Like a still from a post-war B Movie, two pals are captured posing for the camera against a now vintage car. The setting is Clerkenwell long before it became the epitome of inner city chic and behind the lens is eight-year-old Colin O’Brien, who would go on to become a widely exhibited photographer.
Sixty odd years later, Colin came across the negative of Raymond Scalionne and Joe Bucuzzi from his overflowing archive and featured them in a retrospective of work to mark the start of a career that began with a humble box camera in 1948.
“Box cameras were inexpensive and lots of people had them at the time – I must have found it lying around the house and I started to take it out with me,” he recalls.
“I soon became fascinated that you could record something and that it would always be there. When I discovered this particular negative it was lovely to see what I produced all those years ago. I don’t know what happened to the boys but they were my friends and I remembered their names immediately.”
Colin grew up in the part of Clerkenwell known as Little Italy, then a lively if poor part of central London, and his early photographs affectionately evoke the neighbourly warmth of Victoria Dwellings, the rundown tenement block he lived in, and the allure of the semi-derelict streets and alleys that were his playground.
“It was a great place to grow up in with a large Italian community and a lot of Irish, a volatile mix that seemed to work,” reminisces Colin. “No one had very much money but it felt very safe. People really did look out for one another.”
Gifted with a natural eye for photography, which saw the young Colin consciously composing shots, he also possessed an outgoing personality eager to engage with the world and its people. It is a quality shines through his work in which the ordinary becomes extraordinary to form a unique social document of London life, appropriately the book’s title.
Thanks to a developing kit given to him by one of his uncles, his interest in photography deepened. Another uncle used to bring him home copies of Picture Post. “I would look at the photographs and think, ‘So that’s what you can do with a camera’.”
When he was 14 his mum and dad gave him Leica. “It was the Rolls Royce of cameras and had a brilliant lens. My parents were honest but like a lot of people got things off a back of a lorry and this was one of them.”
Now able to take more sophisticated images, Colin often used his top floor flat as his “window to the world”, photographing the near deserted streets from on high as well as the frequent car crashes that took place at the junction of Farringdon and Clerkenwell roads due, not to traffic, for there was hardly any, but to faulty traffic lights all turning green at the same time.
At ground level , there are shots of a Carmelite nun sweeping the pavement outside St Peter’s Italian Church, and people peering through the window of Solman’s second hand furniture shop, where, Colin remembers, even the bargains were too expensive for most of the locals. Busy Woolworth’s in Exmouth Market, though, looks every bit the Poundland of its day.
These days Clerkenwell is much changed. Little Italy is one for the history books, former industrial buildings have been converted into loft apartments and trendy office spaces, and Victoria Dwellings is long gone. A cavernous Pret a Manger cafe marks the spot where it once stood. It is yet another example of the changing face of London that Colin has spent a lifetime recording, generating more than 30 critically acclaimed exhibitions.
Now living in Hackney, he nevertheless looks back on his Clerkenwell years with great fondness. “It is just about recognisable as the place I grew up in and l always feel very much at home when I go back,” he says. “Those early days were the important days in which I managed to capture my childhood world – they shaped the person I am now.”
London Life by Colin O’Brien is published by Spitalfieds Life Books, price £25.
This article was first published in the Camden New Journal on September 25, 2015