At the age of eight, John Claridge saw a plastic camera in the prizes at an East End funfair and knew he had to have it. In that intuitive moment, a lifelong passion for photography was born. “I did not know why I wanted it,” John confessed to me, “except I wanted to capture everything and take the memories back with me. I already understood that if you have a camera, you can take it all back with you.”
Saving up money from his paper round in the London docks, John bought a serious camera and recorded the world that he knew, capturing the images you see here.
“As a child, from my bedroom window in Plaistow, I could see the lights of the docks at night and I used to go to sleep listening to the sound of the horns on the Thames whenever there was fog, which was quite often. You could smell the river if the wind was blowing in the right direction.
“A lot of the men in my family worked down the docks; my father took me down to the dock gate and on to the wharves. That was my education in wonderment. I went out to see what was going on. I reacted to what was there and, if I saw something, I photographed it. It was instinctive – I never thought I was documenting. I had a need to take pictures. It was as natural as breathing.”
John left school at 15. When he informed West Ham labour exchange of his chosen career, he was sent to the McCann Erickson advertising agency in the West End, where he acquired a job in the photographic department. There he came under the influence of Robert Brownjohn, the legendary art director best remembered for his James Bond title sequences.
As an insider, John was able to take hundreds of candid photographs recording his whole society in the East End, while the version of Bauhaus aesthetic he absorbed from Brownjohn inspired him to produce graphic images that are entirely distinctive. He took possibly more pictures of the East End in the 1960s than any other photographer, and his affectionate, highly personal work is in marked contrast to the more familiar social reportage produced by photographers who were sent on assignment to record deprivation and urban poverty.
“At that time not a lot of people came into the East End from the outside,” John told me. “They thought it was a really dodgy area but it was not.”
In spite of bomb damage and the growing incursion of slum clearances, John’s landscape was a place of wonder and imaginative possibility – characterised by the industrial drama of the docks and the pervasive influence of the Thames. “I used to go to the shops with my mum, and she would meet people she knew and they would be chatting for maybe an hour, while I went off and played on a bomb site. We would go into these shops and markets and they all smelled different.”
One day when John was just 16, Brownjohn said to him: “Kid, you’re gonna have an exhibition whether you like it or not.” The subject of the show, at McCann Erickson, was John’s East End photography, and the response was favourable. A year later, he left the East End for good and at the same time opened his first studio, near St Paul’s Cathedral.
“People say life was hard in the East End but I found the living was easy and I loved it,” John said. “When I was 15, I was interested in motorbikes, girls and photography, though I couldn’t say in what order.”
This article appears in the 26 Jul 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue