Farewell Colin O’Brien

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A photo I took of Colin O’Brien alongside one of my favourite photos taken by him, at his retrospective exhibition ’65’ at the Oxo Tower Gallery in 2014

If this year isn’t remembered for being the year of Brexit and Trump, it will be for all the painful losses that we have suffered, of people who brought poetry and beauty to the planet rather than division and hatred. When David Bowie’s death was announced back in January I thought that the year had dealt its trump card too soon. But it turned out to have a deadly hand, with the actor Alan Rickman quickly following suit and Leonard Cohen being the latest of a long list of losses that are felt like personal blows to so many.

Among the very public English losses there was a more discreet and quiet departure back in August. Maybe appropriately so, as it was of one of life’s gentle observers over seven decades – the photographer Colin O’Brien. I was lucky enough to have had two close encounters with Colin’s work. The first occasion was at Chats Palace in East London, where I was first introduced to his East End photographs of the 1950s. His monochrome images of everyday Londoners resonated with me so strongly that I still feel a quickening of my heart as I recall that moment of discovery. The second time was through another exhibition, this time at the Oxo Tower on the South Bank, when I re-acquainted myself with those old friends, as well as being blessed enough to meet the person who had taken them – an experience which left such an impression on me that I wrote about it: https://anenchantedeye.com/2014/08/03/an-homage-to-colin-obrien/

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A young Colin with his first Leica

If Colin thought that he was going to slip away without for once being the focus of attention, then he was wrong. For last week the historic St James church in his childhood neighbourhood of Clerkenwell was filled with people who had known or been inspired by him and wanted to come together to celebrate his life and his work. There were reminiscences from lifelong friends as well as fellow documentary photographer Tom Mazzer; a moving reading of his personal reminiscences by the elegant and eloquent Dame Sian Phillips and some short documentaries. And of course there were the photographs – what a gentle pleasure it was to see those evocative monochrome images fading in and out before me as first a fiddle then a string quartet played, interspersed by photographs of Colin himself spanning right back to childhood when he already had a camera in his hand.

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One of Colin’s evocative photos, depicting London life

It was a heart-warming affair, full of love, appreciation and generosity, followed by drinks in the cloisters downstairs. One of the beverages on offer was, rather poignantly, blackcurrant soda in bottles decorated with photos taken by Colin on his final assignment. This had involved joining a coach-load of East Enders on a day-trip to Tudely in Kent to pick the fruit that we drank. His good friend and scribe “the Gentle Author”, who was with him that day, recalls how they plotted to slip off post-assignment to have a drink in the local pub, on the pretext of going to visit the local church. Strangely enough, on route to the pub they became drawn into the church anyhow, transfixed by the stained glass windows which turned out to be the creation of the great Russian artist Marc Chagall .

Colin was so preoccupied in taking photos of the light coming through those magnificent windows that those pub pints alluded them. I don’t know what his religious beliefs were, but somehow it seems befitting that probably the last photographs he took were in a spiritual place, capturing the work of another artist whose work will be a legacy for many years to come.

For I strongly believe that Colin’s poignant, tender and beautifully framed images of East London will be as an important a contribution to our country’s heritage as that of any other artist. Apparently he knew when he was taking them, back in the fifties, that he was recording something of value for future generations. He has also deduced that the best photography is often the work that hasn’t been commissioned. Those words resonated with me, because sometimes there is a sense that photographs are not of value unless you have been paid to take them. Instead of being frustrated by the devaluation in the currency of photography as an industry, I look at photographs such as Colin’s and remember that first and foremost, it is an art-form, not a business, and that those images should not be held in any less esteem just because they were taken for the love of expressing yourself, and recording the world as you see it, through the camera.

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Colin captured ordinary life, such as a young family window shopping

Rickman and Bowie were both Londoners, born in 1946 and 1947 respectively. Although neither grew up in the East End, I like to think that many of the photographs that Colin took captured what they too would have experienced – from its bomb-scarred cityscapes, to the fashions and ‘props’ of that post-war London stage. Which is why Colin’s photographs are extra precious. Because it is by recording the everyday present that we are better able to know our own culture, our people and ultimately our country’s heritage. Fortunately Colin did this beautifully and, like Bowie’s songs, his images will live on and continue to enchant, entertain and educate us. I’m as grateful for that as I am grateful that Bowie didn’t transport “Life on Earth” up to heaven with him.

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In Time of the Breaking of Nations

It is still less than a week since the British referendum result. And yet it feels much longer. So much has happened since then that I can’t a recall a time in British history so tumultuous. I feel that we will look back asking not “What were you doing when Brexit occurred?” but rather “Which way did you vote?” For I cannot think of anything that has divided our nation so much – not only geographically; even within the Conservative and Labour parties there have been divisions so great that staunch Labour supporters have found themselves on the same side as the leader of the Conservative party. And now both of our main parties are at war, as the nation itself is, with themselves.

To get some sense of inner peace amongst the chaos and drama I went on a couple of walks – first on the day that the results came out and again yesterday. Both were typical British summer days – not particularly hot, but not unpleasant either. There was a break from the usual rainy days that we have been subjected to recently (as if the weather itself had echoed the bitter tears of half the population) and I was at least able to benefit from the lush, verdant beauty of early summer.

I walked through some of the greenest areas of London, and also in some pretty affluent streets (which I couldn’t help thinking up new names for – “Lucky Bastards Avenue” and “Fat Cat Alley” sprang to mind). As I ambled the hymn ‘Jerusalem’ kept playing in my mind, particularly the line “England’s Green and Pleasant Land”. I remembered how I had not been allowed to include this hymn at my wedding ceremony because the priest considered it too jingoistic. I was a bit annoyed at the time, but now I was starting to wonder if he had a point. After all it is based on a Blake poem suggesting that our land was so magnificent that Jesus must have walked on it.

Maybe Brexit is just about us getting a bit ahead of ourselves with our collective opinion of how great this country actually is. How we conveniently forget minor reality checks like the fact that our national football team this week could not even beat a country with a population smaller than most of our cities when called upon to do so. Maybe if we took ‘Great’ out of our name, banned Jerusalem from ever being sung again, and had a slightly less trumped up flag, then it would help us to have a more balanced view?

Because the problem is that even I, who felt physically sick when I heard the referendum result and cried angry tears that this could have happened, couldn’t help feeling a little bit comforted when I walked my city’s historic streets and parks and took in their beauty. And I knew that, however much the aggrieved 48% have threatened to revolt, in reality we will probably gradually accept the change and comfort ourselves by grumbling about it and telling everyone “Don’t say we didn’t warn you!”

Something else that came to my mind during my ambles was the Thomas Hardy poem ‘In Time of the Breaking of Nations’, written at the start of World War I. Hardy’s poem depicts how life goes on the same in England, in spite of the carnage taking place across the channel. The land is still farmed; people still fall in love. The poem was written in response to a request from the government to Hardy to comfort and reassure people. Conjuring it up now doesn’t comfort me; it reinforces my gut fear that we will not take a stance against tumultuous changes like Brexit when we have newspapers to misinform and mould us; and football tournaments and Facebook posts to distract us from the bigger picture.

I did not mourn our departure from the European Cup. I was glad. Because I wanted some of those who voted for England’s much bigger exit to share some of my pain, if only for a fleeting moment. And I wanted them to be reminded that we are not that great a nation anymore, just like we have not won a major football tournament in fifty years.  We haven’t found a winning team and we haven’t been fixed. We’re just a confused, deflated and divided country, wondering who our next leader will be and what our next ill-conceived tactic will be to try to restore those glory days we misguidedly think we deserve.

Here is Hardy’s poem:

In Time of the Breaking of Nations

Only a man harrowing clods

In a slow silent walk

With an old horse that stumbles and nods

Half asleep as they stalk.

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Only thin smoke without flame

From the heaps of couch-grass;

Yet this will go onward the same

Though Dynasties pass.

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Yonder a maid and her wight

Come whispering by:

War’s annals will cloud into night

Ere their story die.

Nice to Know You

It’s virtually impossible to do a blog post on Nice in France without some kind of pun in the title! And in truth I have been getting to know Nice, in spite of the somewhat inclement weather.

My first day was one of those hazy, muggy, dreary, drizzly days. Not with the dramatic kind of rain that suddenly gives way to bright sunshine offset against black skies and maybe even a rainbow for good measure, like a ‘forgive me’ card for having been a bit mean. No, the only pleasure I enjoyed was that lovely essence of damp honeysuckle and roses. Which is great, but unfortunately not something you can photograph! So my late morning traverse up the hillside to look down on the bay – which sounds more interesting than it actually was as it mostly involved just crossing from one side of the windy road to the other, dodging cars careering around the corners – resulted in something so ‘blah’ that I didn’t even bother getting the camera out.

After lunch I decided to give it another shot – at sea level – by walking to the old town and port. My guidebook warned me this would take around an hour, but I had a cunning plan. I would hire one of the ‘Velo Bleu’ bikes from their starting blocks by the sea. This was a bold move by me as I’m a bit nervous about the (so-called) ‘Boris bikes’  back home, but I told myself this would be so easy in comparison – the terrain was flat and I couldn’t possibly get lost when all I had to do was keep the sea to my right. So, I registered my bank card, got my bike and was good to go.

Except now it was raining! But that didn’t matter – a little rain wouldn’t hurt me. Well, actually it could, because I saw not one but two people come a cropper by skidding on the wet surface. I hadn’t realised I was partaking in a dangerous sport….But somehow I made it to the port in one piece and was now ready to lose the bike so that I could explore the old town. I was even feeling very smug because this had all been achieved in less than half an hour, which meant my journey was gratis. Well it would have been, except I couldn’t get the docking screen to switch on to register the bike being returned and lock the bike. I tried every free docking slot but to no avail. So, I had no choice but to get back in the saddle and try another dock – except that didn’t work either. Or the next one. By this point I was practically back to where I started from and wondering just what it was I was getting so terribly wrong. Eventually I swallowed my pride and phoned the help number, and was informed that the docks don’t generally work when it’s raining, only on sunny days! As if I wasn’t being punished enough by the weather, it wouldn’t even let me ride a bleeding bike!

I could see that the woman on the end of the phone was trying to get rid of me because firstly I was a problem she couldn’t resolve and secondly she was tired of trying to give me instructions in her broken English. So, when I saw another person crazy enough to hire one of the bikes I chased him down and asked him how I was supposed to return mine. “Come with me” I’ll take you to a dock that works” he beckoned. And so we peddled together through the old town of Nice and I began thinking how this would be a great start to a romantic novel, until I was rudely interrupted by him swearing upon our arrival at the chosen docking station: “Merde! These aren’t working either!” He then went on to instruct me to just lock it up, note the number and write to them, before disappearing into the drizzle.

So, my bleeding bleu bike was unceremoniously abandoned and my bank card is depleting with every hour because there seems to be no means of writing to them (the form doesn’t work, nor do the texts and there is no email address).

Apart from that hanging over me, things got better the next day when the blue bike was replaced with blue skies. So I promenaded along the sea front, climbed a hill to a park for some great views and revisited the port and the old town on foot. I also had a rendezvous with my French partner who just happened to be passing through Nice on route to the Cannes film festival, where I join him tomorrow. Well you can’t be in France without enjoying a bit of French romance!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rock Star

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This photo was taken at a car boot sale in Spitalfields, East London. I don’t know if the Rock Star jacket was placed there deliberately because it so aptly matched the colour scheme of the graffiti backdrop, or if it was just a happy coincidence. But it somehow makes the car seem almost unnoticeable, and the whole scene just feels complete, like the jacket is part of the street art and not a random addition. I love serendipity like that.

Spotted in the streets of Kathmandu

Looking back at the photos I took in Kathmandu, it’s incredible how prominent the big soft drink companies are – in particular Coca Cola and Pepsi. Much more so than in India where the country’s own drinks such as Thumbs Up still rule. I wonder how many of the people can actually afford to drink these expensive foreign drinks and whether it’s more a case of getting their buildings painted for free if they let the companies use them as a kind of billboard.

Meetings and greetings in Madhya Pradesh

 

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Regular followers of my blog will know that I was fortunate enough to stay in a remote village in Madhya Pradesh during my time in India last year. It was one of the most peaceful times of my life – calmer even than being out at sea on a sailboat. I loved waking up early and going for strolls in the first light when the air was still blessedly fresh and cool. Fortunately everyone else had the same idea, and the local folks were happy to stop and chat (or smile when my limited Hindi ran dry) on their way back from the village pump or on their way to work in the fields. Often they would happily let me photograph them too.

The oxymoron is that I seemingly witnessed joy and poverty in equal measures each day on my walks. I’m not saying that these people are happy because they are poor, but maybe they don’t yearn for things that they have never known. When I witnessed the sense of peace and contentment all around me I felt sure that an influx of material goods would not make them any happier. But that doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be able to move away from subsistence living – for none of the children to have swollen bellies, wear tattered rags or peer at me through infected eyes. And maybe having electricity to run a fan and keep themselves cool during the intense summer heat or light a bulb or two once the sun went down would not spoil their lovely, kind, generous natures either.

But unfortunately it often seems to be all or nothing in India. And so these folks will keep getting by – with that shrug of acceptance bordering on cheerfulness – in spite of their daily struggles, because of that inner calm within that seems to stem from their beautiful surroundings, family, and the close-knit community that they live in.

Columbia Road people – and pets

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As promised, here are my people photographs taken at Columbia Road on Sunday morning, with the occasional dog thrown in for good measure. There is a slight nod to two very different street photographers – Martin Parr and Vivian Maier – in them, especially in the final two pictures (no prizes for guessing who features in the last one!)  I think the photo of the lady smiling with the flowers looks slightly out of place amongst all the other more somber pictures, but I included it because of the contrast with the homeless guy in the background looking on rather dejectedly. And yes he is the same guy featured in two other pictures. I don’t think he was having a very good day so he moved around a lot.

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Colours of Columbia Road

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On Sunday I organised a photography excursion for my female photography group to Columbia Road flower market. This is such a great location for photos because not only do you get to see the flowers of course, but also so many interesting people – from the die hard Eastenders to the ‘hipsters’ that have invaded this part of town and of course people flock from all over the world. Then there are the buskers and the cools cafes and the lovely shops selling handmade or vintage produce.

With all this around me, naturally I made sure I found time to whip out my own camera! I’ll share some photos here this week, including some people posts and more flower pictures. But first I wouldn’t to give you an idea of the vibrancy of the market, even on an overcast Sunday morning with a whiff of autumn in the are

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South Bank scene

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I love photos with lots going on in them – especially if they are happy pictures. This photograph was taken at my favourite haunt, the fountains on the South Bank, while I was waiting to see a play at the National Theatre. My theatre experience was aborted early due to what turned out to be a false alarm back home (literally – my carbon monoxide alarm went off because the batteries needed changing). But the evening wasn’t in vain as I got some good pictures of people frolicking in that lovely early evening summer light.

I love watching the families playing at the South Bank water fountain – it’s so great to see free entertainment in London that provides so much joy. Maybe one of these days I’ll don my bikini and join them!

The woman in all of us?

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I love pictures that tell a story. In fact in my opinion all pictures should tell a story. In this photograph, taken in Margate, I like the way we have three totally different types of women represented. First we have the sexy, sassy young thing in her pretty summer frock; further along the road there’s the artistic and quirky lady dressed up like Rosie the Riveter.  Both are obviously very conscious of their respective styles and seemingly still making adjustments, just to be sure that they are looking their best in their individual ways.

Finally, on the sidelines and almost blending into the mundane backdrop of cardboard boxes, stands another female who seems to be standing quite defiantly and looking on rather disapprovingly (or possibly dejectedly) in her ‘uniform’ of sensible shoes and comfortable clothes.

I wonder which of these figures my female followers can most relate to. Or maybe there is a touch of all three in each one of us – the desire to be feminine; to be a bit of an exhibitionist, or sometimes to just be plain comfortable?

Pretty in Pink

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It can be annoying whenever the school holidays came around and all those tourists swell London in even greater numbers than the norm. Right now the South Bank is swamped – it took me five minutes just to get onto the steps for Tower Bridge yesterday, such was the sea of people. This year the crowds seem even more dense – which is shouldn’t be surprising as London has recently been declared the world’s most visited city and as I happen to live in one of the top tourist places within said-city.

 But the funny thing is that it used to bother me but not anymore. I don’t know if it’s because my photographer’s eye has developed, or because the sunshine is having a calming effect on me, but I just see one photo opportunity after another.

I love the fact that the tourists look so different to the Londoners – whether they have come from just a few miles away or from across the world, they just stand out as not being one of us. They bring a sense of innocence and charm with them, as if they are slightly bewildered by this big city and overwhelmed by it, but in a positive way. (Because, let’s face it – London is an amazing city!) I particularly enjoy seeing the children in their colourful summer clothes and funky sunglasses – if they happen to be clutching an ice cream I’m in heaven!

I found the sight of this little girl pointing to her choice at the ‘SNOG’ frozen yogurt bus rather endearing. At first I was frustrated that her presumed mother was standing so close and I couldn’t crop her out. But then looking back at the photo I realized that she added something to the scene – a motherly protection perhaps, and maybe a subtle prediction of what the future holds if this little girl enjoys too many frozen delights!

 

The Pied Piper

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Coming back from a photography exhibition in central London I saw an interesting scene on the South Bank. There was a musician playing the clarinet (I think!) accompanied by a couple of kids with some little hand-bell instruments (I’m not very good with musical technical terms so bear with me!) I wondered at first if this was some family affair – if so the kids were really enjoying their job because they were grinning from ear to ear. But then he handed another little bell set to another kid, who joined in, and then a lady who also joined the assemblage. Then he started playing another tune – a lively 1920s song I guess because the lady started dancing the Charlston to it.

I realised that this was a very inclusive musician who not only played fun, quirky songs but wanted us all to join him in the act. It was an absolute pleasure to observe how he brought random strangers together through his music and how keen so many people were to let their hair down and enjoy the party, as if it was an opportunity they’d be yearning for but hadn’t realised it.

I hope to see him many more times in my patch, and I’d love to give him a plug if anyone knows who he is! (I should have asked I guess but I just didn’t want to interrupt the fun!) Until then I’ll think of him as the Pied Piper of the South Bank.

 

The tweeter

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I saw another documentary about Vivian Maier last night – which I highly recommend for anyone else who is as entranced by her work as I am: http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b0366jd5/imagine-summer-2013-1-vivian-maier-who-took-nannys-pictures

I feel sure that if Vivian had been walking along London’s South Bank the evening before, as I was, and had stumbled across this unexpected hospital scene by the river, she would have wanted to capture it too. The lady, who just happened to be in vintage dress, was engrossed in her phone. But she looked up for a fraction of a second; and so I stole the moment. I like to think that Vivian was cheering from the sidelines.

 

Not just for rainy days

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There’s a secret courtyard a few minutes from my home, just by the wonderful gastronomic delight that is Borough Market. As you can see, the place is adorned with the most beautiful array of suspended umbrellas. It is such a stupendous burst of colour that the display looks great even on the dullest of days (in fact you get the bonus of great reflection photos from the puddles when it rains). But on bright sunny days such as the ones that London is currently being blessed with, these candy coloured umbrellas really get to shine. How can anyone feel low when standing under something as delightfully cheery as this rainbow of sunshine?

An homage to Vivian Maier

DSCF4667 2Yesterday I finally got to see the documentary ‘Finding Vivian Maier” I was covered in goosebumps for practically the entire duration of the film. It is a fantastical story about an incredibly secretive Chicago nanny in the 1950s who took photos, most of which were never even printed, but whose images are some of the most powerful, moving examples of street photography that I have ever seen. She had such empathy with her subjects – the joy, the misery, the poverty. She may have been a reclusive outsider but she had such a feeling for humanity, that finally was able to be revealed in the dark room, coincidentally so soon after her death.

I walked home in a trance, so excited that street photography could be so beautiful, and so appreciated. If I needed another spur to keep doing what I am doing with my own street photography, then this was it. This is one of the photos I took last night in that drunken haze of admiration and inspiration.

Thank you Vivian Maier. I’m sorry I never met you, but I will always feel like I knew you, through the legacy of your work, and  as a friend who felt compelled to do what I too feel driven to do – to capture all facets of street life in through the lens.