lee permalink
    December 29, 2012

    Classic dark accoutrements !


  4. Alex Pink permalink
    December 29, 2012

    I love the dark undertone of both the photos, and the man behind them > Fast bikes, V8 Fords, Teddy Boys, and Street Fights. Things may or may not have progressed, either way the old east end sounds like a fascinating place regardless.
    I particularly like the picture of the Eldorado Cadillac on what looks like Pennington St.

  5. Matt Johnson permalink
    December 29, 2012

    Very evocative stuff. Many remind me of my father’s ‘office’, which was filled with exotic weapons, many of which had been seized from particularly vicious customers visiting the family pub.

  6. December 29, 2012

    A dark collection indeed but imbued with the Claridge sense of beauty shining from within. You are a wonderfully gifted photographer John and I wish I had 1% of your drive and talent!

  7. December 29, 2012

    Its the shot of the Pentax that is so evocative to me John – it was the first camera I was introduced to at the beginning of my career before really becoming involved with the Photographic world.

    I have always loved the amazing stillife studies that you have done as they are so personal
    to you and there is always a very emotive story behind each image which really says it all.

    I hope that these images are being selected for one of your books as I would love to have reference of them for all time.

  8. Marien de Goffau permalink
    December 29, 2012

    Nice to take us along. Surprising us with each picture. Beautiful.

  9. Vicky permalink
    December 29, 2012

    Excellent as ever

  10. December 29, 2012

    Really brilliant pictures. Very evocative of the old East End. Having just looked up John Claridge’s website after reading this, I’d be intrigued to see some of his advertising photography work for McCann-Erickson. He admits he learned his trade in the ‘golden age’ of photography and advertising in the 60s, which made me think of the Mad Men TV series. Gentle Author, it’d be great if you could show us John Claridge’s advertising photos – I’m intrigued to see how he married his dark vision with the often ‘sunny’ demands of selling products.

  11. Adrian Taylor permalink
    December 29, 2012

    The main thing is, you survived!
    Stark, dangerous, beautiful images.

  12. Olga Secerov permalink
    December 29, 2012

    Truely dark and evocative images. This is an East End that I have never known, it is so different to what it is now. You really had to survive. A fascinating part of London’s history.

  13. cindy hacker permalink
    December 30, 2012

    Blimey, Guv! Strong stuff! Good job I haven’t had me breakfast…

  14. simon meyrick-jones permalink
    December 30, 2012

    Good thing they didn’t have metal detectors in those days… I love the wrong side of the tracks image.I was reading John’s comments about the making of real guns from toy guns and was thinking “Why in my day,children didn’t have access to gunpowder!” But then I remembered my own childhood and we were always unpicking shotgun cartridges to create explosive devices. I really like the ambivalence of the images-are they softened by time,or they as scarey as today’s images of gang culture are?

    OK I’ll get my coat

  15. December 31, 2012

    Another series of great photos John, postcards of cut and gutted eels – a winner!

  16. December 31, 2012

    Only getting round to seeing these Pictures John. Powerful as always. Love the Razor image and the Pentax. My first serious camera was a Halina 35x bought second hand by my father for me. You must have a barn filled with memorabilia as you seem never to have thrown anything away. G

  17. David Drakes permalink
    January 1, 2013

    So now we know! . . . from the inheritance of the “Darker Side of the East End” and its associated “Objects of Affection” (which is which we sometimes have to ask ourselves!)
    emerged a JC lens that portrayed an often austere but always inherently honest view of the world, be it his commercial work (a refusal to give in to saccharine commercial pressures) or his portrayal of the world at large in his editorial or published work (visit his website, to see for yourself or order one of his books)
    . . . posted by “a middle class graduate” who, since the 1970s, unlike some unenlightened contemporaries, has long respected JC as a friend and multi-talented professional.

  18. sprite permalink
    January 1, 2013

    gang warfares
    as rife as ever between
    dividing postcodes
    layers of old East End survive
    hidden from gentrification


  19. John in Paris. permalink
    January 9, 2013

    One can only comment on the talent of JC on making these images of some”naughty” objects look stunning!

  20. john edwards permalink
    January 11, 2013

    Ah! Tottenham Royal, Orchid [ did they know it means bollocks? [latin]] Purley. Jive – zoot suits, slim jim’s, woven suede crepe soles. Band only allowed to play ONE ‘ Be-Bop ‘ number in the evening – Ours was ‘Lemon Drop’ – Dizzy Gillespie – Aah Bop Booodly Be Da – Earl Bostic, Sarah Vaughn [In yer dreams kid & she was] Stan Kenton band … The razors on the racecourse – all taped up but the top eighth inch the bookies making off with the bag in haste … The ‘Malts’ in charge of prostitution through Soho to Bayswater. Pals of mine off the fairs Don Brute & Johnny Angel, Don had the brass tap while Johnny carried a shard of broken saucer – just in case. The other one was the flat cap with razor blades around the brim. This way before Odd Job or anything else Q dream’t up for Bond.
    As we didn’t have that serpent in Eden – Television, may it burn in hell, it was all very direct experience. The Saturday dressing ritual, sacrosant … The amazing D.A’s [Ducks Arse] & Boston
    [ Tony Curtis] at the hair ‘saloon’ … ‘ Anything for the weekend, Spunky’? Forever checking it with the comb at the ready. Local Bad Boys , ‘Piggy’ Frimley & ‘Billy The Yid’ … The Giant Lanegan cutting through to the bar with ‘Hoppy’ a near dwarf market trader coiffed and dressed to the nines on his
    bulging arm, as Hoppy beat the heads below with his [small] wooden leg. When Lanegan had set Hoppy on the long bar he would turn with a deep dark stare, pump up his biceps and split! the seams
    of his shirt …….. Whap! Follow that … Zip Guns? Don’t leave home without it. Nobby near killed three of us at start of typo class as his went of and mashed a corner of the blackboard. Sorry he said,
    didn’t know it was going to do that. I notice the shotgun is a nasty cheap Belgian or Italian pump
    action … Mind though we did store a lovely little skeleton stock .22 that broke down to little parts
    of innocuous metal, plus a more serious item – for a [dear] friend of ours, while he was applying for HMSS, later became a watercolour artist of great quality. This was sometime later when we woke up in the early 60’s. I swapped my Pentax for a Leica 3A Sonnar lens on a Cook & Perkins graphite mount …. what a beauty … low light soft blacks with laser definition …. You know – What larks Pip
    old Chap … Mudlarks on the foreshore low tide of time gone by and ever sharp present. the one of the Caddy is genius …… Filth had Wolseley’s and Snipes – with a bell on top …. Liverpool wit ‘ Why are cops like banana’s?’ ‘ ‘Coz they’re yellow, bent & hang round in bunches’ – Well some of them were all of that pinpoint comment – Not any more thank God … we’re civilized now….. still have to stay sharp …. Very nice JC – Best of Times – not Worst of Times – Sense of vitality & clear identity then.
    Good feeling to recall – Mono Clarity in the age of Surround Sound. Most refreshing.

  21. April 12, 2013

    Marvellous images, very sinister.

    I was intending to say ‘Moody’, except that I have your sublime portrait of James standing right by my record collection and I didn’t want to confuse.

    Someone once asked Anna Pavlova what she thought about when she danced. She replied: ‘if I could tell you, I wouldn’t have to dance’. Snap.

    Best to you both.


  22. April 12, 2013


    When is the next episode due?


  23. April 30, 2013

    Noir is the genre of John’s work but out of the darkness comes light.

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