Tuesday, July 16

Beckett and the Wake by John Minihan – The Yoko Ono Lennon Centre, University of Liverpool

The world needs characters and Irish photographer John Minihan showed he is certainly that with this delightful anecdotal and humorous talk that explored his relationship over many years with the great playwright Samuel Beckett, renowned for being nigh on impossible to interview as well as camera-shy.

Minihan first expressed a desire to photograph Beckett in 1969, following Beckett’s winning of the Nobel Prize for literature, having noticed that all the available photos of Beckett were of such a poor quality it was if Beckett didn’t exist, although his first encounter was not to be until 1980 in London when Beckett was working on a production of one of his plays, Endgame. They met in the Hyde Park Hotel where Minihan’s acclaimed photographic series, The Wake of Katy Tyrell, piquing Beckett’s interest, more so given Minihan’s detailed knowledge of his subjects.

They continued to meet including eventually in 1985 in the restaurant of the Hotel PLM in Paris, a regular haunt of Beckett’s and which was to provide the backdrop for the picture that would go on to be called by some as the photograph of the twentieth century, with writer and publisher John Calder crediting Minihan with capturing ‘the introspective, infinitely sad gaze of a man looking into the abyss of the world’s woes’.

Born in Dublin but raised in Athy, County Kildare, Minihan was brought to live in London at the age of twelve, going on to become an apprentice photographer with the Daily Mail. At the age of fifteen he won the Evening Standard amateur photography competition and at twenty-one he became the youngest staff photographer for the Evening Standard.

He remained in London for thirty years, returning every year to his hometown of Athy in an attempt to record the people and their daily lives in times of joy and sadness, with his knowledge of the people that made up these compositions that form much of his canon that so impressed Beckett. Minihan was given the freedom of Athy in 1990.

His renowned career on Fleet Street includes the iconic image of the nineteen-year-old Lady Diana Spencer in the garden of the nursery where she worked, the morning sun to her back and her legs in silhouette through her skirt. She had just been announced as the Prince of Wales’s girlfriend, and as photographers raced to locate her, Minihan had the good fortune to turn up first.

Luck? I’m not so sure. Minihan had the knack of ‘seeing’ the shot in an age where wasted film and development costs were expensive. Today’s digital age means that multiple shots can be taken effortlessly but far too often miss the point. Minihan continues to work in black and white photography with his artistic experience and expertise producing images that get to the heart of their subject.

Whilst Minihan’s photographs of Samuel Beckett clearly illustrate the affinity between the two men, he also developed close relationships with other writers and artists who he was to photograph including Seamus Heaney, Francis Bacon, and William S. Burroughs who referred to Minihan as ‘a painless photographer’.

With exhibitions of his work featuring in museums and galleries around the world, Minihan’s photographic publications include Photographs: Samuel Beckett (1995); Shadows from the Pale, Portrait of an Irish Town (1996); An Unweaving of Rainbows: Images of Irish Writers (1996); and Samuel Beckett: Centenary Shadows (2006).

Now living in County Cork and still working as a freelance photographer, this was a fascinating insight into both Beckett and Minihan who, as the man behind the camera, unashamedly defines the saying ‘a life well lived’ – and long may that continue.

Reviewer: Mark Davoren

Reviewed: 2nd June 2024

North West End UK Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.