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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An homage to Colin O’Brien

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My return to London after my extensive travels will be remembered for two remarkable things – the wonderful sunshine that we have been constantly blessed with since I’ve been back, and for the incredibly talented and inspirational people that I have unintentionally met – including a top war photographer, an award-winning director, an international recording artist and now, just today, another of my heroes of photography!

I stumbled across an exhibition by Colin O’Brien at Chats Palace in Hackney around seven years ago. His evocative black and white photographs from the 50s and 60s moved me and I couldn’t understand why this photographer, who had captured life in London, particularly the East End, so sympathetically and poetically, wasn’t a household name alongside the likes of Jane Bown and Tony Ray-Jones.

I was reminiscing about this exhibition just this morning to my new director acquaintance (one of the new shining stars in my life) and lamenting that I have never seen his work since but would love to share it with him. Later we went for a walk along the South Bank and passed by the prestigious OXO Tower gallery. “It’s him I exclaimed!” Unbelievably, through the gallery glass I could see those same iconic black and white images, like old friends waving at me. Naturally we went in and I headed straight to the desk to tell the man sitting there how coincidentally I had been talking about this photographer that very morning. “I’m flattered” he replied and I realised that I was talking to the very Colin O’Brien whose work had enthralled me so!

I was amazed at how young and vibrant he looked (is that one of the benefits of being a street photographer I wondered….?) and I chatted animatedly with him for several minutes, as if he too was an old friend, until I couldn’t wait any longer to re-visit some of my favourite pictures, including the one that has been etched in my creative mind this past seven years and inspired me through my own comparatively miniscule photography career: http://migrationmuseum.org/output/exhibition/100-images-of-migration/1-girl-balloon/

During our conversation I told Colin how incredulous I was that he wasn’t more recognised. In response he gently pointed out that he had actually enjoyed 33 exhibitions in total (so the underscore was that he wasn’t actually doing that badly!) I felt a burden lifting from my shoulders and, yet again this summer, it was a reminder from a photography master that our chosen medium isn’t a dying art. There is still a place for it amongst all the dross of happy snaps if you have enough passion and belief in the power of that image taken at just the right time to capture a moment that will ultimately talk to people.

For not the first time this summer I felt uplifted and inspired. It was an incredibly beautiful late afternoon as I made my way home, with a wonderful golden light and lots of interesting characters out and about enjoying some summer Sunday fun. It felt ironic that the person who could capture this in all its glory was stuck behind a desk in a gallery. So, I took some photos for him, including the one featured. I hope Colin likes it a fraction of the amount of how much I love and admire his images of every day life – because for me that is what great photography is all about!

You can see more of Colin’s work here: http://www.colinobrien.co.uk/ and catch his free exhibition at the OXO Tower up until 10th August: http://www.oxotower.co.uk/events/65-colin-obrien/