Colin O’Brien: 1940 – 2016

By Yousif Farah

Following the unexpected death of acclaimed street photographer Colin O’Brien, the organisers of ‘London Life’ have decided to take down the exhibition in Dalston earlier than scheduled, as a mark of respect.

O’Brien has left behind an unerasable legacy. The exhibition, at the Print House Gallery, includes examples of over 4,000 photographs from a career that spanned over 65 years, but only a few square miles. Born and bred in Clerkenwell O’Brien’s photographs describe a different Clerkenwell to the newly developed one we are familiar with today, which O’Brien says was a “run down district”.

O’Brien discovered his passion for photography one Christmas when his uncle taught him how to develop and print film. Shortly after he acquired a Leica ‘box brownie’ 1931 camera gifted to him by a neighbour who worked as a chauffeur and who has discovered the camera left behind by a wealthy client, he then started taking photographs.

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O’Brien’s first ever attempt at photography – Italian Boys – Hutton Garden 1948

Around the same time when the first Polaroid instant camera was introduced in 1948, aged 8 O’Brien took his first photograph of two Italian boys leaning against a car in Hatton Garden. At the time Clerkenwell was populated by a large number of Italians and the area was known as Little Italy.

Since that day O’Brien has never been separated from his camera, taking pictures from his apartment’s window in Victoria Dwelling Estate, overlooking Farringdon and Clerkenwell junction, as well as roaming the street searching for the perfect moment to capture.

“I think the taking of photographs teaches you lots about the people and the surroundings you grow up in. The thing about being poor is that everyone helps everyone else, not necessarily financially, but in many other ways.

“It was this behaviour that fascinated me, made me observe people more closely. The process of looking has, over time, enabled me to capture the commonplace events which might otherwise have gone unnoticed.”

A fatal accident at Farringdon/ Clerkenwell Junction which O’Brien captured through his window - 1962

A fatal accident at Farringdon/ Clerkenwell Junction which O’Brien captured through his window – 1962

During his career O’Brien has managed to capture many iconic and priceless moments in London’s history many of which have been included in the exhibition, others in his book including the day Churchill died, the day restrictions were lifted on buying unlimited sweets after World War II and the last day before the smoking ban came into force.

Colin was first given public recognition when he entered a photography competition in the Evening Standard in 1972, with a stunning photo of St. Paul’s Cathedral being struck by lightning. To O’Brien’s disbelief he won the competition and was published for the first time. He later took part in another competition run by the Evening Standard, entered under a friend’s name, and to his surprise won again.

O’Brien has his first picture published - 1972

O’Brien has his first picture published – 1972

These were a few of the many stories which Colin shared during an intimate gathering following the private view earlier this month. Time passed quickly listening to O’Brien’s eloquent and inspirational stories of how London has changed since he started taking photographs.

Remembering Colin, Phil Maxwell, close friend and fellow photographer said:

“I was grateful to Colin for his reliable ability to put people at their ease, his extraordinary stamina and resilient good humour, but most of all I feel privileged to have collaborated with such an inspirational talent. My admiration for Colin’s genius only increased over time.

“The sheer volume of his work between 1948 and 2016 is monumental – I believe his achievement in photography is unique and incomparable, and I know he was one of the great masters of our time”

Colin used to jokingly say that while Don McCullin photographed war and David Bailey concentrated on the rich and famous, he stayed at home and turned his lens on the everyday lives of his ordinary fellow Londoners.

To see more of O’Brien photographs visit his website, or to see his work in print visit Spitalfield Life.

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