A Friendship Facialised

Photographer John Minihan talks to about his latest exhibition, his friendship with Samuel Beckett, and the stories that live behind the image

All photos: John Minihan

All photos: John Minihan

There is something intimate yet distant about the face of John Minihan’s subject, with its strikingly angular and aged surface, its piercing but distracted eyes. It is Samuel Beckett, the groundbreaking Irish avant-garde playwright and major literary icon of the twentieth-century. Yet the photographs don’t speak of this fame; these are captured moments of a man of unique vision, contemplative in a Parisian café or caught up in the midst of carefully directing his work. There is a face to that man whose intelligent, absurd and intense works feature today in everything from scholarly journals to pop culture. Here, in the form of Minihan’s photography, we can glimpse Beckett as writer and friend, director and individual.

“You don’t just photograph Samuel Beckett; you offer him something,” explains Minihan, gesturing to the thoughtful- and gaunt-looking man in the picture behind him – a face which he himself admits was “made for black and white photography”. When the two first met up for a photography session in London in 1980, Beckett carefully studied the photos Minihan had brought with him; they were all of his Irish hometown, and for him these ordinary people were the characters of his plays.

“I had from 1969 until 1980 to think on how I was going to photograph this man. I understood his aversion to newspapers, but I thought perhaps that if I showed Samuel Beckett these photos of my hometown, he’d allow me to take his portrait.” He was right: Minihan met Beckett in London again in 1980, 1984, then finally in Paris in 1985 – this visit produced some truly remarkable pieces which Minihan, chuckling, attributes to a “miracle” of some kind, for Beckett had requested that this time Minihan leave his camera behind.

It’s important to photograph everything associated with genius; I love knowing the story behind the work

Minihan brought it along regardless, as he was hoping to honour the writer’s upcoming 80th birthday with some new shots. However, he recalls the anxiety of wondering whether Sam would give the ok: “I had already thought of a place where I could photograph him. I took him there, but he said ‘not here – come with me’. I followed him to this café which had marvellous natural lighting, thinking, ‘this is Beckett in Paris: his chosen home.’” The resulting photograph is among Minihan’s most outstanding pieces, where the two empty cups, full ashtray, receding light and those monochromatic facial features weave one layer of meaning into another.

Through his memories of working with Beckett and the subject matter of the majority of his work, one can tell photography is an intensely personal experience for Minihan; indeed, he argues that knowing one’s subject and making sure they’re comfortable is what a photographer should always do.

“Some photographers nowadays think they’re more important than the people they photograph; if you look at the photos where Sam was pestered into posing, he looks like a prisoner. If you’re going to photograph a writer, you must read his works first.” For Minihan, contextual knowledge always makes for a more natural photo, comfortable shooting session, and a professional relationship that can continue to grow into a personal one over time.

He adds, “It’s important for photos to have a narrative; to photograph everything associated with genius, whether this be a person’s hands, their letterbox, or their car. I love the idea of knowing the story behind the work.” That is precisely what this exhibition, ‘Beckett In Photographs’, captures well. Thanks to photos such as Beckett in Room 604 (1980) or Beckett Sitting on a Bed (1980), we are first invited into the personal realm of this individual, then go on to see him at work in pieces like Beckett Making Notes (1984) and Beckett Directing Waiting For Godot (1984), then finally come to understand how his work lives on with shots from recent performances such as Lee Evans and Michael Gambon in Endgame (2004).

It is hardly surprising that the time and care which goes into a photograph before it is taken should be so fundamental to Minihan; recalling the first time he stepped into the darkroom of a newspaper office at the age of fifteen, he says, “I loved seeing an image come to life in front of my very eyes – I still get very excited about that.”

It is clear Beckett was in good hands. Seeing a literary figure whom many find intimidating to discuss or understand in a light both impressive and benign, ordinary and extraordinary, provides real insight into both this individual and the medium that captures him so well.

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