Obituary – Colin O’Brien

Colin O’Brien. Photograph: Eleonore de Bonneval
Colin O’Brien. Photograph: Eleonore de Bonneval

Colin O’Brien, the celebrated London photographer who chronicled the lives of ordinary people in Hackney and the East End, has died aged 76.

The son of Edward and Edith O’Brien, he was brought up by his working class Irish family in 19th century tenement Victoria Dwellings, Clerkenwell, Islington, during the 1940s. At that time the area of Islington was a thriving “Little Italy” owing to the large number of immigrant families from that part of Europe – at one point, O’Brien was even an altar boy at an Italian church in the area.

In 1966 he and his family were rehoused to the then newly-built Michael Cliffe House, in the Finsbury area, from where he was able to record the post-war rebuilding of the City of London. He would sometimes take his rolls of film down to Fleet Street in person, and his photographs were published by the likes of the Evening Standard.

O’Brien spent the last 30 years of his career photographing Hackney, having moved to the borough in around 1990, but the past five years also saw him taking photos in Tower Hamlets.

A few years before his move to East London he had shot a sequence of photographs of Irish Traveller children in London Fields – a project that was typical of his area of interest; he liked to say that while Don McCullin photographed war and David Bailey concentrated on the rich and famous, he stayed at home and turned his lens on the ordinary, everyday lives of his fellow Londoners.

The Travellers’ Children series was published in 2013 by Spitalfields Life Books and the volume of photographs was followed up by London Life, described as a kind of biography of the capital post-1945. The book documents many changes locally, for example the demolition of high rise flats at Hackney Downs.

O’Brien’s passion for photography came young. Interviewed by the East End Citizen’s sister paper the Hackney Citizen three years ago, he said he had had one favourite toy as a child, a Kodak Brownie Box camera that he had happened upon by chance amid some junk in a house he and his family moved into. Accordingly, his body of work spans the years from 1948 to 2016.

“Colin was an East Ender. The point was that he wanted to photograph everyday life in the area he was from”, said anonymous writer the Gentle Author, a friend of the photographer’s, in conversation with the Hackney Citizen, “The extraordinary thing about him was that he was a prodigy – he started taking photos when he was eight years old and didn’t stop. It’s what makes London Life so unique: no one else has taken photos of the city over such a long period of time. It’s a monumental legacy – in essence, he recorded the rise and fall of the welfare state.”

Friends have described how he continued taking photographs right up until his sudden and unexpected death last Friday.

O’Brien is survived by Jan, his wife of 35 years. There will be a memorial service held for the photographer in the autumn, with details to be confirmed.

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