Sophie Parkin questions remarkable photographer, John Claridge who was born in Plaistow. His new book East End shows a part of London that we have forgotten but he has not.
How old are you and how old do you feel?
My wife, Janet, sometimes thinks I act like a twelve-year-old, a little harsh I think, maybe fifteen? Okay, okay 71.
How old were you when you started taking pictures?
About eight. I guess it started when my Dad asked me why I wanted to win a plastic camera at the fair on Wanstead Flats. I didn’t know why. Then I said that I wanted to take this special day home with me. I was just fascinated by what this magic box could hold and possess. I still feel this way.
Who or what has been your greatest inspiration in image-making?
When I was 15, I saw the work of Walker Evans, Bill Brandt, Robert Doisneau, Andre Kertesz, Josef Sudek, Irving Penn, Eugene Smith, Paul Strand and Robert Frank. As you grow up your eyes are being opened up all the time and seeing the work of great photographers allows that to happen right across the spectrum of passion within photography.
Of all the portraits you took, which was your favourite subject and why?
This is a very difficult question to answer. I’ve been very lucky to have spent time and to have met some very special people who all have their own individual persona.
There are three people who, for very different reasons, bring back fond memories. One being Tommy Cooper whom I photographed in 1967, this was at Thames Television. After I had finished shooting some pictures in colour, I said to Tommy I’d like to take some serious portraits of him for myself in black and white, to which he agreed. I also mentioned to him, “Do not make me laugh.” Which was probably not a very clever thing to say. I got three or four rolls that were very serious, sad and deep. He then said, “This is serious! Aaahh-aahh!” That was it. By the time I had finished I had tears running down my cheeks, I was laughing so much. I must say I found him very obviously, funny, sad and charming.
In 1966, John Huston was in Rome having completed his latest film The Bible when Dennis Hackett commissioned Irma Kurtz and myself to travel to Rome to do a feature on him for Nova Magazine. Coincidently, Sophie Parkin’s Mum, Molly, was the Fashion Editor of the magazine at that time. Over several days I shot pictures of him and then in the evenings, we would join him for dinner. Each night I would sit opposite him and he would tell me stories about Bogart (The Maltese Falcon, The African Queen etc) and also discuss cinematography and other photographers. He introduced me to Havana cigars. His secretary and PA at that time was a lovely lady called Gladys Hill who I used to call Auntie Glad. On several occasions, Auntie Glad would, with great affection, chastise me for encouraging Huston to drink too much. Can you imagine that! It would be a couple of years later that I discovered that ‘Auntie Glad’ had written the screenplay for the film Reflections in A Golden Eye. So you never know…
For 14 years, I shared the lease of 47 Frith Street with Ronnie Scott and Pete King (Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club). Ronnie and Pete had the club and the first floor and I had the two top floors, where I lived and had my studio. So every night I would go to sleep listening to jazz, which is great if you love jazz and I do. Anyway, in 1986 Chet Baker was playing at Ronnie Scott’s, we met and I asked to take his portrait. So we’re in my studio and I said to him “I have to tell you this. When I was 13, I bought an EP of yours called Winter Wonderland.” He lifted his head and said “Yes”, then talked about the line-up and for a few seconds was miles away with his memories and that was when I shot the picture. I don’t think magic pictures come along that often, but I think this was one of them.
What made you retire from the lucrative world of advertising?
I think when the fun started going out of the advertising business for me was when it began moving towards every creative decision seeming to be made by committee, which, for me, is the very opposite of producing an original piece of work. You might as well sell rock ‘ard tomatoes off a stall.
Personally, I feel I certainly lived through the golden age of advertising, working with great art directors, creative directors, designers, typographers, and writers. And believe it or not, some good advertising account people and clients who were not frightened to explore unknown territory and did not indulge in, as Basil Fawlty would say, the bleeding obvious.
The norm nowadays seems to me to be based on other criteria, that being of running scared and chasing the money. I would like to end with a quotation from Andrei Tarkovsky, “Modern mass culture, aimed at the ‘consumer’, the civilisation of prosthetics, is crippling people’s souls, setting up barriers between man and the crucial questions of his existence, his consciousness of himself as a spiritual being.”
You took so many photographs of the East End, how do you feel about its changing face?
As I’ve said many times before, my East End has gone, so for me, it’s very difficult to comment on an environment that is not mine. I understand the question but I’m not nostalgic or sentimental about its passing, but there again, maybe I am, but not for trivial reasons.
It’s not just the East End but many communities that are becoming more and more fragmented. Having said that, I’m sure there are still bastions within the East End and Soho etc, that continue to hold on to that integrity. I do wonder how long that special feeling can last with the amount of corporate greed that seems to exist.
I think I was lucky to have lived through a special time in the East End when good manners and looking after each other had a true value. Maybe what I’m trying to say is the East End could be a land of great violence and of great beauty.
How would you like to be remembered?
If someone could think of me in the same way as I did when looking at great photographs. Images that tore my soul apart, that would be okay. Or maybe, just a smile and a tear.
Bonuses of getting older?
I’ll let you know when I do.
Which photograph are you proudest?
I’m still looking.
When were you happiest?
I’m always happy when I take pictures. Mind you, I did have a good bottle of red last night and Janet thought I was very happy
John Claridge’s book East End is published on 1 June by Spitalfields Life £25.
THE BOOK IS ACCOMPANIED BY AN EXHIBITION OF JOHN CLARIDGE’S PHOTOGRAPHS
Opens 1st JUNE – July 21st 2016 at The Stash Gallery at VOUT-O- REENEE’S, The Crypt, 30 Prescot Street, London E1 8BB
There is a special offer pre-show discount on Claridge’s photographs from now until May 30th in the on-line shop at www.vout-O-Reenees.com