He recalled, at the age of 12 in 1948 : "One day the Festival Ballet was doing a demonstration class at school, trying to recruit dancers, and you’d get some kind of grant, I think. I stood up and went on stage, and it didn’t seem too bad to me because I was always slightly athletic. At St Mary’s, Sidcup I’d boxed for the college so I kept quite fit. Sitting in the audience was a dancing teacher from nearby who asked me afterwards if I’d like to become a dancer, I said "yes", it was better than being a roadsweeper. I had no education, you see". In fact, the school had told Colin that he'd be lucky to be a roadsweeper when he left school. (link) Colin attended dancing classes and two was seduced by his private dance teacher at just 14 and recalled : "She was much older and the sex was life changing".
In 1952 at the age of 16 Colin's life changed dramatically when he won a scholarship to study at the Royal Ballet School and whilst training as a dancer met the Canadian dancer Lynn Seymour, and seen here as the 4th dancer (link), who he would marry when he was 26, ten years later. He later recounted how tough it was at the School for the girls and said : "For the boys it was apiece of cake. I think they would have taken me in if I'd had one leg. There was a shortage of male dancers in those days. Nobody wanted to be because everybody thought you were gay. Homosexuality in those days was to go to prison". (link)
"I enjoyed being in the Army. It was different from the dancing stuff, but the physical hardship was the same. But because they all knew I was a dancer, they assumed I was gay. It was one of the toughest infantry regiments. The sergeant-major called out, "Which one of you is the ballet dancer?" I stepped forward. And they gave me a terrible time in the barrack room. All trying to jump into bed. I took up boxing again in the Army and they left me alone because they knew that if anybody attacked me I’d kill them. I literally did get stopped nearly killing somebody, bashing his head on the iron bedstead - and I wouldn’t have minded if I had killed him. Because you’re being bullied, and to be bullied is unforgivable. He’d come along and try to stick his dick in my ear, and things. I laid him out. Nobody joined in - they just stood watching".
After he had finished training he recalled the selection officer "told me our regiment was going to Malaysia to fight in the jungle. He told me, "You don’t want to go to the jungle ?" I said, "I don’t know what else to do". He said, "Why don’t you become a physical training instructor?" And I ended up doing that, teaching physical training at the Tower of London. I could live at home when I was doing that". He concluded : "I hated the army. It was like ballet, actually, but much worse. I became 'acting sergeant' and we’d get invited to do physical demonstrations. All I had when I left was two demob suits, dreadful things. A bit like leaving jail"."I went back to the farm after I was demobbed, and this guy, Mr Cheesman, who had this beautiful farm in Kent, took me back. We only got piece pay. You got paid by the box of apples. He said he’d give me a little bit of money and showed me this field, where I was supposed to wind these young hop shoots up the wire. I saw this field which seemed to go on forever, and thought to myself, there’s no way I can live like this, I’ll go back to the ballet. Within three or six weeks of being back I was in Australia on the tour".
He recalled : "There was a Hungarian photographer called Mike Peto who used to hang around the corps du ballet when I was a dancer. He didn't take pictures in the way that the rest did. Instead, he crept around the back and caught us lounging around. Dancers come alive in front of the curtain, but he wanted to snap the reality: the endless tedium of rehearsals in dusty church halls in the North East, the sheer misery of it all. He really inspired me and I became obsessed by the work of other Central European photographers such as André Kertész, who was also a great influence on Cartier-Bresson". Following in Peto's footsteps Colin said : "The thing is, dancers always want to look perfect, and I like taking pictures when they’re off guard, working in difficult places or in rough environments. What I wanted to show was that, for all the glamour, there’s a lot of hard work".(link)"We went to South Africa. I’ve got pictures upstairs. Not a black person in any of them. Except for one dinner I went to with my first girlfriend, it was all Afrikaans, they hated black people. We practically witnessed the first riots, actually the Sharpeville Massacre was on the day we went waterskiing on the Vereeniging River, which was just outside Sharpeville. I’ve still got some photographs somewhere. We didn’t know anything about it. Nobody in the ballet knew what was going on - we were so unpoliticised".
Back in Britain, in addition to backstage and stage, Colin took advantage of the ballet company's travel around the country, which allowed him to visit the Gorbals, Glasgow in 1961. Driving with fellow dancers from Newcastle to Sunderland that year, he saw, north of Birmingham, coal searchers on the spoil-heaps. He recalled : "We used to travel all over the country and I'd see ways of life. I was fascinated by coal miners and working class and that's what I concentrated on. Photography in those days was not an art form, it was just a thing for recording. I mean I photographed, documenting something you know would go".(link)
Colin was struck by the similarities between the life of coal miners and ballet dancer : "Because they do the same type of physical work; they live in close-knit communities - mining villages are the same as dance companies and down the pit miners help each other, even though they might be enemies. Down there, even if they don’t talk above, they’re all in it together, in the same boat - there’s a kind of camaraderie. It seemed to me that in the ballet world it was the same". He also said : "There are similarities between dancing and photography - it's about discipline. When you're a dancer you live in a closed community. For me it was like being a nun. I would get £14 a week but wasn't allowed to do anything - sunbathe, ride bikes, do sports. Photography is similar. I was never interested in being a member of companies, because it would have destroyed me. I like that I can be isolated if I want to be".
Back in London they stayed in the basement flat of South African choreographer, John Cranko's house in Alderney Street, Pimlico and were filmed there, where Lynn supplied the film narrative : "Some sundays, you've had a very hectic week and if Colin and I hadn't seen each other in our various rushings - sunday, it blooms like a kind of rose. You wake up, not wanting to wake up". (link)
He described some of the tours he accompanied as "weird" and recalled the one in 1961 which took in Tokyo, Hong Kong and the Philippines and saw him pose in costume with Manila police officers. He recalled : "When we got off the plane at Manila, these incredibly wealthy Filipinos were looking after us. On the Sunday we had a day off, and the Marcoses invited us to a party and they served up this meal where there were gigantic cubes of ice inside which were these exotic fish - this bloke would ask you to choose which one, and you’d point at one and they’d cook it. We had to do this changing of seats during the meal, and I ended up next to Imelda Marcos. I had no idea what to say to her, but we were facing this beautiful bay, and there was this smoke on the horizon. I asked her, "What’s that?" She said, "Oh, we’re burning off some of the slums". When we got back to the hotel - we all had chauffeur-driven cars, and I asked my driver to pick me up early in the morning and take me down to where the fires were. I went and saw what was happening and it was dreadful to see them bulldozing people’s houses and setting light to them. That’s when my life changed. I thought, 'I don’t want to live and not really know what’s going on in the world'. So that’s the moment really when I decided I’d leave the ballet".(link)
Colin said he : "realised photography was a discipline where I didn’t have to write my name or count a beat” and in 1962 he left his career in ballet and started work as a professional photographer and confessed : "I didn’t really like ballet that much – I couldn’t take the tension. You’ve got to be very self-assured" and "I never really enjoyed being in the Company. Towards the end I hated it, I couldn’t wait to get out. I was slightly dyslexic with music and other things, but if you’re not musical There are a lot of ballerinas even who aren’t musical, but I found it nerve-wracking". He also married Lynn Seymour in the same year and recalled : "I remember going to Vancouver for the wedding and not even knowing who my best man was going to be".
She was referring to those he took at the Liverpool Docks in 1963, where he photographed one of his most memorable images of the docker waiting to be signed on for work. Colin published this and those of the miners in his book 'Grafters' in 2002. In relation to the book he said : "My pictures of miners in Newcastle were the first I ever shot. I felt they really represented the extreme conditions that labourers worked under at that point in time. I can empathise with my pictures because my childhood memories go hand in hand with working class hardship. But it's like a form of guilt. Because I come from a working class background most of my work has been with the underdogs and I guess that's because I feel I still belong there" .
In the same year he was sent to cover the race riots in Birmingham, Alabama, USA. He recalled meeting Bull Connor who was opposed to granting civil rights to black Americans and was in charge of the police and fire departments. He said to Colin: "If you go across there and you join them, (Martin Luther King and his supporters) I take it you'll be one of them and you're likely to get shot and that was out of his car and he was sitting there with a double barreled shotgun and around his feet there were hundreds of cartridge cases". Colin ignored the threat and crossed the street.(link)"In 1969, while shooting a Sunday Times feature, I was put under house arrest by Colonel Gaddafi”. The boy soldiers of the Khmer Rouge were followed by the Cargo Cults (link) of the New Hebrides who worshipped Prince Phillip. The breadth of his work in these years was extraordinary. (link)(link) and gangs in Jamaica were followed by prostitution in the Philippines (link). He said of the Philippine's : "I didn't know it was as corrupt when I went as a dancer, but when I went as a photographer you saw it. I went to the prison and I wanted to go to the lunatic asylum. They wouldn't let me go there, they let me go to the prison. They had all these people on death row. They had the old electric chair which was made in Chicago and the Prison Governor said : "Do you want to see an execution ?" I said "No thanks". That would have been against the ethics of being a photojournalist to do that. I knew that". (link)
Colin painted a vivid picture of his life as a photographer rubbing shou;ders with actors back home in Britain the 1960s : "The worst people to photograph are politicians - they’re the most conceited. Pop stars, sometimes. But politicians I hated. I think with actors it is more about the head that you're focusing on, the body doesn’t seem to matter so much. Like Dirk Bogarde, for instance - he could only be photographed one side! The other one was that great friend of Lynn’s, Fenella Fielding - who would get everything booked in a restaurant and then go in and say, "Oh, I can’t sit here, the lighting is all wrong.""We would go to Stratford quite a lot and I was asked by Nova magazine to do a profile on the Royal Shakespeare Company. I knew Michael Williams (the actor), who was married to Judi Dench; we used to get so pissed in the 'Dirty Duck', this pub just across the road from the stage door. It was run by this amazing woman - you know, the hours of opening in those days were very strict, but all the actors would get into the pub and she’d lock the door, and get out the Champagne and Guinness. Great time I had there, we all did"."He asked me to go on their first American tour, but I turned it down, because there was too much drinking. When I first met them, I went into this club in Manchester, and the place was just filled with Mateus Rosé bottles, they used to drink gallons of it, pop pills, and not turn up for the second show. Terrible. And always fighting - they’d fight on the bloody train. No discipline. So to go on a tour with them I’d have ended up a drug addict or an alcoholic. Which they all did. You see, Pete Townsend did, and Eric Clapton. Though I like Eric very much - a very nice bloke".
However, Colin recalled : "I did a stint of pictures with them that I kept in a drawer for five years before I even noticed their potential. I shot them as normal lads, not rock stars. I wasn't interested in being a celebrity photographer, it didn't have enough depth for me. They were lovely guys and Pete Townshend inspired me, he was very ambitious". Pete Townshend revealed in an interview with the Sunday Times in 2007 : “It is very satisfying looking at Colin’s wonderfully mischievous photographs today. There is a continuity between what I am doing today and what I was doing in those pictures. Seeing them makes me feel more like the artisan, potter or painter I have always longed to be, rather than a mere pop performer".
Guardian published : "It was taken in a pub in Fulham, London. The woman is Lynn Seymour, who I was married to at the time. They were doing 'Romeo and Juliet' together, and they used to get on well; we used to go out drinking together all the time. Rudi was a great laugh, very outspoken – if something wasn’t right, he’d really lay down the law. He was fantastically bright, spoke six languages, and had an animal magnetism: you couldn’t take your eyes off him when he was on stage". "There was no paparazzi in those days. I just asked the bloke at the bar if I could take a few pictures, and he said "Fine". What I love about it is those people at the next table: they are just having a quiet drink and didn’t know or care about Nureyev, even though he was all over the papers". (link)
He confessed that when he took the photograph : "I wasn’t getting on too well with Lynn at the time; in fact, we broke up shortly afterwards". A major factor in the break up was the role played by the brilliant chorographer Kenneth MacMillan who Colin knew well. He recalled that a few years before : "He invited me, when Lynn was dancing in New York, he said, "I won’t fly, I’m going by boat to New York, will you come with me?" So we got on the France, and we were first-class - it was beautiful. But he was there with James Baldwin, the writer, amazingly gay. It was terrible. There were 23 bars on this boat, and they would go to every single one, and drink. Because first-class didn’t pay. So they got so pissed. I didn’t drink so much in those days, but it was all a bit embarrassing"."did everything he could to break us up. She was his muse and he was a very selfish man”. In fact Lynn would abort a child she conceived with Colin in order to be available for MacMillan’s world premiere of 'Romeo and Juliet' (link), which had been created for her. However, due to commercial pressures, MacMillan allowed Nureyev and Fonteyn to give the premiere instead, which devastated Lynn and sounded the death knell for her marriage to Colin. In 2011 when Colin was asked :"From your point of view, as husband, you were a spare part" he replied : "I was like a spare prick at the wedding".
The Project, often visited by the police, was an irritant to neighbours who complained of noise and overcrowding. It took Colin 6 months to gain the trust of the youths and admission to the house as seen in him photographed with resident, Warren. Many of them embraced their portrayal in the media as iconic delinquents which reinforced their status as outcasts. This first generation of Afro-Caribbean young people to be born in Britain experienced prejudice and disadvantage in education, employment and with the law and Colin sought, through his lens, to humanise what had been a one-sided news story. He said at the time : "I notice that a lot of boys are fascinated by the Black Power movement. They also talk a lot about home, family, identity. That's what Brother Herman is trying to do - help these young people to find and know themselves". The year 1973 was also an important one in Colin's private life : he married the model Priscilla Tanner, seen her gracing the Observer cover for John Gale's magazine story in 1966. Their daughter, Sarah was born in 1984 and Colin remained married to Priscilla for the rest of his life - for 48 years.
Supported by grants from the Gulbenkian Foundation and the Arts Council, Colin continued to photograph the Project until 1976 when the Project dissolved. He said : “I felt it was such a good thing to do that I carried on going up there in my Volkswagen camper van. Sometimes I used to go in there and not take any pictures because the atmosphere was too tense. In the end I was picking up the kids to and from the court". Colin stayed in touch with many of the residents and was invited to photograph their weddings, funerals, and other important occasions for decades to come. He later said : "Of all my work, I am most proud of The Black House". He said : “I knew that what I was doing, for a white person to get inside that place, was a privilege. It was like you found something that was unique and you stuck to it, and no other people had done it before”. He also said : "This was one of the hardest assignments I ever did and i used to say to myself I'm never going back. I couldn't do it again. It's too tough".
The Black House photographs were displayed for the first time at 'The Photographer’s Gallery' in 1977, where they became the subject of controversy. Critics complained that Colin was making money out of his photographs of this marginalized community, but he remained convinced that even when his position was uncomfortable, the importance of finishing the series was even more important. He said : "The reality of what I had been doing was only made clear to me on the opening night of the exhibition, when I was asked: "Which part of America did you take these photographs?" I said : ‘Holloway Road, about three miles from where we are both standing.’ I now realise it could have been anywhere in the world where a small community is threatened and afraid". Colin later displayed his portfolio from 'The Black House' at the 'Missing Chapter Symposium in London in 2011 : Link
Colin once said :
"My photography reflects me completely. The bottom line is that anyone can operate a camera. It's the mind that sees the image. So my images are my truth - my take on what's real and if people can see it too then that's great".