“The second nastiest little man I have ever met” – Barbara Hutton
“An evil genius. A vicious little drunk of such inventive malice that it’s surprising he didn’t choke on his own venom” – George Melly
“He was a member of photography’s unhappiest minority whose members, while doubting its status as art, sometimes prove better than anyone else that there is no doubt about it” – Bruce Bernard
The documentary portraiture of British fashion photographer John Deakin (1912-1972) from the 1940s to his death in the early 70s garnered a fresh round of appraisal with the opening of the exhibition Under The Influence at London’s Photographers’ Gallery. That coincided with the publication of Robin Muir’s companion book of the same title.
Muir is Deakin’s foremost proponent, responsible for 2002’s A Maverick Eye. This collected Deakin’s so-called “street photography” in London and on the Continent compiled during bouts of employment for British Vogue. As the title suggests, the book focuses on the inhabitants of the stamping ground most associated with Deakin’s lush life: Soho.
On Deakin’s death in May 1972, his friend and subject Bruce Bernard rescued what comprises Deakin’s body of work in this field from a set of tatty cardboard boxes under the bed in his Berwick Street flat.
As Muir has written, these contained “hundreds of negatives, torn prints and stained contact sheets wrapped in brittle and desiccated brown paper”.
Bernard went on to organise the first public exhibition of Deakin’s portraits at the V&A in 1983, but a source of frustration for exacting Deakin enthusiasts has long been the imprecise dating of his oeuvre.
This is due in part to the rickety life led by the photographer, and exacerbated by the fact that those in his circle who could attest to when portraits were taken – if they could remember – have almost to a man (pace JP Donleavy) hopped off the twig.
And so many of these images will apparently forever now be consigned to decades rather than years, but it is a testament to Deakin’s considerable compositional powers that this lack of detail, which would otherwise provide insights into the development of his craft, does not impinge on the enduring vitality of these photographs.
Read more about Under The Influence: John Deakin And The Lure Of Soho here.
Copies of Muir’s new book are available here.