A big Send-Offf…

Those of you who missed Thursday evening’ celebration of the life of Colin O’Brien can get some idea of the event from a short film made at the event by Sebastian Sharples and featured on the Spitalfields Life site.

Colin was a good photographer with an exceptionally long career who began taking photographs about the time most of us learn to read, and a acquired a Leica which an uncle found in the back of his taxi as a teenager. His early pictures are an intimate record of working class life in London in the immediate postwar period, for me a reminder of growing up in a similar age in a rather less interesting area of outer London.

I think most if not all who met him remember him as an extremely generous man, and the event reflected this. It was interesting to listen to two of his boyhood friends talk about him and their lifelong friendship, and to see some of his better images projected both on a small screen in the church and a larger area of wall in the crypt afterwards, where we ate excellent pork pies and eccles cakes with some rather fine cheese and oranges and toasted his memory with wine, beer or blackcurrant cordial.

The blackcurrants had come from his last assignment with Spitalfields Life, when together with ‘The Gentle Author’ and a coachful of EastEnders they went to glean in the previously machine-harvested blackcurrant fields of Tudeley, and the cordial was served in bottles decorated with some of the images he took. We got the story of this told during the celebration, and how a rather unsatisfying trip to the pub by the two of them had resulted in them being diverted by the church and finding its unique windows by Marc Chagall.

I was a little surprised when I first read this to find the windows came as a surprise and wondered if this was merely a little fictional embellishment. I’d heard about them but never visited, though my wife had seen them when she was taken to hear a concert in the church. But putting ‘Tudely’ into Google (surely the kind of research everyone now does before visiting a new place?) immediately brings them up.

It wasn’t one of Colin’s best assignments – and he was a man whose best photography came from his own wanderings rather than on assignment, though there are some good pictures of people in the many time he photographed for Spitalfields Life. We were reminded of this in a film shown in the ceremony and in what seemed a very fitting and generous gesture as we left the church, where everyone was handed a paper bag containing a couple of envelopes of pictures of his work and the fine book which resulted from wandering around London Fields where he came across a group of traveller children, returning on several occasions to photograph them. It’s a book I already have a signed copy of, but one of my friends who was unable to attend will benefit from.

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