Under the Influence: John Deakin and the Lure of Soho / Reviewed by Helen Trompeteler / 19.05.14
“…They were frequently portraits to recoil from, with the stark reality of identification shots taken in prison” These words by photographer and writer Daniel Farson describe his first encounter with John Deakin’s photographs. As explored through the exhibition Under the Influence: John Deakin and the Lure of Soho curated by Robin Muir, today Deakin’s enduring photographs of 1950s and 1960s Soho have lost none of their impact.
This exhibition of some seventy photographs, paintings, and related showcase ephemera begins with photographs originally produced for Town magazine’s feature ‘Soho Fare’ (May 1961). Portraits of local figures, including writers Laura Del-Rivo and Eileen Bigland, are shown alongside vernacular street photographs, including a selection from Deakin’s ‘London Walls’ series.
Deakin began taking photographs while living in Paris with collector Arthur Jeffress in the mid 1930s. During the war, he was in the Army Film and Photography Unit in Egypt, Syria, and Malta, before settling in Soho from the late 1940s. His photographs appeared in Picture Post and Lilliput (1945), Tatler, The Sketch and Harper’s Bazaar (1946), before Deakin began a turbulent but prolific career at Vogue magazine. Famously hired and fired twice by the magazine, he still produced over 550 sittings. Displayed photographs such as ‘Out in the Afternoon’ (1947) show Deakin’s role in bringing urban realism to fashion photography in the post-war period.
Today Deakin is most remembered for his 1950s and 1960s artistic and literary portraits, many commissioned by Vogue for features such as ‘Painters and Pictures’ (February 1952). Exhibited studies of artists including Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, John Minton, Eduardo Paolozzi; poets and writers such as W. S. Graham, George Barker, Dylan Thomas and Jeffrey Bernard; and muses including Henrietta Moraes, continue to define our understanding of this era. Deakin’s important but ambiguous friendship with Bacon saw the painter crediting him as ‘the best since Nadar and Julia Margaret Cameron’ while dismissing the photographs he commissioned as mere aide-memoires.
Deakin was ‘the second nastiest little man’ Barbara Hutton had ever met; and George Melly recalled a ‘vicious little drunk of inventive malice’. This exhibition fully acknowledges Deakin’s alleged flawed character, which arguably informed his talent: an objective, confrontational, photographic eye, unpolluted by flattery. This democracy within Deakin’s image-making is well echoed by five grids which pace the exhibition: early grouped portraits of Soho shop keepers and tradesmen are given equal weight to grouped portraits of the most significant painters and writers of the age.
This exhibition is rare in how it invites the viewer to relish the photograph as artefact and fully experience a print’s life history as an object. At Vogue, Deakin produced high contrast enlargement prints measuring 20” x 16” on average, much larger than those of his contemporaries. Such enlargements are often generously float mounted within their frame, allowing the visitor to absorb every crease, tear, or frayed corner. On Deakin’s death in 1972, Bruce Bernard rescued boxes of such prints from under the bed of his 68 Berwick Street flat. These later formed Bernard’s important exhibition The Salvage of a Photographer (V&A, 1984). Later exhibitions which further restored Deakin’s reputation included John Deakin Photographs (NPG, 1996) also curated by Robin Muir.
In his lifetime, Deakin did attract critical acclaim, notably for exhibitions John Deakin’s Paris (July 1956) and John Deakin’s Rome (September 1956) at David Archer’s Greek Street bookshop. However his exceptional talent was frequently cut short by his own disregard for photography, as testified to by exhibited ephemera such as memos from Vogue editor Audrey Withers dated 30 December 1947 and 8 December 1947 lamenting his reckless loss of photographic equipment. He produced two books London Today (1949) and Rome Alive (1951, with travel writer Christopher Kininmonth), but on his death further book projects remained unfulfilled, and Deakin’s negatives and prints on file at Vogue lay unclaimed.
A feature wall of paintings and collages in this exhibition confirm the painful irony of John Deakin. Like many twentieth century photographers before him, he craved recognition foremost as a painter. He frequently jeopardised his photographic career, yet his photographs never fail to remind us of the medium’s potency. As the exhibition closes, we encounter a poignant photograph of Deakin’s mantelpiece, discovering here the portraits and friendships which were of special personal significance: including Elizabeth Smart, John Minton, Francis Bacon, Robert Colquohon and Robert McBryde, and Lucian Freud. The final photograph we witness is one of Deakin’s most important, showing Timothy Behrens, Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon, Frank Auerbach and Michael Andrew at Wheelers restaurant, Old Compton Street, in 1963. Jeffrey Bernard recalled Deakin manipulated this court of Soho ‘with malevolent glee’, yet it remains immortalised in his photographs, as this exhibition so engagingly convinces us once more.
– reviewed by Helen Trompeteler
 Farson discusses Deakin in many of his memoirs including in ‘Soho in the Fifties’ (1987)
 Deakin was a staff photographer from September 1947-August 1948 and August 1951-March 1954.
 Francis Bacon quoted in the exhibition catalogue for ‘The Salvage of a Photographer’ (V&A, 1984)
 Francis Bacon quoted In Conversation with Michel Archimbaud (Phaidon, 1993)
 George Melly quoted in Farson’s ‘Soho in the Fifties’ (1987)
 Jeffrey Bernard quoted in the exhibition catalogue for ‘The Salvage of a Photographer’ (V&A, 1984)
The Photographers' Gallery, 16-18 Ramillies Street, London W1F 7LW