From glorious sunsets for the Indian Tourist board and nostalgic Jack Daniels ads, to revealing portraits of comedians and jazz legends — looking through photographer John Claridge's backlog of work takes you on a multi-sensory journey around the world.
Claridge is perhaps best known for his commercial photography. According to Dave Dye, creative director at marketing communications brand J. Walter, "asking John Claridge to shoot your layout was like asking Jay Z to write your jingle. The chances are he's going to say no, but if he said yes, you'd almost certainly have a good ad."
Born in London in 1944, at the age of eight, Claridge spotted a plastic camera at a funfair on Wanstead Flats and realised it was a way of taking home the memories of that day. At 17, the graphic designer Robert Brownjohn helped him secure his first solo show at McCann-Erikson gallery featuring the images presented here, which span from 1959-1986.
Those views of London, then, heavy with fog — and printed in black and white with a haunting clarity — set the young boy from Plaistow on the path to a successful career. Now, they provide a window into a vanished community where haggard-faced men work at jobs that no longer exist, in an area of London much distorted by time.
At 19, Claridge opened his own studio near St Paul's Cathedral. "A lot of my mates were working down the docks, in sport, or..." he pauses smiling "involved in criminal activities, that sorta thing. I could have gone down that route. Theirs was a different kind of survival," For Claridge, the camera became his method of communication.
His father worked down at the docks, dabbled in bare-knuckle fighting and sold booze in New York during Prohibitio. His mother was a shirt machinist working in Roman Road, Bow. He speaks of growing up in the 50s and 60s with a romantic fondness, "As a kid I would go to sleep listening to the ships entering and leaving the docks, dreaming of the adventures that those ships would take me on — the sound of the fog horns was really magical."
Claridge reels off a long list of influences but jazz was the main thing. "Growing up during the rock 'n' roll period was fantastic. So much was happening with music, art and photography. That was my education".
"When I was 13 I got seriously into jazz — John Coltrane, West Coast jazz, bebop, Chet Baker, Miles Davies, Billy Holiday". For 14 years he lived on the upper floors at Ronnie Scott's Jazz Club, where he was lucky enough to meet and photograph some of his idols.
Claridge currently lives in France, but on a recent trip to London, he visited some of his old haunts. "I must admit, I didn’t recognise half of it. My East End had disappeared. I am not sentimental about it, maybe a little sad that some of the character has gone and that corporate greed has crept in. I guess most things change, some for the better and some for the worse.
"We did end up finding a pie and mash shop and I had double eels with double mash. That made up for a lot!"
Speaking of his printing style Claridge says "It is simply the rawness that I felt suited the subjects. I always think that images should come from the soul. Having said that, the camera can be a magic box.
"I've never been a technique or camera buff. I would use any camera, lens or film I could, and very often when I first started, my choices were very limited."
His portraits are unforgiving, honest and captivating. Poverty is etched onto weatherworn faces but Claridge was not an outsider looking in. "The relationship with the people I have photographed was wonderful. And yes, I did know some of their stories. Some funny, some tragic."
Does he feel there is a conflict between the documentary and commercial form of photography? "It's a different discipline, basically. In advertising what you're doing is solving other people's problems, but in your personal work you're solving your own problems."
Claridge is aware how the profession has changed, having "lived through the golden period of advertising". The barriers for working class children seem even more pronounced now than when Claridge started out. "I think I had it easy, because I was working with great designers, artists, typographers and art directors who introduced me to the world of design and another way of looking at things and they weren't frightened to step into the unknown.
"A lot of the advertising I see now is just very boring — intellectually and visually. It was about going out and discovering things now it's about chasing the money and there is less originality, which I find quite sad actually, considering there's a lot of young kids out there who do have talent."
The East End photographs will be on display at Vout-O-Reenees, a private members club in Aldgate full of surrealist art, which John Claridge has also photographed for The Gentle Author. "I shot the pictures in an abstract way to give the feel of the club. Not in a defining way but to open a visual door, or introduction to the Club, and the wonderful bohemian adventure that awaits within."
His work is held in museums and private collections worldwide, including The Arts Council of Great Britain, The Victoria & Albert Museum, The National Portrait Gallery and The Museum of Modern Art.
You can buy limited edition prints from Claridge's book East End.