John Minihan tells Ellie O’Byrne about his famous photograph of Samuel Beckett
"THE ashtray was full up and I was smoking his cigarettes. By half four the light was failing and I thought, damn it, it’s not going to happen, but at a quarter to five he said, ‘Do you want to take a photograph?’. He didn’t have to ask me twice.”
West Cork-based photographer John Minihan has told the story of how he took his iconic portrait of fellow Irishman Samuel Beckett many times, and yet he still lights up as he relays the tale, sitting forward in excitement and switching to the present tense to recount a moment he captured in a café in Paris in 1985. “His eyes leave me and his hands go to the ashtray, and I know I have it.”
The resulting image has been called the ‘photograph of the century’. Beckett’s gaze averted, introspective, his head slightly tilted, throwing the symmetry of the frame, and the lines of perspective formed by the café’s awnings, lights and windows all converging on his face, noble and defeated in equal measure.
Minihan had photographed Beckett before, off-guard during rehearsals in the Riverside Studio in London in 1984, and a few snaps in a hotel room in 1980, but really, the way he tells it, that moment with Beckett in Le Petit Café in the PLM Hotel on Boulevard St Jacques just before the playwright’s 80th birthday was the consummation of a courtship that began years earlier.
“It was necessary for me to photograph Beckett,” he says. “I was in work in 1969 and the news editor said, ‘Some obscure avant-garde Irish writer has just won the Nobel Prize for literature. Does anyone have any photos of Samuel Beckett?’”
Minihan’s lifetime has been spent behind the lens, and his encounter with Beckett was one defining moment in a career of defining moments as a Fleet Street photographer. His conversation is peppered with references to gargantuan figures in literature and visual art: WH Auden’s filthy hands and odour of tobacco, Alan Ginsberg dressed like a “Louisiana hillbilly”, Frances Bacon posing outside the Tate Gallery.
Born in Dublin in 1946, Minihan was the son of a father who died before he was born. His mother left him in the care of his aunt and uncle in Athy, Co Kildare, until he was able to follow her to London in his early teens. Joining the Daily Mail as an apprentice photographer at 16, by the time he was 21, he was the youngest staff photographer on the London Evening Standard.
He doesn’t describe himself as an artist, and his tenacity and compulsive desire to document are informed by the sensibilities of a press photographer; he describes his photographs as though they are series of conquests or acquisitions.
“Emile Zola said you can’t claim to have seen anything until you’ve photographed it,” he says, and, “Nobody in the world has the photographs I have of Beckett and Bacon in Paris and London.”
And he photographed them all, in an era when images were the preserve of the professional and celebrities weren’t as media-savvy and PR-shepherded as they are today, before the explosion of cheap digital cameras whose images he describes as “like cremation”. He formed a lasting relationship with Francis Bacon, photographing the painter on numerous occasions.
Through his lens he has captured a snarling young Al Pacino, William Burroughs looming apologetic and wraithlike towards the camera, and for the London Evening Standard, Lady Diana Spencer on the day of her engagement to Charles, famously positioning her without her knowledge so that the light shone through her flimsy summer skirt, exposing the outline of her legs.
He beat off the competition, arriving at the kindergarten where she worked before any other member of the press. “She was just this vivacious, bubbly, drop dead gorgeous young woman and I got her in this kind of Madonna-esque pose. I’m looking through the camera and seeing those long legs and I know I have it: that’s it, beautiful.”
In stark contrast to his press work, as an antidote to the world of celebrity, Minihan returned to his birthplace of Athy every year for 34 years to document the daily life of its inhabitants, producing an expansive, ethnographical body of work that he began exhibiting to critical acclaim in London’s Royal Court Theatre in 1971. The photographs, like most of Minihan’s work, are in black and white; stark images including a series taken at the wake of a local woman named Katie Tyrrell.
“As a photographer it was important to me to document the tradition that I came from,” he says. “How reverentially the Irish dressed the dead and prayed; that sharpened my vision quite a lot. In that rather funereal time that I was born in, what was prevalent in Athy was the smell of the hops.
“I’m the kind of guy with a camera who wants to tell stories and to extract something,” he says. A film photographer through and through, he’s never transitioned to digital, remaining faithful to “the organic world of buying a roll of film, loading the camera.”
“You’re peeling away layers and all of a sudden, it might be something you say, but all of a sudden it’s there. I know when there’s a latent image in my camera and I love that.”
It was with his Athy collection that he wooed Samuel Beckett, bringing the photos to Beckett’s hotel room in London in 1980. Beckett, upon seeing Katie Tyrrell in repose, announced, “These are important photographs,” and so, in a circular fashion, Minihan’s hunger to document Irishness fed itself and gave rise to the image he’s best known for, although he says he’s proudest of his Athy series: “Athy will have its place long after I’m dead and gone.”
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