Frozen canal_Colin O'Brien
Touch of frost: Regent’s Canal freezes over. Photograph: Colin O’Brien

Photographer Colin O’Brien’s book London Life may appear at first glance a series of beautiful yet somewhat random photographs, but is in fact a narrative of London and his own life.

The book begins in Little Italy, Clerkenwell, where O’Brien grew up. The early photographs are box camera negatives that O’Brien came upon by chance when clearing out his house. Looking at a photograph of two friends leaning against a car in Hatton Gardens in 1948, O’Brien says: “I love the way they’re posing. They were Italian, very confident and very cheeky.”

O’Brien’s early photographs show an interesting contrast of tenderness and violence. On one page, a girl is being taken to a birthday party in her new dress on Clerkenwell Road; on another, we see a car accident on the junction of the very same road.

There is a sense of loss in O’Brien’s photographs. He says: “I took lots of pictures of ‘last things’: the last tram, the last trolley bus, the last day of Woolworths, the last day of smoking in parks.”

Horse and cart in Hackney
Horse and cart in Hackney

Looking at pictures of Westminster Bridge and Trafalgar Square in 1954, O’Brien notices that even the light has changed. The air back then was dirty: “I remember going to the cinema and getting our money back because we couldn’t see the screen.”

It is not just the faces that are changing, but also the very nature of photography in the city. In the first half of the book, the photographs seem lonelier, the city more vast. In the 70s, however, the photographs are more populated with people and cars.

Hackney-Downs demolished flats _Colin O'Brien 620
Flattened: High-rise flats are demolished at Hackney Downs. Photograph: Colin O’Brien

Every photograph has its own personal story. O’Brien turns to a photograph of Jim’s Café, on Chatsworth Road, taken in 2008. The proprietor is standing in the doorway.

“I took his picture, went back a month later with the pictures and his wife started crying and said he died last week. I said do you want the pictures and she said if she wanted them, she’d get in touch. She never got back.”

London Life is a wonderful celebration of the city, of people together and of tragedy. “I just take what’s in front of me,” O’Brien says, and it is this openness to experience that has taken O’Brien from the Victorian dwellings of his youth, and made him the London photographer that we know today.

London Life is published by Spitalfields Life. RRP: £25.00. ISBN: 9780957656956.

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