‘You don’t just photograph a man like Samuel Beckett. You offer him something’
How Irishman John Minihan secured his place in history by photographing the writer in Paris
Irish photographer John Minihan in Paris on Monday, 14th March, 2016, five days before his 70th birthday. Photograph: Andrew McLeish.
It is one of the great photographs of the 20th century, the work that secured John Minihan’s place in history. Late one Sunday afternoon in December 1985, Samuel Beckett, seated at a café table, stares into space with what his publisher, John Calder, called “the introspective, infinitely sad gaze of a man looking into the abyss of the world’s woes”.
Minihan remembers every moment he spent with Beckett, but none so clearly as taking that photograph in Le Petit Café on the ground floor of the PLM Hotel in the boulevard Saint Jacques.
Beckett and Minihan had consumed coffees and brandies the previous morning. “I’d found a traditional Paris café, but he wouldn’t have it,” Minihan recalls. “He took me to the PLM St Jacques and it was full of Japanese tourists and American airline pilots – not the sort of place where you would expect to find Samuel Beckett.”
The Irish men talked about the price of a pint in Dublin, Dr Eoin O’Brien’s book, The Beckett Country, and the work of the Hungarian photographers Brassaï and Kertész. Minihan had run out of gauloises and smoked Beckett’s cigarettes. “He said, ‘Come back tomorrow and bring your camera’.”
Minihan headed for his hotel in the rue de l’Odéon in a state of elation, pausing in front of the reflecting glass window of the Shakespeare and Company bookshop, where Sylvia Beach had mothered Joyce and Hemingway, to shoot a self-portrait. Happy in the knowledge he would photograph Beckett the following day, he sat down to a good bottle of wine.
The next morning, Minihan went to Père Lachaise cemetery to photograph Oscar Wilde’s tomb by Jacob Epstein, so he would have something to tell Beckett. “The appointment with Sam was at 3pm at Le Petit Café. I got there at two o’clock because I wanted to find a space by the window, for the light. Sam walks in at three o’clock and he is actually smiling … because he knew why I was sitting there, at that table.”
They chatted for nearly two hours. “By quarter to five, I don’t think the moment is going to happen,” Minihan recalls. “Suddenly, Sam says to me: ‘Would you like to take a picture here?’”
Minihan had chosen a Hasselblad camera with a wide angle lens, to take in the background. “I’m designing the picture because I want a narrative: This is Beckett in Paris. His eyes leave me. The hand is stubbing out another cigarette. There’s only three frames. The artificial lights come on and the natural light is dissipating… I knew how far I could take a roll of film. And when I develop that film and I see this image in the café coming through, it was magic.”
Today, the PLM manager says, hundreds of people call into the hotel to ask where the Beckett photograph was taken.
Minihan had met Beckett five years earlier in London, when Beckett was directing the former US convict Rick Cluchy in Krapp’s Last Tape and Endgame at Riverside Studios. “As an Irish photographer, it was imperative for me to photograph this Irish playwright,” he explains.
But the receptionist at the Hyde Park Hotel had been instructed to lie and say Beckett wasn’t there. “You don’t just photograph a man like Samuel Beckett. You offer him something,” Minihan says. “I knew his aversion to journalism. He wasn’t particularly fond of talking to the press. I knew that photographs might be the entrée.”
Minihan had been photographing his home town of Athy, County Kildare, since 1962. “My grainy, black and white photos of two men waiting at a bus stop in Emily Square could have been Vladimir and Estragon.” He guessed correctly that his images of Katie Tyrrell’s wake would interest the great writer.
“She looked like an American Indian, with her long hair, lying dressed in her Legion of Mary burial shroud… To me, it had Samuel Beckett stamped all over it.” He quotes Beckett in Waiting for Godot: “one day we were born, one day we shall die… They give birth astride of a grave.”
When Minihan called the Hyde Park Hotel again, the switchboard put him through to Beckett’s room. “A very soft Dublin voice came on the phone and said he would like to see the photographs of Athy, and in particular the photographs of the wake.”
Minihan was surprised to be invited up to Beckett’s room. “One of the greatest dramatists of the 20th century sat on the bed, asking me questions like, ‘Who is he?’ I cherished that moment, being in room 604 watching Sam holding my photographs.”
Minihan’s shot of the future Princess Diana in a see-through skirt, holding one of her nursery school charges like a Madonna, was nearly as iconic as his images of Beckett. The poets Seamus Heaney, WH Auden and Alan Ginsburg, the painters Francis Bacon and Andy Warhol, the designer Yves Saint-Laurent all posed for him.
Yet the Athy pictures mean most to Minihan. When he returned home after a five-year apprenticeship with the London Daily Mail, Minihan says, “I realised I had material for a lifetime. I spent 32 years photographing Athy. That’s the canon of my work which I love. That’s my heartbeat.”
Minihan wanted Beckett to meet another Dubliner, Bacon, who he first photographed in the 1960s. “They were from similar backgrounds and they were born within a couple years of each other,” he says. “They had friends in common. Both were in Paris around the same time.”
The closest Minihan ever came to introducing Beckett to Bacon was to drive “Sam” past Bacon’s studio in London in his Vauxhall Cavalier late one night. “He is very popular in Paris,” Beckett reflected. “Bacon would throw his arms around and say, ‘I can see absolutely no parallel between my work and Beckett,’” Minihan recalls. “But of course there was.”
Minihan knew Bacon better than Beckett. “I was never drunk with Sam… With Francis Bacon, if anyone understood Soho and the Colony Room in London and the nights that happened there… it was full of mayhem and madness and just wonderful times, which was very much part of the 1960s. Francis Bacon could be outrageous and very cruel at times through drink. You could never say that about Samuel Beckett, who was always courteous. That was the mark of who he was.”
Minihan’s seemingly disconnected stories often link similar images. At Katie Tyrrell’s wake, for example, Beckett noticed the mirror in the background, shrouded by a white sheet. Minihan later saw Film, the silent movie which Beckett had written for Buster Keaton. In it, Keaton shrouds the mirror in his Greenwich Village apartment with a white sheet.
Minihan associates Krapp going through his spools of tape with “the tactile nature of film, of purchasing it, putting it in the camera, processing it.” He keeps a mental catalogue of great artists holding sprocket-holed film. The cover of Faber & Faber’s scenario of Film showed Beckett examining a 35 mm strip. André Kertész, who Beckett and Minihan both knew, photographed the Russian director Sergei Eisenstein in the same pose. “Beckett would have seen the Eisenstein photograph,” Minihan says. “I love all the little messages that come through.”
On March 19th, Minihan celebrated his 70th birthday by returning to Beckett’s Paris, especially the 5th and 14th districts. He delivered a lecture on photography in literature at the École Normale Supérieure, where Beckett taught.
His life has been “a sequential line of snapshots,” Minihan says. He returned to Beckett’s grave in Montparnasse, which he loves because of a line in First Love which he recites: “Personally I have no bone to pick with graveyards.” On an earlier visit, Minihan found a note under a stone on Beckett’s tombstone, promising, “Sam, I will go on.”
“A lot of people regard Beckett as a kind of saint,” Minihan explains. “They thank him because the work has brought something to their lives.” There’s a supernatural element to Minihan’s reverence for Beckett. On December 22nd, 1989, he called his then partner from a London pub. “She said to me, ‘Your photograph of Samuel Beckett has fallen off the wall’. At that moment, I knew Sam had passed away.”
Minihan is a fierce defender of his art form. “A photograph is a truth,” he says. “It’s a replica of life. It’s the now of time. As Proust said, it’s a mirror with a memory.”
Minihan rails against the corporate world, “mass culture,” being “assaulted” in public places by Fox and Sky News. Digital photography is “like cremation,” he says. But he is still cheerful and passionate about his work.
“I see the world in 6cm2 Rolleiflex format. My camera takes only 12 images, which means you have to think to start with… If I photograph somebody, it’s my creation. It doesn’t belong to Google or Getty or anybody else. It belongs to John Minihan, because I am the author of the souls of the people I photograph.”