London’s Soho has a reputation for seediness which can lead tourists to feel a little disappointed when they actually visit it. What was for centuries the red light district of the metropolis is today an area populated largely by media companies (a change in use perhaps not as unlikely as it might at first seem). Even so a little wandering can throw up some reminders of how different things were even sixty years ago, when the narrow streets were lined with prostitutes, and the bars were packed with London’s bohemians.
As a regular drinker in these bars the painter and photographer John Deakin became in effect the chronicler of this segment of Soho’s history, brushing shoulders and glasses with the likes of Dylan Thomas, George Dyer, and forming important long term friendships with painters including Lucian Freud and most notably Francis Bacon. Not only did Deakin have privileged access to these figures, some of whom like Freud were notoriously private, but he also had a remarkable knack for a taking a revealing portrait. While Deakin’s photographs might be easily overlooked when considered alongside the apparently much more careful construction of those by contemporaries like Cecil Beaton, the power of Deakin’s pictures lies exactly in how spontaneous and raw they often feel.
At the same time as propping up various bars, Deakin also cut out a relatively successful, if haphazard career as a fashion photographer for Vogue. Included in the exhibition are several displays related to his time there, including his sole cover for the magazine. His drinking and spiky personality (even his friend Bacon once described him as a ‘horrible little man’) seemingly got the better of his career however and he was fired twice. It’s not hard to see why, included in one vitrine in the gallery space are a series of letters from Vogue to an insurance company reporting Deakin’s regular loss of expensive camera equipment in taxis, presumably while under the influence. Other stories imply he also pawned his equipment at times, presumably in order to buy alcohol.
Deakin himself cuts rather a sad figure, besides his apparent alcoholism there is a sense of his resentment that his paintings – several of which are included in the exhibition – were not at all as well acclaimed as his photography. It’s easy to think it ungrateful of Deakin not to have simply accepted whatever recognition that fickle fate might have offered him, but anyone who has experienced it can attest there is little more frustrating than gaining a reputation for something secondary to one’s real interest, all the more so when one then becomes dependent on that thing for one’s livelihood. As if reflecting this resentment many of Deakin’s prints on show in the exhibition are battered and torn, as if he really cared very little for them.
Perhaps the most sadly striking photograph in the entire exhibition, and the one which seems to most appropriately sum up Deakin himself is also the most easily overlooked. Amongst the rows of photographs of important artists and bohemian celebrities, one picture shows Deakin’s own mantelpiece. On it are prints of a small constellation of art world stars including Freud and Bacon, propped up like religious icons on a spartan altar. But their arrangement in the photograph suggests that in the schema of John Deakin’s life they are all quite secondary in importance to the object they are arrayed around; an empty bottle of wine.
Under the Influence: John Deakin and the Lure of Soho at The Photographers Gallery until 20 July 2014