Martin's joy, charting the lives of others

11:25am Monday 6th October 2008

By Mick Middles

IT was a moment: An instant. A young photographer, crouched before the stage at Bowdon Vale Youth Club. In front of him, an embryonic band in full flight, singer hurtling across the stage in soon-to-be famous crazed dance. The band, Joy Division, had just started their rapid ascent to infamy. The photographer, Martin O’Neill from the Sale and Altrincham Messenger, avoided the singer’s flambouyant exertion and snapped away. That night, no doubt, he remained wholly unaware of just how iconic those photos would become. The singer, Ian Curtis, famously captured cradling his head in his arms while behind him, cementing the shot in time and place, a spread of flock wallpaper.

They were to become among the most famous rock photographs of all time appearing across the world in magazines, inspiring sequences in films and proudly adorning exhibition spaces in Manchester and, most recently, Tokyo.

When Limited Edition met Martin O’Neill, he had just returned from his Tokyo adventure to his native Culcheth, where he runs a top-of-the market photography business, producing wedding and portraiture shots of the highest aesthetic quality.

“Tokyo was just amazing,” he said, likening his experience to the heady exploits of Bill Murray in the film ‘Lost In Translation.’ “It was a bit like that. I was completely in awe of the city, the politeness of the people, the lovely girls and, of course the fact that people the other side of the world were gathered to see my photographs was pretty mind-blowing. I was put up in a top hotel and treated like a star, really.”

Given that almost 30 years of intense photographic (and life) experience has flashed by since the Joy Division gig, it was intriguing to enquire if O’Neill actually recalls much about the evening (especially as this writer was also in attendance, and recalls very little...and certainly doesn’t remember that wallpaper).

“No, not really. There were a series of gigs at Bowdon Vale, which was a very unlikely venue. Manchester band Fast Cars played, and The Freshies from Timperley, but that was it, really. It was just one of those lucky evenings and I don’t think anyone really expected Joy Division to become so legendary.”

O’Neill is that rarity. Born to take photographs. It is what he is, rather than what he does. He has been snapping away since childhood, and this year celebrates 30 years as a professional photographer. It’s a time for looking back. A selection of his first photographs has just featured in Eccles Library’s recent 100th anniversary celebrations. Eccles-1977 is a collection of 100 black and white images from the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, the year before O’Neill got his first job on a newspaper. And his new book, ‘Don’t Miss This’, is another collection of images from the lost, evocative days of the seventies and eighties. Above all else, the photographs showcase O'Neill's’s keen eye.

“I am completely self-taught and, I suppose, not qualified in the traditional sense. But taking good photographs isn’t about being a technician, it’s not about snapping away at as many shots as possible on the digital camera. It’s about putting a great deal of thought and care into every single shot. Digital cameras are great but they have made bad photography very easy.”

This writer shares a few significant historical moments with Martin O’Neill. Unforgettable was the time we travelled to a Hertfordshire village to interview and photograph Brian Connolly the late and legendary singer with seventies glam rockers, Sweet. Connolly cut a sad figure, that day. Weathered and exhausted, living in near poverty in a largely unfurnished abode he, nonetheless, proved full of anecdotes from the golden age of pop. O’Neill later photographed Connolly somersaulting upside down on the settee. Another moment. Another distinctive portrait. Typical of O’Neill. His relaxed approach often serves to make him invisible, allowing his subjects, whether bride and groom or otherwise, to carry on in the most natural way. It is the mark of a true artist...not to dominate proceedings but to quietly search for those rare moments that exude character and tell a fuller story.

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