Words - 20th Century Greats - John Claridge


20th Century Greats series (2001)

John Claridge (1944 - )

There is always something new to appreciate about ‘ground-braking’ professional photography. In his series evaluating photography’s ‘greats’ John Chillingworth has seldom, if ever, met someone with the same natural creative needs as the good and great of earlier generations. Whatever the rule, John Claridge is the exception.

Another case of déjà vu? An East End education (or lack of it). Left school at 15 – talked his way into his first job in photography and the rest is history!

Well, no! John Claridge is, in every way, a one-off. True, the boy from Plaistow, with a handful of ‘jack-the-lad’ cultural contemporaries could have drifted into dead-end employment, or brushes with the law, or worse, but there was something different about him.

He knew, from the moment he walked away from ‘formal’ education that there was more to life than the “Only Fools and Horses” scenario. His only reason for living, it seems, was his driving compulsion to make his mark in photography.

As a consequence, in 1960, at the behest of the West Ham Employment Exchange, he dressed in his best East End ‘dudes’, with hair plastered a jaunty angle and armed only with a bucketful of determination, the boy from Plaistow went ‘up West’.

Applying to fill a job vacancy as an assistant in the studio of the London branch of an internationally renowned advertising agency, for his downright cheek the manager, hard-drinking Eddie Brown, an ex-officer in a Highland regiment, offered him the job.

Heading for the stars
Although he was not to know it for many years, he had stepped on to the photographic scene as the ‘golden age’ of editorial photography exited the national media scene with a whimper.

As he strode forward with the kind of youthful exuberance, which college-educated contemporaries often failed to comprehend, let alone emulate, Claridge grew in stature.

At seventeen, he turned up on the doorstep of Bill Brandt’s Hampstead home – to give him one of his treasured prints. Gentle and polite, Brandt invited him in; sought the young Claridge’s opinion on his current work and sent him away feeling ten feet high.

Recommended by established photographers and art directors, he became David Montgomery’s assistant.

By the tender age of nineteen he had opened his own studio near London’s St Paul’s Cathedral.

His ideas and his images matured rapidly. A mix of editorial and advertising commissions brought him and his easy confidence to the attention of 1960’s advertising trend-setters and after being invited to exhibit at the McCann’s private photo-gallery, his work was acclaimed in the photographic press as ‘shades of Walker Evans’.

His by-line became familiar in many of the monthly magazines of the day and his reputation began to move from a national to an international level. By the age of twenty-three, he had a home on the Essex marshes and a de rigueur E-type Jaguar, although his real sporting love was and still is the motorbike.

A doyen of the ‘golden age’
He realises now that he had been working in the ‘golden age of advertising’ – and as the years melted into decades, the commissions took him around the world. Tourist boards in the Bahamas, India and the US recognised his highly individual visual talent.

Banks, whisky distillers, international corporations, car manufacturers, all were (and still are) prepared to give him his head to create images that inspired their ad agency art directors to greater and more stunning campaigns.

So, what is it that makes John Claridge great? He is a man of the world, whose influence will be transmitted to future generations of photographers.

Throughout his working decades, he has maintained a mile-high wall of professionalism, which, despite today’s clients’ who sometimes attempts to stifle creativity, as well as the virtual absence of passion in the business, he holds true the belief that his photography is from the heart – not the head!

“There are no secrets”, he says, “It’s not a job, it is an emotional experience. When I am asked how I do it, I usually say ‘dunno’ – photography? I just do it.” Isn’t that great?

© Copyright John Chillingworth