Life through a lens - Celebrated photographer John Minihan on some of his most famous photos

Photograph by John Minihan. © University College Cork

Celebrated photographer John Minihan tells Des O’Driscoll about some of his most famous pictures

THERE is nobody in Ireland who has photographed — or possibly even met — such an array of famous figures as John Minihan. A teenage Diana Spencer, a wizened Samuel Beckett, an edgy young band named The Who, and countless others have ended up in iconic photographs as a result of posing for Minihan’s trusty Rolleiflex camera.

As a photographer with the Daily Mail and Evening Standard in London, Minihan had access to many of the world’s news-makers. And, through friendships he forged, often in the drinking dens of Soho or via his own interest in the arts, he regularly managed to breach the divide between news snapper and subject.

And yet, despite the world of royals and super celebs Minihan mixed in, it’s the photographs he took through the years in his home town of Athy that are still the most important to him.

Now 70 and resident in West Cork, he is as passionate as ever about his craft and is still taking pictures. Minihan’s collection has also been acquired by UCC. Here, we select just a few examples from that hugely important archive.

THE WHO

“As an apprentice on the Daily Mail I was getting very little money and as a means to earn a little extra I’d go to the clubs in Soho — Flamingo Club, Ronnie Scotts, The Marquee — and I’d photograph the bands.

This picture was taken late in 1964 at the Marquee. They were only known in the London scene at the time and it was around the time that their first single ‘I Can’t Explain’ was released. What mesmerised me about the band was Keith Moon’s drumming. And I’d never seen anyone leap around on stage like Keith Townsend and the way he swung his arms. And Roger Daltry had a great blues voice.

Photograph byJohn Minihan. © University College Cork
Photograph by John Minihan. © University College Cork

I went up to them after their show, and brought them over to that wall by the stage to do the picture. You can really see the energy and the youthfulness of a band that’s about to explode on the world.

I did a lot of other bands in that era — Rory Gallagher and Taste, Jimi Hendrix, The Animals, etc. And in those days it was very easy to get access.. you didn’t have so many PR people, etc.”

EDNA O’BRIEN

“I had an exhibition in 1971 in the Royal Court Theatre in London of my photographs of Athy.

The exhibition was commissioned by the theatre to go with a series of Irish plays they had on, including Brendan Behan’s Richard’s Cork Leg, starring The Dubliners, and also Edna O’Brien’s A Pagan Place. Soon after, Edna invited me around for tea to her home in Chelsea.

Photograph byJohn Minihan. © University College Cork
Photograph by John Minihan. © University College Cork

The idea for that photograph came from a poster for the film The Graduate which was out around that time. Edna was a very voluptuous woman — and still is — and I wanted to put that across.

We still keep in contact, and I saw her a few weeks ago at a tribute event to her they had at the Gaiety. We had a pot of tea in the Merrion Hotel and I presented her with that picture, and I photographed her holding it.”

FRANCIS BACON AND WILLIAM BURROUGHS

“Myself and [Irish journalist] Stan Gebler Davies used to love drinking together in the clubs and bars around Soho. I first saw Francis Bacon in the Colony Room; he was loud, very brash and everybody wanted to be around him. I was introduced to him through Stan, who knew him quite well, and I started photographing him in 1971.

I spotted a story one morning in the Daily Telegraph that said: ‘Irish painter on drugs charge’. In London, if you win the Nobel Prize for Literature, you’re British, if you’re up on drugs charges, you’re Irish!

Photograph byJohn Minihan. © University College Cork
Photograph by John Minihan. © University College Cork

I went straight down to the Marlborough Street magistrates court where I met Francis getting out of a taxi. His then boyfriend had got very jealous and had planted a substance and called the police. He was acquitted and I went back to Soho with him to celebrate. I got this picture of him with Burroughs when Burroughs came to London in 1980 for an exhibition of his paintings.”

THE WAKE OF KATY TYRRELL

“I was reared in Athy until I was 11 and have always had a strong connection to the place. Even when I was living in London I’d take a week off and go back to Athy and would take photographs when I was there.

I used to go to Doyle’s Bar, where the publican was Bertie Doyle, an amazing man, a local historian. One morning in February 1977, when I was in the bar for a glass of Guinness, Bertie told me Mrs Tyrell had passed away in the early hours of that morning.

I said to Bertie that i’d love to photograph the wake. Bertie said ‘Leave it with me’. I came back in the afternoon and he’d organised it.

I went up to the house and for two nights and three days I photographed Mrs Tyrell from the death bed to the grave. It was probably the most important sequence of photographs I’ve ever taken in my life.

Photograph byJohn Minihan. © University College Cork
Photograph by John Minihan. © University College Cork

I believe in that whole ritual, because faith and the spiritual side of one’s life have been so important to me. I was raised by my aunt and uncle, and in my life things have happened that are just a miracle, and are still happening every day of the week.

This a world driven by plasma TV screens and Rupert Murdoch and Simon Cowell — it’s a corporate world. So spirituality has little place. Anywhere in the world I go, I go in to a church and light a candle. Because we’ve got to stay in the light.”

DIANA SPENCER

“I remember one morning in 1980 reading the Daily Mail really early. Nigel Dempster had a story saying Prince Charles had relinquished his relationship with Sarah Spencer and was now seeing her younger sister Diana, who worked in a kindergarten in Pimlico.

I’m straight down there. I’m the only photographer. I knock on the door a lady comes out. I tell her, ‘I’d like to speak to Lady Diana Spencer...’.

Within a few minutes, Diana came out, a very bubbly vivacious teenager. She said, ‘What would you like me to do?’. I said I’d like to take a photograph with a couple of the children. One of the other assistants said we’d have to get permission from the parents of the children. And after about 15 minutes that was arranged and we went out into the garden.

I could see how the light has just reflected her legs through her dress, and that made the picture. And I photographed her holding a child in a Madonna-esque way.

Photograph byJohn Minihan. © University College Cork
Photograph by John Minihan. © University College Cork

Afterwards, Prince Charles went on record to say that he didn’t realise she had such good legs.

About three or four days after I took this picture, she came out of her flat in Coleherne Court, and was followed in her mini by a fleet of motorbikes, cars, taxis, etc — of which i was one myself — but when she got to Barkley Square, she parked her car and went into the square and sat on the wooden bench and burst out crying.

At that point, I phoned up the picture editor and said I’m not going to take that photograph. Instead, I went and bought a half a dozen roses and I went back to her apartment and rang her bell. I went across the road as I knew she’d look out the window, and when she saw me, she came down stairs. I gave her the flowers and said ‘These are from the bona fide Fleet Street photographers’.”

SAMUEL BECKETT

“I first met Beckett in the Hyde Park Hotel in London in 1980. A friend of mine who used to work in the kitchen of the hotel told me he was staying there. I left a note at reception for him saying I’d like to show him my picturees of Athy. He was in London to assist in the direction of Endgame and Krapps Last Tape being performed by San Quentin Drama Group.

I phoned up the next day at 9 o’clock and was put through to his room. This gentle dublin voice said ‘Ah Mr Minihan, thank-you for your note; Yes, I’d like to see the photographs of Athy. How about 9 o’clock tomorrow morning?’

Photograph by John Minihan. © University College Cork
Photograph by John Minihan. © University College Cork

The next day, the receptionsist sent me up to room 604. This lanky sort of man wearing a grey Aran sweater and chord trousers invites me in. I’m sitting on the chair, he’s sitting on the bed. We’re chatting, I give him the photographs, and he’s put them all on the bed and is looking at them.Beckett was looking at the photographs and wanted to know who everybody was in them.

I’m looking around the room, at what’s on his bedside table, a fairly thumbed book of Endgame. After about 25 minutes, in that soft Foxrock accent he said, ‘Would you like to take a photograph’. He was smiling.

I took that first photograph in the bedroom. I knew he was going to rehearsals, so I said ‘Mr Beckett, would you mind if I very discretely took some pictures?’. He thought about it, and said yes. So I spent 10 days with him in London.”


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