​colin o’brien snapped 70 years of london’s street history

News stands announcing the death of Princess Diana, black schoolgirls in Wandsworth and kids from traveller communities; Colin O’Brien’s photography paints a vibrant people’s history of London.

02 July 2015, 4:20pm

Colin O'Brien has been capturing the drama and diversity of London's streets for almost 70 years. From buildings being blown-up and three-wheeled cars falling over, to kids playing in the post-war rubble and iconic London landmarks, O'Brien's lens has omnivorously devoured them all.

Though his family were not rich, they managed to buy Colin a Kodak Box Brownie camera in 1948, when he was just eight years old; graduating to a Leica 111a with a f3.5 Elmar lens at the age of 14. With these cameras, he captured his neighbourhood in Little Italy (as Clerkenwell was known) in the post-war period and kept snapping away as immigration brought different cultures to the city and new communities formed.

As a new book, titled London Life, and an accompanying exhibition at the Society Club present O'Brien's remarkable street history, we catch up with the photographer to talk multiculturalism, fighting back against the property developers and snapping the occasional selfie.

Your family were not rich, but you had cameras from a very young age. Was it important for you to have that creative outlet?
I suppose I must have had some sort of creative urge to document the way I lived and the people, and the neighbourhood I grew up in, although I am sure I was not really aware of it at the time. My parents were not very well off and I have never been sure how they managed to buy the Leica for me, but I was so glad that they did as it started me off on my career in photography.

Your parents lived in Clerkenwell, called Little Italy because of the Italian immigrants. How do you think immigration has added to the culture of the capital?
London is one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world. In the early days, when I was growing up, it was pie and mash and fish and chips on the culinary menu whereas today it can be almost any type and variety of food you may wish to eat. I remember the Italian restaurants and cafes in Little Italy. About the only other cultural activity we indulged in was a seat at the cinema which transported us to riches and glamour that we could only dream of.

London today has the most amazing and exciting atmosphere with its mix of multicultural communities, religion and art. There is so much to do that it almost becomes overwhelming. I love the variety and rich mix we have today in the capital. Present-day London is very different to the one I grew up in and I am sure it will continue to evolve and change as time moves on.

What are the biggest changes in London since you started documenting the city; both good and bad?
London today is much busier than it was when I was growing up. There were less people and fewer cars. Everything was rationed during and after the war, including petrol and - more importantly to me, as a child - sweets. The city was drab and the buildings and monuments dirty with the grime of war. There were few jobs and most people, certainly the ones I grew up with, were very poor. When I look back at those pictures I took all those years ago, I notice how much softer the light seems. There were many chimneys belching out smoke from solid fuel fires and most power stations burnt coal. The atmosphere was much smokier thus diffusing the light. London of course used to frequently have fogs and even worse smog which was a mixture of fog and smoke and often brought the city to a standstill.

Today the buildings look much cleaner and areas such as Clerkenwell which were once run down and squalid are now full of multi-million pound houses and ultra-expensive loft apartments.

How do you feel about the development of areas of London with rich, cultural heritages?
I think it is very sad when the old has to make way for the new. Obviously there has to be change, but to knock down buildings that have stood the test of time and in some cases destroy whole neighbourhoods in order to build glass boxes used for office space, which in turn become worn out and obsolete in a very short space of time, is not a good way of improving our environment. Mostly these developments are a short term fix that enable speculators to get rich whatever damage they do to local communities.

In the information provided about the book, it says "now more than ever we need to cherish our shared history" - why is that?
I think it is extremely important to preserve what we have left of our history. So often re-development projects are carried out unsympathetically without any thought or sensitivity. There seems to be so many more large developments that are gradually whittling away at the historical buildings and artifacts that get in their way. We have to be aware and be ready to oppose and fight for the little we have left, especially in the inner city areas of our towns and cities. If we don't preserve what we have, then it is up to us to explain to our children and future generations why we allowed whole neighbourhoods and communities to be destroyed. We must complain and object and canvass and sign petitions. It is much easier to do nothing than something, so much easier not to get involved but it is essential that we do.

What do you think about people documenting their lives on camera phones and social media now?
I think social media is an important part of people's lives nowadays; so why not live out part of our life taking pictures of what surrounds us or recording our friends and children and sharing these images with others. I think it is important that it doesn't become an obsession to the extent that it interferes with our everyday existence.

The problem is that these digital memories will get harder to store and preserve as technology advances. Old negatives are still printable today all these years after the invention of photography but I am not so sure that digital files will survive as the technology and the equipment we use becomes obsolete.

What do you think of the phenomenon of "selfies"?
I find it quite amusing and sometimes sad. I am working on a project at the moment in the west end of London and have observed the tourists in Piccadilly Circus around Eros taking photographs of themselves and their friends with their extending selfie sticks. What I do is photograph them photographing themselves. I feel rather sad when it is just one person maybe on holiday alone and having to use a selfie stick to record their trip. I just wish they were able to share with a friend or companion.

How do you feel about street photography now being celebrated around the world as an important record of people's history and culture?
I feel very happy that street photography is being celebrated around the world. What it means is that we are making an important historical record of our lives that probably would not have been recorded otherwise. That's not to say that the photography itself is always stunningly good - I think it is mostly the opposite. In the hands of a great photographer street photography can become an art form of the highest order. The trick is to select from the vast mass of visual information that bombards us all the time and isolate that, at precisely the "decisive moment", as Cartier-Bresson said.

How does it feel to have your work presented in a book and an exhibition?
I am very pleased and very proud to have my work published in a book. The book is dedicated to my parents and the pictures tell the story of my growing up in a poor part of London where life was hard and work was scarce and a whole generation had been affected by a war. The book is my history and that of my friends and relations captured by me, with whatever camera I could lay my hands on at the time.

I also enjoy the buzz of exhibiting the work. The large images showing at the Society Club in Soho were blown up from small 35mm negatives and they look spectacular. The act of seeing an actual image rather than a reproduction in a book is an altogether different experience.

The London Life exhibition is at The Society Club until 1 August. The book is published by Spitalfields Life Books.



Text Charlotte Gush
Photography Colin O'Brien