Born in Bootle in 1912 (“near the leper colony”, he was fond of saying), Deakin learned to use a camera in Paris in his early 20s and was assigned to an army photographic unit during the war. On his return, he washed up in Soho where he quickly became a fixture. There he spent most of his career as “an ex-Vogue photographer”: it was a testament to both his talent and his total unmanageabilty that he was sacked from the magazine twice, for losing (perhaps pawning) his equipment. But he dined out, often literally, on his Vogue credentials for the rest of his life.
In the early 1950s, he began a relationship with art bookseller David Archer and, through him, joined the loose association of artists that gathered at the Colony Room, the famous club (half-salon, half-shebeen) run by Muriel Belcher. The place owed its success partly to her genius for atmosphere, and partly to licensing laws that required the French House to close its doors between 2.30pm and 6.30pm (for a generation of artists who defined themselves by being constantly bladdered, this was to much too bear).
If the resultant scene could be called a movement, as it sometimes is, it was one united not by a manifesto, but by a thirst for champagne. In fact, one of the Colony’s few rules was that art could not be discussed there. Membership, which could be extended or revoked on the spot, was predicated on the capacity to tolerate Belcher’s trademark combination of high camp and extreme rudeness: men of late middle age were referred to using the feminine pronoun (as in “She’s not a very pretty lady, is she?”) and “cunty” was deployed as a term of endearment. This verbal outrageousness acted as both a deterrent for the respectable and a signal that ordinary social mores did not apply. Even so, Deakin was regularly barred.
His work as portrait photographer would be important if it were simply a record of this milieu. But his wayward talent, only partially recognised at the time, makes it essential viewing on its own merits. The subjects of his photographs, many taken with his Vogue equipment on the streets of Soho on drunken afternoons between the Colony and the French House, read as a roll-call of the major artists and critics of the time: Dylan Thomas, Lucian Freud, Kingsley Amis, Kenneth Tynan, Elizabeth Smart and the brothers Bernard (journalist Jeffrey, poet Oliver and critic Bruce). Likable or not, Deakin certainly put himself about.
His pictures, many of them about to appear at the Photographers’ Gallery on the edge of Soho, are characterised by a subtly dysfunctional relationship between the sitter and the lens. This was partly technical in origin. Already short, Deakin was using a Rolleiflex, a camera held at navel height. His negatives were then blown up to expose every pore and follicle. When set against a scratched or graffiti-covered wall, or the off-white sheeting he liked, each has the force, to borrow Farson’s phrase, of “a prison mugshot taken by a real artist”. Little wonder some of his pictures were found, paint-spattered, in Bacon’s studio. Painter and photographer shared an interest in getting under people’s skin.
And if all photographers inadvertently capture the effect of their own personality on their subjects, Deakin’s sulphuric aura was certainly part of his talent. Bacon, in one of his most famous images, is cocky and confrontational, the unusual heft of his chin thrust into the frame. Henrietta Moraes, Bacon’s model and known as “Lady Brett of Soho”, looks past the camera with a Mona Lisa smile on her lips. Lucien Freud is fox-like and inscrutable.
Deakin’s reluctance to flatter his sitters (another characteristic he shared with Bacon) could sometimes shade into a deliberate attempt to undermine them. He admitted as much in his image of the poet George Barker: “I do not share his idea of his own looks, as this picture perhaps shows. I stood him up against the biggest lavatory wall in London and shot it. He seemed delighted with it.” Bacon’s partner, George Dyer, is also cruelly victimised by Deakin’s lens. Although never more than a petty criminal, he’s dressed in the costume of a successful gangster, purchased for him by his lover. No one has told him what to do with his hands.
As a street photographer, Deakin’s disreputableness was his great asset. His images of working people and strangers in pubs have a crazy immediacy. These ordinary people were not overawed by the little man with the camera. This is a transitional moment in photography, the beginning of the relaxation of its formality that leads to Larry Clark and Nan Goldin. These aren’t quite reportage and they’re not quite posed portraits either; sometimes Deakin is invisible, sometimes he’s unsettled his sitter’s composure just enough so we can see who they are. The results offer a uniquely unguarded glimpse of the past, made all more startling when framed by the familiar outline of a corner of Cambridge Circus or Old Compton Street.
Despite his obvious talent, Deakin didn’t value photography very highly. Many of his pictures only survive because the negatives were rescued from under his bed by Bruce Bernard. He had wanted to be a painter, and his oils of flowers and sailors have a surprisingly naive style. Moving in the circles he did, to produce any painting at all must have taken some conviction, and the critical and commercial failure of these works can’t have done much to buoy his self-esteem.
But if Deakin’s photographs are timeless, the Soho he knew is gradually disappearing. Once a district, in the words of the writer Davide Cronin, “inhabited largely by failures”, it has become a victim of its own success. The Colony Room closed in 2009, though the French House remains, a sort of a monument to itself. Soho used to be seedy, and seediness is one authentic feature developers rarely strive to preserve. Likewise, the outsider behaviour that formed the identity of Deakin and his set has been more or less assimilated into the general population. His shots may be our best record of the old bohemia, and some are masterpieces. Deakin was out on his own, a pariah in his way, but also a pioneer.
(This piece appeared in G2 and in the Guardian online)