BogeArt Review- Under The Influence: John Deakin and the lure of Soho

Deakin Drinking, 1960s, John Deakin, Courtesy Robin Muir Chefs in a Soho Café, 1957, John Deakin, Courtesy Robin Muir Jeffrey Bernard, Cambridge Circus, London, 1950s, John Deakin, Courtesy Robin Muir

Previously, and perhaps naively, I have seen photography purely as a form of documentation. Even during the, albeit brief, period at 15 when I wanted to be a landscape/nature photographer, what excited me about taking photos was seeing something beautiful and capturing it in that ephemeral moment. I have too readily dismissed photography as merely the perfect image; ignoring the emotive instincts in a scenario which other art forms more blatantly depict. Paintings, sculptures and installations are more calculated, more contrived, with the artist being able to alter as much as they wish in any given expansive period of time. A photograph can be prepared for, but it must all inevitably and somewhat uncontrollably fall into place in an instant.

I haven’t forgotten Photoshop, but photography relies largely on seeming real (that is surely what sets it apart from other forms of image making?). When that realness is altered in such an emotionless way- a computer mouse does not transfer the sensibility of the human hand- I think perhaps it brings with it an emptiness/falseness that is absent from unaltered photographs. Saying this I understand that flicking through magazines and getting lost on Nowness has its appeal, but forgive me for being excited to seeing some unedited, black and white unfiltered photographs.

John Deakin’s style of photography is not contrived or overly thought through. There is a really great part of the exhibition where we get to see Deakin’s selection process. There is a contact sheet on display of a series of portraits of the writer Frank Norman, with the version that Deakin selected to be the final piece circled on the sheet. This highlights the organic qualities of his work, as these images do not vary greatly, its feels as though he circling the image that made the most interesting portrait came naturally to him. He feels at ease as a photographer.

Deakin strove for appreciation as a painter. He almost resented his success as a photographer- he was hired and fired by Vogue multiple times. Daniel Farson, a friend of Deakin, said the photographer ‘feared success more than failure and embraced the latter with a customary nonchalance’. At the core of this exhibition is Deakin’s relationship with each medium and his attitude towards success. He was a natural photographer; he didn’t seem to labour over it. His paintings on the other hand, as primitive in style as they are, feel stressed and forced. His work and fear of success (similar to the modern attitude to ‘selling out’) seem intertwined. He was his own worst enemy, craving the opposite of what the world gave him. It might also be worth noting that he was a heavy drinker and on numerous occasions sabotaged his work at vogue- his main source of income.

I think that one of the reasons his photographs communicate more effectively than his paintings (although his paintings fetch a decent sum now) is the fact that he focused on portraiture. As I argued before photographs can easily be emotionless and robotic; the way Deakin avoided this was by focusing on portraits. It is hard to make an image void of feeling when it is a portrait; with a person’s eyes (windows to the soul) and expressions available to snap.

I was not expecting to take these ideas from the exhibition, on the contrary I was ready to merely scratch the surface of the images by instead paying attention to the depiction of 50’s and 60’s Soho (an area I grew up in). If this is all one is looking for it will not disappoint, there are portraits of locals, artisans and workers in Soho’s bohemian streets. There are also other gems like the portrait of a young Lucian Freud, in Fitzroy Square, staring into the camera.

-Isabella Bornholt; BogeArt

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