Beckett, in black and white
John Minihan’s definitive images of Samuel Beckett are the hard-won product of his personal relationship with the playwright, he tells GEMMA TIPTON
JOHN MINIHAN has a number of stories to tell. After all, this is the man who has become synonymous with the visual representation of Samuel Beckett – his 1985 photograph, taken in a Paris café, has entered the collective consciousness as the defining image of the playwright.
Minihan is the man who took that photograph of the 19-year-old Lady Diana Spencer in a transparent skirt. He has also taken definitive portraits of Francis Bacon and Edna O’Brien. And then there is his glittering career as a press photographer, snapping some of the greats of the 20th century, such as The Rolling Stones, The Who, Chuck Berry and Jackie Kennedy Onassis.
Born in Dublin in 1946, Minihan grew up in Athy, moving to London when he was 12. He became an apprentice photographer with the Daily Mail and, at 21, became the Evening Standard’s youngest staff photographer. Having spent 30 years in London, he now lives in west Cork, a move inspired, he says, by friendships with writers including Aidan Higgins, Alannah Hopkin and Derek Mahon.
When we speak, Minihan is in Enniskillen, hanging 23 of his photographs of Samuel Beckett in Portora Royal School, which the playwright attended, as part of the Happy Days Beckett Festival. For photographers brought up on the immediacy of the digital format, the mastery of Minihan’s work may be harder to grasp, but it’s all there: the precision of setting and staging, the depth, the perfect exposures.
And when it comes to subjects, few would be more fascinating than Beckett. Minihan recounts a well-rehearsed story of how he had tried to photograph the author ever since, one day in 1969, he heard a subeditor “screaming across the newsroom asking do we have any photographs of some obscure Irish man, living in Paris, who’s just won the Nobel Prize? From that moment, I was intrigued.”
He failed to get a picture of Beckett in 1973, when the camera-shy writer came to London for the double bill of Billie Whitelaw in Not I and Albert Finney in Krapp’s Last Tape at the Royal Court. In 1980, the same year Minihan took the Diana photograph, Beckett was again in London. He sent the playwright a letter, describing his Athy photographs, and asked for a meeting. The pictures in question were a series of images taken over three days and two nights, documenting the wake of a woman named Katy Tyrrell. The black and white photographs show the sheet-shrouded mirror, the gathered family, and the dead woman laid out in her bed.
“A wake is the Irish art of dying,” Minihan says. “We’re not allowed to die any more. Anyway, Sam looked at the photos and asked me ‘Who’s that?’, and I always had the names of the people for him.”
Beckett allowed Minihan to photograph him, but it would take another five years for the Irish artist to get to know his subject well enough to come up with the now-iconic image of Beckett in a café in Paris, two empty cups of coffee on the table, the light fading, and a full ashtray beside him.
It was in the year of Beckett’s 80th birthday, and the writer had sent the photographer a note, saying: “I should be glad to see you in Paris – provided you leave your camera at home.”