Colin O’Brien: photographer

2 Dec

Everyone has a story. In 1948 eight-year-old Colin O’Brien picked up his family’s Box Brownie camera and took a photo of his friends leaning against a car in Hatton Garden. From then on he was hooked by photography, soon graduating to a Leica. Now his new book of photographs showing the drama of everyday “London Life” – much of it in Clerkenwell where he grew up – is receiving critical acclaim. And it would certainly make a perfect gift for Londoners. Interview by Nicola Baird.

Colin O’Brien: “Growing up I didn’t know we were poor,” adds Colin “but I felt so safe. There were always Aunties and Uncles visiting and everyone knew each other. We didn’t have many books – now I have TOO MANY weighing my house down!”

Colin O’Brien: “Growing up I didn’t know we were poor, but I felt so safe. There were always Aunties and Uncles visiting and everyone knew each other. We didn’t have many books – now I have too many weighing my house down!” (c) Colin O’Brien.

“I do like people and I do like talking about my work,” says Colin O’Brien drinking cappuccino slowly at the uber-stylish Hackney Picture House in Mare Street. Colin was born in 1940 at home in Northampton Buildings, Clerkenwell (which no longer exist) to an Irish mother and father. “My parents were born in London – the Irish connection goes back one generation from them,” explains Colin.

NEVER MISS AN ISLINGTON FACES: if you enjoy reading about people who live or work in Islington please follow this blog by email (see how on right hand panel). Fresh interviews are published once a week. 

“My family all worked in the area (then known as Finsbury) so my mother let them know the baby had arrived by hanging something in the window. I think it was just an old shopping bag!” says Colin who moved to Hackney in the 1980s to an affordable house just a 38 bus ride from his old Finsbury haunts. Over the years he has mostly been London based, although for a time he ran a bow-fronted antiques shop in Petersfield, Hampshire.

Victoria Dwellings 6 c

Colin O’Brien: “When we were living in Victoria Dwellings I would hear a bang, get the camera and then look down see a car accident and take a picture.” The huge block was on the corner of Clerkenwell and Farringdon Road. (c) Colin O’Brien

Life in Clerkenwell
“I grew up in Little Italy. It was full of Italian immigrants,” says Colin, “they came from a very poor area of Italy to a very poor area of London thinking that their lives would be transformed.”

Despite having a close immediate family, Colin knows little about his ancestors. “The Irish connection is difficult to trace as my mother was a Kelly and my father O’Brien. It’s like finding a Smith in England!” There is just one photo of his mother’s father who made the move from Ireland to join the Black Watch, a Scottish regiment. “It’s the only picture of him we had, and it shows this frail man wearing his kilt and looking proud. Then he came to London and had a family of seven – or was it eight – children. He died of pneumonia leaving my granny to bring all these children up on her own. She scrubbed steps to make money. I remember her in later life, very sick, bent double from arthritis but she’d be giggling away as she listened to the Bakelite radio, shows presented by Wilfred Pickles with the catch phrase “Give ’em the money Barney” and the first radio soap Mrs Dale’s Diary (begun 1943).”

Colin’s father was away fighting during the war. His mother, and her sister Winifred, mostly stayed in London, even during the Blitz. “For my safety they did go to Ifracombe, Devon in 1941, but they hated the landlady and so they came back to London saying they’d rather ‘take their chance’.”

Clerkenwell had the flimsy Anderson bomb shelters, so as “My granny lived in the middle of  Victoria Dwellings all the families from the top floors, and the families from the bottom would go to her flat. The grown ups would make tea, chat and reminisce. It was that feeling of being together, and being safe,” says Colin laughing because he knows all too well that it wasn’t safe – it was only luck that stopped the building being hit and killing all in it.

Fruit stall at Chapel Street market (c) Colin O'Brien

Check out the hats and prices at this fruit stall on Chapel Street market (c) Colin O’Brien

5 places in Islington where Colin O’Brien has taken stunning photos

  • Perhaps because Colin lived and played near Fleet Street he started taking photos when he was very young. “We wore short trousers and all had chapped knees in winter so we’d sit by the hot air vents by the Daily Mirror building on Saffron Street/Herbal Hill to warm up.”
  • Old Sadler's Wells prior to demolition. (c) Colin O'Brien

    Old Sadler’s Wells prior to demolition. (c) Colin O’Brien

    When we were living in Victoria Dwellings I would hear a bang, get the camera and then look down, see a car accident and take a picture.

  • I took a wonderful picture of a three-wheeled van toppled over in Clerkenwell Road.
  • My very first picture (taken in 1948 when Colin was eight years old) was posed. But Italian boys know how to pose.
  • Fleet Street was so close to our home at Michael Cliffe House that if I’d taken a picture of a storm from the window I’d run round to Fleet Street and let them look at the negatives – the Evening Standard and Daily Express would take them. Then the Brown Bovari Lightning Resistors company got in touch because they wanted to use my picture in an ad, and I got paid £15!

Through the viewfinder

Raymond Scalionne and Razzy in Hatton Gardens, in the lost borough of Finsbury. This photo was taken by Colin O'Brien when he was eight years old. (c) Colin O'Brien

Raymond Scalionne and Razzy in Hatton Gardens, in the lost borough of Finsbury. This photo was taken by Colin O’Brien when he was eight years old. (c) Colin O’Brien

By seven Colin was often out playing in the street, which soon after led to him taking that first seminal shot of his Italian friends posing. It was just the beginning.

Box Brownie shot by Colin O'Brien of his mum on the steps going up to 118 Victoria Buildings. (c) Colin O'Brien

Box Brownie shot by Colin O’Brien of his mum on the steps going up to 118 Victoria Buildings. (c) Colin O’Brien

(c) Colin O'Brien

(c) Colin O’Brien

“I took pictures of what fascinates me. It’s where I lived at 118 Victoria Dwellings*. It’s my mum cooking or trying on a hat, or stoic Mrs Leinweber who lived beneath us waiting at 12.30 to dish out shepherd’s pie and peas with her huge arms.”

He also took striking weather shots which were often published in the Fleet Street press.

Few of the photos are posed, although Colin admits there’s one where “I asked mum to pose and she has her arms folded looking down the stairs as if to say ‘Not another picture, Colin’.” (see above)

Many of the photos were taken out of the window to show “What’s happening below in the street. I wasn’t Don McCullin going off to war or David Bailey photographing celebrities. I was quite provincial. I didn’t go south of the river and I didn’t travel. I photographed what I saw – people acting out the drama of everyday life.”

Light trails, crash (c) Colin O'Brien

Colin O’Brien: “Looking out of the window of my home was very important. I’d hear a bang, get the camera and take a picture. I don’t know how we afforded a Leica, perhaps my parents got it cheap.” This picture and others are in his new book of photos, London Life (2015) (c) Colin O’Brien

His photos have an incredible stillness, as if they are scenes taken from a film. But they’re not insists Colin, they are just everyday moments in post war London. “I like getting rid of the clutter that surrounds everyday life. Composition is all,” he says which is why he “rarely crops images.”

The drama isn’t just the charting of social history and often a time gone by, it’s affectionate hugs; kids posing or Londoners dwarfed by grand buildings. Some of the best known scenes are pure car crash art – taken just as the ambulance arrives with the cars on their side. “It’s a moment of before and after,” says Colin “a mise en scène”.

(c) Colin O'Brien

The drama of everyday life is in every shot in Colin O’Brien’s new collection of photos, London Life, including this picture. (c) Colin O’Brien

Photographer Colin O'Brien's Cannon S120. "I use it as a sketchbook. It's my second. The Gentle Author from Spitalfields LIfe dropped my last one into a pond. It survives anything, except a dunking."

Photographer Colin O’Brien’s Cannon S120. “I use it as a sketchbook. It’s my second. The Gentle Author from Spitalfields Life dropped my last one into a pond. It survives anything, except a dunking.”

Working in education
Colin has worked in education all round London, including the London College of Printing at Elephant & Castle (now part of the University of the Arts). “I failed the 11+ and any other person would think they were a total failure, but I still found a job – I had a nice personality – so in my early 20s I worked with the City Literary Institute and Mrs Daley sent me to Media Resources.” Soon Colin discovered you could be offered time off to study. He took a BA in Photography at Westminster Polytechnic (now university) and then an MA in Photography & Advertising at LCP* where he also worked. “It used to change it’s name so much my friend jokingly said Elsie Peed In The Tea (LCPT) when he answered the phone, baffling callers.”

Colin used a chunk of his retirement fund to run a two week exhibition in the OXO tower and was blown away by seeing the queues of people waiting to get in.

“My sort of pictures people didn’t want to have. Now people have a soft spot for the old days, it’s nostalgia – it wasn’t as good as they think! I took pictures of the threadbare years (the 1950s) and the down and outs in the street, but there are still down and outs, sometimes even sitting in the same places. I’m a poor boy from Clerkenwell but just last night I was drinking champagne at the new Leica store at the Royal Exchange where they are showing some of my photographs and I’m doing a talk on December 3…”

Traveller’s Children (1987) “the pictures were taken around London Fields over three weeks. On the fourth week they’d gone.” (c) Colin O'Brien

Traveller’s Children (1987) “the pictures were taken around London Fields over three weeks. On the fourth week they’d gone.” (c) Colin O’Brien

Must have memories
Islington is famous for it’s creativity – from Sadler’s Wells to Grayson Perry, never mind the many writers – but Colin O’Brien’s photographs dating from 1948 are not just beautifully composed works of art that you might want hanging on your wall, they are also an extraordinary social record of change. Colin has just released a beautiful new book, published by Spitalfields Life where he is contributing photographer. For anyone serious about art or a fan of real people in London then this is the book to put on your Christmas wish list. And just in case you don’t get given London Life, maybe you should buy one for yourself? Islington Faces did!

Words*

Victoria Dwellings was knocked down in the late 1960s. Colin says it was a vast block of flats which straddled Clerkenwell and Farringdon Roads and Herbal Hill. “Think of the number of people who were born or died there,” he says adding, “I’m taking an 85-year-old man back there soon to photograph him.”

LCP or the old London College of Printing is now part of the University of the Arts and known as London College of Communication.

Over to you
If you’d like to nominate someone to be interviewed who grew up, lives or works in Islington, or suggest yourself, please let me know, via nicolabaird.green at gmail.com. Thank you.

If you liked this interview please SHARE on twitter or Facebook or join the Facebook group. Even better follow islingtonfacesblog.com (see menu top right) or follow me on twitter @nicolabairduk

This blog is inspired by Spitalfields Life written by the Gentle Author.

If you enjoyed this post you might like to look at the A-Z  index, or search by interviewee’s roles or Meet Islingtonians to find friends, neighbours and inspiration. Thanks for stopping by. Nicola

 

 

 

Advertisements

So, what do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: