Counting Lucien Freud and Francis Bacon as friends, 1950s Soho art scene wildchild John Deakin’s painterly yearnings saw the Vogue photographer treat success with suspicion. Kirstie Brewer sees the uncompromising prints which survived him.
Pallant House’s latest exhibition resurrects a man who, until recently, has been missing from photographic history. The man in question is Vogue photographer John Deakin: perhaps the ultimate bohemian bad boy of the 1950s Soho art scene.
The exhibition pairs iconic portraits of British artists by Deakin with major paintings by each artist, providing a unique window into the post-war British art scene and the intimate circle of artists he was part of.
“Any exhibition of John Deakin’s photography is going to be a modest one,” explains curator Robin Muir.
“Deakin didn’t want to be a photographer – he longed to be a painter like his friends – but fortunately for us and rather unfortunately for him, he didn’t make a very good one.”
With friends like Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud, perhaps it is little wonder Deakin felt slightly perturbed. Despite recognition for his photographs, he fiercely resisted his talent, treating success with mistrust and greeting failure with indifference.
A notorious drunk, Deakin never took his work seriously and never expected to make any money from it. In fact, he might well have found more relish in being the only staff photographer in the magazine’s history to be hired and fired twice by the same admiring but exasperated editor.
The exhibition is drawn largely from a portfolio commissioned by Vogue in 1951 and 1952 of 12 contemporary artists, along with other portraits of painters and sculptors Deakin made for the magazine at various points throughout his brief career.
Artists and subjects featured in the show include heavyweights like Barbara Hepworth, Michael Andrews, Eduardo Paolozzi and John Piper, as well as Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon.
In their ragged state, the photographs are a refreshing change to the pristine prints so often seen in exhibitions. Like so much of Deakin’s practice, they are lucky to have survived him.
They make no concessions to vanity and were described by friend Daniel Farson as “prison mugshots taken by a real artist”. What is most striking is their rawness and lack of ‘style’- rather ironic for a Vogue photographer.
Loved or loathed, god or monster, Deakin’s influence on British art and the mythology of Soho in the 1950s can’t be overlooked. The photographs he made for his closest friend, Francis Bacon, are credited as being vital to the artist’s interpretation of the human form.
“Of all these ‘sacred monsters’, Deakin may have behaved the worst – the Woolworth’s heiress, Barbara Hutton, called him the ‘second nastiest little man I ever met,’”says Muir
“But to his peers he was a true original, his professionalism behind the lens, for the most part, unimpeachable.”
I wonder what the man himself would have made of this bittersweet exhibition…
Brighton Photo Biennial 2010: Gods and Monsters: John Deakin’s Portraits of British Artists, Pallant House Gallery, Chichester, until January 10 2011