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London Life: the photographs that capture the changing face of London over seven decades

Over 70 years, Colin O'Brien has recorded change and continuity in the lives of Londoners, creating a social record of breathtaking expanse.

Born in a Victorian tenement in ­Clerkenwell in 1940, when the area was known as “Little Italy” in recognition of the main immigrant community, Colin O’Brien began to take photographs of his family, friends and immediate environment with a box camera at the age of eight. Displaying extraordinary maturity, some of these pictures are reminiscent of Bert Hardy’s photographs of children playing in the street – except that Colin was one of the kids and he was photographing his peers (above).

Intimate images of his mother in the scullery, his father eating breakfast before going to work at the nearby Mount Pleasant sorting office and a neighbour sharing out the shepherd’s pie among the members of her large family: these are the domestic scenes of Colin’s childhood. Drama erupted into this world in the form of multiple car crashes at the junction of Farringdon Road and Clerkenwell Road, which Colin captured from his window in beautiful compositions that prefigure both Weegee and Andy Warhol in proposing traffic accidents as legitimate subjects for photography.

In the 1960s the O’Briens were rehoused in a top-floor flat in Michael Cliffe House, a modernist council block on the eastern fringe of Clerkenwell named after the erstwhile Labour mayor of Finsbury, and the tenement dwellings of Little Italy were demolished. From here, Colin recorded the postwar rebuilding of the City of London and the construction of the Barbican. His longing for dramatic spectacle was satisfied by shots of lighting over St Paul’s Cathedral, which he took down to Fleet Street for publication in the Evening Standard the next day.

As Colin’s experience of London expanded he recorded the transition from the years of austerity to those of plenty. At first, he took affectionate pictures of his mother trying on hats she couldn’t afford in Oxford Street; later he captured enthusiastic customers at the Woolworths pic’n’mix counter in Exmouth Market at the end of sweet rationing. A chance encounter with the playwright Bill Naughton led him to take the photograph for the dust jacket of Alfie, and Naughton subsidised Colin to set up his first photography studio. By now, Colin was recording new waves of immigration, taking glamorous street portraits of black girls posing for his lens and, in later years, Asian children enacting a Nativity procession in Brick Lane. Through redevelopment in the 1980s, the flash of the 1990s and the increasing dominance of corporate culture in the 21st century, Colin kept snapping.

Over seven decades, he has recorded change and continuity in the lives of Londoners, creating a social record of breathtaking expanse. In 2014 he photographed Jasmine Stone, one of the single mothers in New­ham, east London, evicted from a homeless hostel and denied social housing. She occupied an empty council house in protest against the sale of local authority housing to property developers. The picture of Jasmine and her daughter Safia (facing page) is a poignant coda to an unparalleled body of photography, distinguished equally by its aesthetic flair and its human sympathy.

The Gentle Author blogs about London at: spitalfieldslife.com

“London Life” by Colin O’Brien is published by Spitalfields Life (£25)

 

Battersea, 1974

“I came across these children from the prefabs playing on an industrial site and they posed for me in front of the junkyard gates,” the photographer writes.

Corner of Farringdon Road and Clerkenwell Road, 11 June 1962

“I read later that a child died in this accident,” O’Brien writes. “There was a rumour the traffic lights all turned green at once.”

Gerrard Street, Soho, 1987

When O’Brien exhibited the picture, the man in it recognised himself and said that the child was his niece Christine. “Next day, she came along and I took her photograph again, standing next to the earlier shot. By then she was a student, training to be a dentist.”

Battersea Park, 1975

Three generations of the same family sit down for lunch at a café.

Oxford Street, early 1960s

 

O’Brien’s mother and Auntie Beattie try on hats while he takes their picture with his prized Leica – which his parents bought for a “nominal sum” off a chauffeur who claimed he’d found it in the back of his employer’s car. “These sort of deals with expensive merchandise being sold ‘off the back of a lorry’ were not uncommon,” he says.

 

This article appears in the 30 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double