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.”
“But what photographer would come to Paris without bringing a camera?” says Minihan. “So I went, and we met. And at the end, he said ‘come back tomorrow then’.” They arranged to meet at one of Becketts regular cafés. Minihan arrived early, choosing a table to make the most of the available light, setting up the shot in his mind. “When Sam came in, he smiled, because he knew what I was doing, and he kept me talking, until the light was almost gone.”
There is another Minihan photograph of Beckett that stands out. The playwright is outside, wearing a sheepskin coat over his trademark black poloneck, and there’s an unexpected half-smile on his lips – as if he is trying to contain an amusing thought.
Just as the Lady Di picture reveals plenty about the shy, vulnerable girl who would be eaten alive by both the press and the demands of the British royal family, so too do Minihan’s images reveal Beckett the man.
The images in Enniskillen are typical of Minihan’s work. He never uses digital cameras, and prefers to work in black and white. “Photography is a testament to truth. There’s a theatricality with colour that doesn’t work with Beckett. It’s like those old Mass cards. They have to be black and white.” What about a band like the Rolling Stones? “Now they could work either way. Keith Richards? He’s black and white.” Mick Jagger, he agrees, is probably colour.
Minihan, now 66, is himself known for his trademark black leather coat. “I’m 95 per cent photographer, and the rest of me is rock and roll,” he laughs.
Also in Minihan’s circle of friends was the artists Francis Bacon, who never met Beckett, despite Minihan’s efforts. “I always wanted to get the two together, but the moment never came. I drove Sam past Reece Mews, where Bacon had his studio, and I said, ‘That’s where Francis Bacon lives.’ Beckett said, ‘He’s very popular.’ And I knew that it wasn’t the time . . . They were like two stallions, I don’t think they’d have got along, though they had things in common.”
Minihan still loves photographing writers. “The writers I know have given me an understanding of my own images. A good photographer should be able to read one line of a poem and photograph it.” William Trevor, Aidan Higgins, Derek Mahon, and Eugene McCabe have written introductions to his books, with many commenting on his loyalty as a friend.
As the conversation draws to a close, talk turns to Minihan’s journey back to Cork, although he will return to Enniskillen on Monday to deliver a lecture on Beckett. He doesn’t mind the long distance.
“I see those roads that Beckett wrote about, the country roads, the corner boys waiting for the lone bus, the single bus that comes in a day, waiting to see if someone, anyone, gets off. Waiting for Godot. I’m still waiting to find, to photograph, the perfect Godot tree.”
John Minihan: Photographs of Beckett is at the Seale Room, Portora Royal School, Enniskillen until Monday. He and the publisher John Calder will speak about the impact of Beckett on their life and work at noon on Monday at Mount Lourdes Grammar School, Enniskillen. happy-days-enniskillen.com
Neil Jordans film of Becketts play Not I is at the Irish Museum of Modern Art, Earlsfort Terrace, Dublin 2, until September 9. See imma.ie