Photo gallery: Sixty years of London through a Hackney lens

Old Dalston Junction Station 1985

Old Dalston Junction Station 1985 - Credit: Archant

From the bombsites of Finsbury to the bistros of Shoreditch, Colin O’Brien has watched London grow for over sixty years through the lens of his trusty camera. His intimate snapshots of ‘ordinary people’ making their way in marketplaces, shops and family kitchens have over the years earned him a reputation as one of Hackney’s most valuable documenters, but a new exhibition is hoping to shed fresh light on his formidable back catalogue.

London Life – O’Brien’s latest collection of photos that capture the ever-changing face of the city – is running at the Hackney Museum until September. Purveying the human sympathy and aesthetic flair that characterise much of the photographer’s work, the exhibit spans covers the span of his long and distinguished career, which began as an eight year old in 1940s Clerkenwell.

“I’m fascinated by recording the passing scene,” says O’Brien. “It wasn’t a conscious thing but growing up I felt very safe. Family were all around us and we used to go out to play on the bombsites.

“My mum and dad, although they loved us dearly, wanted to get rid of us as they had to work hard to try and a living, so they’d tell us to go out but make sure we were back before it was dark. We’d take our sandwiches and bottles of Tyser and run out into the streets and build little camps and be creative.”

Children nowadays, the 74 year old continues, aren’t allowed the same time and freedom to explore their local area. It’s not the only way he thinks youth culture has changed, and since moving to Hackney in 1984 he has noted how scores of budding photographers often impose themselves too much on their subjects.

“I see young art students going around Brick Lane now and there’s no subtlety about it, they’re shoving their cameras up old traders noses and you just think give them a break. You’ve got to be a bit more surreptitious and sometimes, you’ve got to go where it hurts.”

Often, going where it hurts has led to clashes with security guards and building owners protesting to O’Brien’s happy snapping, but as the photographer readily admits: “I just don’t really care.”

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Shot in his favoured medium of black and white film, the exhibition’s photos nonetheless bring to life the colour and minutia of London life everywhere from Battersea to Wandsworth.

In Hackney particularly though, the area’s recent redevelopment has meant that many of the shops and people O’Brien photographed are no longer around.

“The problem is when you live somewhere things evolved very slowly. It’s like looking yourself in the mirror everyday – you don’t really notice yourself getting older. So if you’re living within it, you don’t notice, but the recent change has been dramatic.

“We used to have just rotten takeaways in Chapsworth Road but now we’ve got really upmarket cafes and restaurants and bistros and creperies. It’s amazing how it has changed, maybe to the detriment of old traders who are going to get priced out due to because these people can pay higher prices for the shops than they could and there is a slight resentment about that down the markets.”

Despite his clear and fully-realised talent, O’Brien has always resisted the urge to photograph professionally and insists that the mark of a good photo is more than just capturing a famous face. He did however catch a host of now household names like John Hurt and [] while they were still learning their trade when he spent a period working for Islington’s King’s Head Theatre; furthermore, one of his biggest regrets is turning down the chance to photograph the then-unknown Beatles: “I thought it sounded interesting, but I told them I was just too busy at the time.”

Despite an archive of half a million negatives though, if O’Brien could turn back time, the biggest thing he would do differently is to simply take more photos.

“If you look at any old photographs of me as a kid I was always holding a box camera. Something inside of me wanted to carry that camera about and record what was going on around me.

“I didn’t realise how important it was and looking back now, I just wish I’d taken a damn sight more pictures. One good shot out of two or three rolls of film and I’m euphoric, it’s one more for the archive and feels absolutely brilliant.”

Colin O’Brien’s London Life shows at the Hackney Museum until September 6.

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