Documentary, Exhibitions, Interviews

London Life: Colin O’Brien’s reflections on a changing city

All images London Life © Colin O'Brien

Over decades, Colin O'Brien has documented the rapid shifts his native city has undergone

Hackney-based Colin O’Brien has carved out of a reputation as one of the most important photographers documenting life in the capital. The steady buzz around his work continues to grow with the release of his latest book, London Life, published by Spitalfields Life Books, and his new exhibition at the new Leica Store City gallery based at The Royal Exchange, London.

Now in his mid 70s, he is a delight to interview – witty, pithy and passionate. Over a coffee, O’Brien reflects upon a career in photography that started when he was eight, taking pictures of his friends playing together on the bomb sites of postwar London. Over decades O’Brien has built up a vast archive of images, so it is perhaps unsurprising that anyone viewing his work becomes acutely conscious of the changing face of life in the city he records.

 

Mrs Leinweber, Victoria Dwellings, 1959

Mrs Leinweber, Victoria Dwellings, 1959

 

These days Hackney itself seems to be a metaphor for constant urban renewal, something O’Brien is all too aware of. “When we first moved to Hackney [in the early 1980s], a lot of people asked why on earth we would go there. We moved there to be near my mother, who was very ill. She was living in Islington, but we couldn’t afford to live there so the next nearest place was Hackney.”

O’Brien’s route into photography differed greatly from the young, aspiring shooters populating parts of Hackney today. “There was no real artistic backup in the family. I already had a box camera – it was just lying there and I just started photographing my mates. There were two things that got me into it: one of my uncles, Patsy, worked in the print and he used to bring magazines home. One of those magazines was Picture Post and I used to love looking through it. So that might have been some sort of early motivation that got me taking photographs of my surroundings. Being stimulated by the pictures of Bill Brandt and Bert Hardy isn’t a bad start.

 

Italian Boys, Hutton Garden, London, 1948. O’Brien took this picture of his two Italian friends with his family’s old brownie box camera in Clerkenwell

Italian Boys, Hutton Garden, London, 1948. O’Brien took this picture of his two Italian friends with his family’s old brownie box camera in Clerkenwell

 

“Then another uncle – Will, a black cab driver – arrived one Christmas with a little contact printing outfit. Contact printing involves a technique where you don’t need a proper darkroom, because the paper is not that sensitive. He just mixed up these chemicals – he obviously knew something about it. We put one of the box camera pictures in a small wooden printing frame, held it up to the light for about 10 minutes and then we processed it and I saw this image coming through in the developer.

 

Trying on Hats, Bourne & Hollingsworth, Oxford Street, late 1950s

Trying on Hats, Bourne & Hollingsworth, Oxford Street, late 1950s

 

Trying on Hats, Bourne & Hollingsworth, Oxford Street, late 1950s (the model is O'Brien's mother)

Trying on Hats, Bourne & Hollingsworth, Oxford Street, late 1950s
(the model is O’Brien’s mother)

 

“To cap it all, my parents knew this chauffeur who found a Leica in the back of his car one day and they bought it for me. It was a 111A made in 1936, a lovely little camera with a 3.5 Elmar lens. I’ve still got it, and after I gave a talk recently at Leica headquarters in Mayfair they said they would repair it for me. It will be good to start using it again.

“So from the box camera to the Leica, an amazing leap in quality, I realised that there was more to photography than just taking pictures of my friends and family – although many of my favourite pictures are of friends and family. Beyond that, people began to tell me they liked my work so I began to take it more seriously.”

 

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