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Arts Lives:
The Man Who Shot Beckett

A profile of photographer John Minihan, directed by David Bickley
RTÉ One, Tuesday, April 10, 10.15pm

john minihan
John Minihan; perhaps his most famous series is the photographs he took of Samuel Beckett in London and Paris.

As part of RTÉ's Beckett 100 season, David Bickley's Arts Lives film explores the personal and professional relationship of acclaimed photographer John Minihan and Nobel laureate Samuel Beckett.

John Minihan is probably the most important Irish photographer alive today, his subjects ranging from Francis Bacon to John Hurt, Princess Diana to William Burroughs. Yet it is his two principle bodies of work, his acclaimed pictures of Athy, and the famous series of photographs he took of Samuel Beckett in London and Paris, that have made John Minihan's reputation.

The Man Who Shot Beckett is both a professional and personal profile of the man actor Stephen Rea singles out for his "blustering sincerity". Tracing John's life and work from humble upbringing in his aunt's home in Athy to his move to London at the age of 12, The Man Who Shot Beckett explores how John Minihan became one of the most respected press photographers in London, and beyond. London made Minihan. Recalling those early "vibrant, exciting" days, John recalls how it was at the Daily Mail, working as an office boy, that he got his first experience of the dark room. One of his first photographs quickly won the Evening Standard Amateur Photography Award, and from there John moved with growing success into a heady new world of celebrity. Photographing, among others, The Beatles, The Who and The Kinks, Minihan's iconic portraits of Chuck Berry and Jackie O., and the infamous transparent Lady Diana, are still recognised today as among the finest press photographs ever taken.

John's was a happy childhood, and in many ways his early years in Athy provided that essential grounding in the commonplace and everyday that was to characterise his most sucessful work. For John, re-visiting the corporation houses of Athy and the fields that were his childhood playground, it seems not much has changed. "The dogs sound the same as they did when I was four or five ...".

It was years later, in the 1970's, that John produced his landmark work, The Last Wake. Shot mainly in Athy, the series explored an Ireland now gone, with many images going on to grace the covers of Irish novels, books and posters. Intimate without being intrusive, John Minihan named his "unknown" subjects, an act that singled him out from his contemporary practitioners. His photograph of Mickey Bowden in Bertie Doyle's pub in Athy still graces the Penguin edition of Joyces' Dubliners. For John Minihan, it is as important that Mickey is named as it is important that the photograph was used.

It was The Last Wake that proved to be the key that unlocked the door to Beckett. When Beckett saw the shots, he was instantly struck by the similarity between them and the characters of Beckett's own works. "I met Sam through the photos of Athy ... through the ordinariness of life. He saw more in them that I did!"

John Minihan's second great body of work, the Beckett portfolio, took shape throughout the eighties in London and Paris. "Paris is the city of photography," says John, "the city of street photography." Acutely aware that "photography creates myths and destroys lives", his relationship with Beckett was always one of intense respect. But far from being distant and difficult Beckett was, as Stephen Rea says, "very open to friendship, if you had the nerve ..."John now lives in West Cork and still works with as much energy as he did 30 years ago, recently documenting portraits of artisanal food makers in that area.

From Soho in London to St Germain du Pres in Paris, and on to Athy, The Man Who Shot Beckett  charts the remarkable artistic journey of John Minihan. Featuring world renowned painter Maggie Hambling - who has just completed a portrait of Sam based on one of John's pictures - and Stephen Rea, a lifelong fan, The Man Who Shot Beckett is both an intimate portrait of one of our greatest photographers, and the intriguing story behind two of the twentieth century's great photographic bodies of work.