Colin O’Brien -‘The Last Day of Smoking In The Griffin.’ Shoreditch, 30th June 2007
2014 really was a dreadful year, bookended by the death of my father on January 3rd and that of Nick Talbot on December 2nd. My father’s passing was not unexpected and if in truth I had many months to prepare myself for that moment there is another truth that says no amount of ‘preparation’ is ever enough. It is a bigger moment than you can ever imagine and it reverberates through the rest of your years, often hijacking you at the most unexpected moments.
Nick’s passing was, in contrast, utterly unexpected, yet it too has reverberated and hijacked me in the time since. Loss and the void of absence is a democratising feeling after all. I think Nick would have appreciated that concept, for what it’s worth. And for what’s it’s worth too, I think that in Gravenhurst’s body of work Nick Talbot has left us something extraordinary and beautiful.
Much of Nick’s work as/with Gravenhurst is exquisitely pared back and brutally, darkly honest (both in an autobiographical way but crucially also in its observation of and commentary on the world around us). Yet the flip side of this is the space in which noise acts as our salve and where electricity smothers us in clouds of blissful blindness. It is a blueprint perhaps laid down by My Bloody Valentine’s ‘You Made Me Realise’, to which ‘Hollow Men’ assuredly is on nodding terms. It is certainly an example of Gravenhurst at their blissed-out, blasted best.
There was always an unashamedly informed and intellectual air (in a decidedly non pejorative sense) to Gravenhurst records and certainly ‘Hollow Men’ wears its literary allusions on its sleeve. Yet it is certainly as much John Dickson Carr as it is T.S. Elliott; its dynamics echoing the violence of death and the impossibility of leaving no footprints in the snow. It strives to fill the (locked) room with sound yet simultaneously leave no lasting trace and indeed perhaps this is the very essence of song or recorded music: The magical, mystical means of making something from nothing. Alchemy, no less.
So did Nick Talbot have the alchemist’s touch? Perhaps, perhaps not. He certainly left behind something rare and special; something ravishing and spectral. For this we should continue to value and take pleasure from his memory.
Several of my photographic discoveries can be traced back to a Saturday morning near the turn of the millennium when I took up a table at a ‘zine fair in Exeter’s legendary ‘indie’ venue The Cavern. I was attempting to stir up interest in the first of my Unpopular 7” singles and the first issue of the ‘I Wish I Was Unpopular’ fanzine. Very few, if any, copies of these were sold as I recall. Alongside me on the table however was a young chap called Owen with a box full of his own wares - a lovely little folded and paper-clipped photozine which I still have tucked in a box in my Geek Lair. Turns out he was studying photography at the local Art school and he switched me onto several contemporary artists that I was not aware of. I have Owen to thank therefore for hipping me to the likes of Alec Soth and Joel Sternfeld, and for this I am hugely grateful. In some serendipitous moment of synchronicity then, Owen’s first photography commission was to shoot Gravenhurst for Plan B magazine, to accompany a piece I wrote back in 2004. As we keep saying, it all fits.
Owen did not introduce me to the work of Colin O’Brien, but I know that he was a big fan of his work and indeed it was through Owen’s Facebook feed that I heard the news of O’Brien’s passing at the end of August this year. It is probable that if you are a London dweller or one who finds the story of the English capital captivating then you know of O’Brien’s work, even if you do not know it be so. His ‘London Life’ collection is endlessly fascinating as historic documentation and immensely inspirational as brilliantly composed and executed street photography.
Colin O’Brien’s photographs are both of London and about London, and if that sounds simplistic and obvious then it perhaps needs thinking about a little longer. Capturing the essence of something so complex is certainly no simple undertaking. It requires immersion, commitment, empathy. It requires affection and honesty. It requires a deep sense of understanding and an inexhaustible openness to, and delight in, moments of surprise.
This photograph of smokers in a Shoreditch pub on 30th June 2007 is classic O’Brien. It is titled ‘The Last Day of Smoking In The Griffin’ and it both revels in the rich history of city boozers whilst simultaneously acknowledging the inevitability of change that must by default go hand in hand with that history. The two are inseparable and symbiotic, like quarrelling Siamese twins. O’Brien’s photograph knows this. It may not necessarily like it, but it knows it.
O’Brien’s photograph is simultaneously celebratory and mournful; it anticipates the act of false emotional attachment to photographic artefacts as historical truths. This photograph knows that in years hence people will look back and remember ‘a better time’, ‘a more carefree time’ when people were free to smoke in public places. This photograph knows that as they do so they will conveniently forget the way our clothes became permeated with the indelible stench of cigarettes and how we felt the need to shower and wash our hair before we crawled into bed after a night out. This is how mediated memory and history works after all.
If we say that O’Brien's photograph anticipates the tension between personal liberty and collective responsibility that will develop in the decade to follow then perhaps we overstate the case or over-interpret the meaning. Perhaps if we were to suggest this the photograph would wink an eye and say “you think too much” before inviting us to to draw up a stool and have a glass of wine. “Perhaps", it might say, “I am just a great photograph of people enjoying a drink and a fag."