Photographer was suspended from a crane to record the topping out of the estate’s iconic tower
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Talk to Tony Brien about his career in photography and there’s always a sense of fun in his anecdotes.
Having begun his career as a photo journalist working on Fleet Street – covering football, rugby at Twickenham and cricket at Lords – a move to Northern Ireland during the Troubles was a stark contrast.
But even here he recalls the humour of the people of Belfast and the grand times enjoyed in nightclubs under hotels despite the violence and the regularity of being stopped on nights out by the army or paramilitary groups.
Returning to London, he set up a studio for an advertising agency before deciding a couple of years later to “take a bet on himself” and go freelance, starting his own business in a mews just off Oxford Street.
“I had a few clients who were using my services and the studio, which had a red filing cabinet and bits of cameras everywhere,” said Tony.
“Looking back, it was fantastic and it worked. I’ve never had a bad day in photography – if I have a big project, I’ll do anything to make it work.”
It was that attitude that would set him on a trajectory to capturing the images featured on these pages – recently rediscovered during a clear out after more than 30 years.
Tony worked extensively for Olympia And York, the company founded by the Reichmann brothers, which undertook the development of Canary Wharf.
In the late 1980s, he captured many images of the scheme as construction progressed, working with the company until it collapsed in 1993.
“The people running the company were so generous of spirit – they really wanted it to work,” said Tony.
“I think it was Sherlock Holmes who said to Watson that you should always carry a pistol east of Aldgate and that still applied to a certain extent at the time.
“When I was commissioned, I walked all over the East End and went up various tower blocks to see whether I could get a view of the development as it was being built.
“In the end I said we needed to hire a helicopter if they wanted shots of Canary Wharf in relation to the City.
“That was £1,000 a day, which was a lot of money, but I hired a panoramic camera – the only one in the country at the time – and sat in the footwell with the doors off, headset on, which was the only way to do it at the time.
“The clients loved the shots and they were used for promotional booklets that were sent out everywhere.
“They caused quite a stir at the time because of the way they used the panoramic photography.
“Olympia And York had huge plates made up – they were really keen to take ownership of that format as their look.”
The images on these pages were not, however, taken from a helicopter. In fact they almost never happened at all.
“Nowadays it can be done with drones,” said Tony.
“I’d been asked to capture the topping out of the tallest building in Europe – One Canada Square – telling the story of the regeneration and rebirth of Docklands and, in turn, London itself.
“It was early November 1990 and it wasn’t a great day, it was blustery and they usually stopped lifting anything at a wind speed of 34 knots. That day it was gusting up to 50.
“The only way to get the shots was for me to be lifted up 830ft in a small metal cage on a single chain by a crane.
“Originally the cage didn’t have any walls so they built a sort of tea chest in it to stop both me and my camera equipment falling out.
“So there I was in my ski suit, all ready, and we didn’t know whether it would happen.
“But the wind slowed considerably – the guys at the top radioed to say it was OK and we ought to take a punt at it.
“So I got in, started sorting out my cameras and rose off the ground. About halfway up, the wind started gusting again but we decided to keep going and up we went.
“After my little bucket had passed the half way mark, they started lifting the cap of the pyramid for the top of the building.
“The danger, of course, was that either that structure, or my crate would swing in the wind and hit the tower.
“So there I was, at the top, swaying around and waiting for the pyramid, which had three flags – from the UK, Canada and the USA – in celebration of those backing the project.
“I was committed. I’d said I would do it and I was right there, in position.
“I could see the workers on the building waiting for the pyramid and I had every camera possible there and loaded.
“But the trouble with the panoramic cameras is you only get four shots so you’re a bit snookered.
“There I was, sitting in my box, changing film and looking up to see where we were. Then the wind really started blowing.
“Well, you know when you’ve got the shot, and I thought I had, but I bent down to load some more film and felt the bucket drop a little.
“I dropped into the foetal position, as though that was going to do anything.
“Then everything was OK, I stood up, got one more shot and then told the workers to get me out of there.
“Going down was fine and I jumped straight in the Range Rover and drove to central London to get to the processing house.
“Then, when the shots were done, I rang the client and said: ‘I think I got it’. Everyone was terribly excited.
“The flags had got knotted up and for that last shot I shouted over to the workers to pull the Union Jack out – they were very accommodating.
“It was quite something to witness their bravery in those dangerous conditions as they guided the pyramid into place.
“Finding the film again was a really nice discovery.
“The people running Olympia And York were a real pleasure to deal with – it’s something I’ll never forget”
Tony continues to work as a photographer and his Canary Wharf images are currently being shown at Ad Lib Gallery in Wimbledon.
For all enquiries regarding the images featured on these pages, please email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his website via this link
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- Jon Massey is co-founder and editorial director of Wharf Life and writes about a wide range of subjects in Canary Wharf, Docklands and east London - contact via email@example.com