Soho is a permissive ghetto to which its inhabitants consign themselves. During the 1950s and ’60s, the photographer John Deakin was intimate with the area’s legendary drinking culture revolving around the Colony Room members’ bar, and his images formed the basis of important paintings by fellow habitué Francis Bacon. Like Bacon, Deakin was notoriously difficult: an alcoholic from the Wirral and about as far from the cool Swinging ’60s photographer figure as you could imagine. He edges into the picture in this show of some of his finest work. A shot of him in Vogue’s studios is stiffly formal. Pockmarked and drab, he seems an unlikely fashion snapper. The magazine sacked him twice. A photo from two years later finds him halfway down a glass in the York Minster pub (aka the French House).
Booze was already dogging him, and a later photo of Deakin shirtless and pissed in what looks like a lock-up garage suggests he’s almost down and out. Certainly he struggled to make a living from his huge talent, and was scornful of photography. As a result, he was a terrible curator of his own work. Lots of his negatives have disappeared, and many surviving prints are creased, torn and covered in odd spots, as though his rackety demi-monde existence had physically eaten away at his photographs.
Unlike, say, David Bailey, Deakin does not mythologise, or legitimise fame with beauty. His portraits are hardly flattering. Dylan Thomas looms up, moon-faced and intractable. Francis Bacon’s head seems to be on upside-down. Bacon’s lover George Dyer poses awkwardly in front of a window of champagne bottles, one hand plucking at the other. You get a sense of Deakin shoving his lens in too close for comfort. But he has a drunk’s sensitivity as well as a drunk’s aggression, and the lives of his sitters in all their glamorous and grotesque contradictions pour out of these pictures.
The exhibition coincides with the publication of a new Art/Books publication written by Robin Muir (www.artbookspublishing.co.uk; £29.99).
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Fashion and street photographer John Deakin was, as it turns out, a frustrated painter. His painting was distinctly average, but his photography was outstanding, as this enjoyable exhibition attests. While his portraits of painters, writers and models are all interesting, it’s the shots of everyday people that are most captivating.
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