Cork-based photographer has captured culture greats through his camera lens

An exhibition by a Cork-based photographer who has pointed his lens at everyone from The Beatles, Jackie Onassis , Princess Diana to Samuel Beckett, opens at UCC this month, writes AISLING MEATH
Cork-based photographer has captured culture greats through his camera lens

Cork-based photographer, John Minihan's self-portrait.

“YOU should take some in colour, John, he has such beautiful blue eyes,” said the writer Edna O’ Brien to the photographer John Minihan.

The blue eyes she was referring to belonged to the great dramatist novelist and poet Samuel Beckett, who had been photographed in black and white many times previously by Minihan.

He listened to her advice, and in some rare colour shots of the famously reclusive writer, he managed to capture the depths of his piercing blue eyes; once on the occasion of Beckett’s final visit to London in 1984, and again in 1985 on the Boulevard St Jacques in Paris, a city where Beckett had spent most of his life up until his death in 1989.

The first time that Minihan met Beckett was in 1980 when the writer was in London to work on a production of his play Endgame with his friend Rick Cluchey. Cluchey had been in inmate of San Quentin prison in California, serving a life sentence for carjacking and the armed robbery of a hotel courier.

After seeing a production performed for the inmates of Beckett’s famous play Waiting for Godot, Cluchey went on to form his own theatre group within the jail, and in 1966 was released on good behaviour and for his services to the prison. Following his release he worked in theatre production, including being an assistant director to Beckett.

While Cluchey and Beckett were busy with rehearsals for the play, John had found out through a good friend that Beckett was staying at the Hyde Park Hotel, so he headed there to ask for him at the reception desk.

“I had been intrigued by Beckett ever since he had won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1969, and I knew he had rarely been photographed. I had previously written to his Paris publishers to get permission to take some pictures of him, but had not got a response.

“So when I turned up at the Hyde Park hotel, with my camera on my shoulder, the receptionist denied that Beckett was staying there. I persisted though, and said that I had it on good authority that he was, so I asked if I could leave him a note.

“I wrote to him explaining that I was a fellow Irishman who had spent 20 years taking photographs of my home town of Athy, where I had lived as a young boy before moving to London when I was eight. I had been returning there throughout the years recording images of the town and its characters.

Padraic Fiacc with Brian Keenan 1984 Picture: John Minihan
Padraic Fiacc with Brian Keenan 1984 Picture: John Minihan

During those years I had been privileged to have been given access by the family of a local lady Mrs Katy Tyrell to photograph her after her death during the whole process of her wake.

“I mentioned this sequence - ‘The wake of Mrs. Katy Tyrrell’ - in my note to Beckett and said that I would love to show him the pictures. I said that if he did not want to see me, so be it, but that I would telephone in the morning.

The next morning when I rang, a softly spoken Dublin voice came down the line thanking me for my note and he would like to see the series of the wake in Athy. He was very friendly and put me completely at my ease.

“So it came about that the pictures of Mrs Katy Tyrell’s wake, and my home town of Athy, opened up the door for me to take pictures of one of the greatest dramatists of the 20th century,” recalled John, whose iconic series of black and white photos of Beckett have been displayed all over the world.

As well as his famous Beckett portraits, he has photographed some of the greatest artists and writers of the 20th century, and being based in West Cork has also afforded him the opportunity of capturing images of some of the finest writing talents of the South including Patrick Galvin, William Trevor and Theo Dorgan. He also took many beautiful photographs of the aforementioned Edna O’ Brien, including at her home in Chelsea in 1972, as well as on the occasion of her 80th birthday.

John Minihan is a man who learned his trade and formed his art in the days before the digital world, and before everyone had access to a camera on the phone in their pocket.

His long career as a photographer began when he was a young lad of 15 working as an office boy in the Daily Mail newspaper in the 1960s in London, where he did everything from making coffee to running errands.

“ It was a time when the office boys were an integral part of the newspaper industry,” he said, “and when the opportunity arose to become an apprentice photographer, it was a pivotal moment for me.

“I began to supplement my meagre income by taking pictures of the pop stars at the time. I sold them to the NME and Melody Maker and found that I could make more for one picture than I did on my full weekly wage.

Poet Padraic Fiacc by John Minihan 1995.
Poet Padraic Fiacc by John Minihan 1995.

“There was something magical about the alchemy of mixing those chemicals to form an image, I did all my own printing and developing in the dark room, and it was a process which I found that I loved.”

He then went on to become the youngest staff photographer on the Evening Standard and worked as a photojournalist for the next 40 years.

During those heady years of the ’60s, he aimed his lens at some of the greatest rock and pop musicians of the era such as The Beatles, The Beach Boys, the Animals, The Who, The Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix, and later he captured such icons as Princess Diana and Jackie Onassis, but he has always been particularly drawn towards taking pictures of writers and artists, many of whom he has counted among his friends.

As well as Beckett, he is proud of having taken photos of the famous American author William Burroughs and Irish artist Francis Bacon, and he cites his photos of the trio of Beckett, Bacon and Burroughs as being among the highlights of his career.

On April 26 , UCC will host an exhibition of his portraits of Belfast-born poet Padraic Fiacc, who passed away in 2019, which will be a great opportunity to view some of his work for those fortunate enough to be able to visit it in Cork.

John became great friends with the poet, who was born Patrick Joseph O’ Connor in 1924 and lived to be 95. He was a member of Aosdána which honours those whose work has made an outstanding contribution to the artistic life of Ireland.

“ I first met Padraic Fiacc in the summer of 1984 when I was introduced to him by Brian Keenan.” recalled John, referring to the same Brian Keenan who was later kidnapped in Beruit and published an account of his ordeal in An Evil Cradling.

“Brian had seen some of my photographs of Beckett and wanted to introduce me to Fiacc, so he arranged a meeting in the Crown bar in Belfast. Brian had actually done his thesis on Fiacc in university.

“For me, Fiacc was to poetry what the artist Francis Bacon was to painting, and he spent a lot of his life in the literary wilderness. He wrote about the Troubles in the North and his words conjured up images that contain the power to linger on.

“One of those images that stayed on with me was from his poem More Terrorists - ‘The Prayerbook is putting on fat with Memoriam cards. (Published from his collection Missa Teribilis, Blackstaff Press 1986.)

“Over the years I kept in touch with Padraic, and any time I was in Belfast we would meet.

“When he visited me in Chipping Norton in Oxfordshire in 1995, I drove him to Adlestrop to take a picture of him in front of the sign, which delighted him.

“He loved the World War I poet Edward Thomas, who wrote the poem Adlestrop based on a railway journey which he had taken on June 24, 1914, during which the train had stopped in the Gloucestershire village.”

Fiacc was also inspired to write a poem about John, A Good Shot, which he describes as – ‘On being photographed by John Minihan in a mediaeval churchyard in Athy’ and which he included in his collection, Sempar Vacare, Lagan Press 1999.

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