Part One of about fifty, I would guess. Went to a small but rather excellent show of the work of John Deakin – noted photographer, reviled painter and one of the group of artistic and alcoholic heavyweights in Soho during the 1950s and 60s at the Photographer’s Gallery off Great Marlborough Street. The space in Ramilles Street is a vast improvement over the old Great Newport Street buildings and feels like a proper temple to photography so that even agnostics sceptical of the camera’s deity (like me) feel due reverence. In what seems to be a pattern of their shows it featured a rounded survey of his output – not just his photography which is well known, but some of his paintings and a smattering of background colour about his very colourful life. The paintings are a cynical and sarcastic false naive style – but when your daily drinking partners were Francis Bacon, Lucien Freud and Frank Auerbach perhaps you can only throw the ball out of play.
Deakin was clearly a bit of a bastard – even his friends said so – but talented enough to stay in employment and amusing enough to keep great company, even though he seldom bought a drink for anyone. This was in itself quite an achievement as his life seems to have been fuelled largely by alcohol His legendary callousness gave him the ability to disregard people’s sensitivity about their self image. This in turn meant that he could on the one hand be dispassionate when photographing acquaintances and also regard his Vogue models as mannequins that could be positioned in a frame.
Mostly nowadays we think of his portraits of Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud. There is a necessary objectification of the sitter in a portrait, but that is not what is happening here. The pictures are heavy with humanity, of lives lived. Of lives lived not always wisely, but with a hunger and involvement. For me the most telling details are the creases and tears on the original prints. It echoes the damage you can see emerging from within and being inflicted from without on these extraordinary faces. It gives the prints the same artefact quality as a painting – it transports you back to their creation. It speaks of a time with no safety net in work or in life – and no perpetual regeneration of flawless digital copying. These prints have a rare presence and physicality.
Life without a safety net is…unsafe though as Deakin’s ignominious end reveals. And now I’m off to Soho to buy some Absinthe from Gerry’s.