A pair of brilliantined males gaze at a young coquette. The first man has a Clark Gable moustache and a quizzically arched eyebrow. The second, older, jowlier, rather Victorian in his wing collar, looks directly into the eyes of the marcel-waved Mae West figure, whose pudgy arms are clasped demurely across her naked breasts. But there is no danger of “wandering hands” from the pair of buttoned-up voyeurs, not least because these men have no hands, nor arms to keep them on. None of the three, come to mention it, have bodies either – below the thorax they are mounted on elegant Classical plinths, like a set of priceless vases. This strange vignette – in the window of a Parisian perruquier – was captured by John Deakin in the 1950s when he, following the methods of his forebear Eugène Atget, would rise at the ungodly hour of five every morning to take photographs, regardless of the quality of light or the weather.

Deakin, however, did not see himself as a photographer. It was just a side-project; his great love was painting. He did himself no favours, however, by the company he kept – Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, Frank Auerbach and their circle. They put his small talent into dark shadow. Deakin’s reputation is instead founded on his uncompromising photographs of these friends (many of them no oil paintings), not his dabblings with the brush. “He combined the instant horror of the passport photo with a shock value all his own,” wrote Daniel Farson, the Boswell of that booze-soaked Soho scene. Farson, of course, appears in this book, his blond mop and hefty frame reminiscent of a 1950s Boris Johnson; also present are the louche brothers Bruce and Jeffrey Bernard, poet Louis MacNeice, Bacon’s model George Dyer and Muriel Belcher, foul-mouthed imperatrix of the absinthe-green Colony Room.

But it is not Robin Muir’s mission with this book simply to serve up yet another round of the Soho portraits. It was in Paris, after all, that Deakin picked up a camera – it had been left in his apartment after a party – and took his first pictures. The shots taken in Paris and Rome occupy more than two-thirds of the book. And, like the London pictures, they are remarkable for their lack of sentimentality. Yes, there are nuns, priests and decaying monuments, but set alongside graffiti, Baconesque sides of meat, bandy-legged walkers and surreally macabre junk-shop windows.

The book closes with Deakin’s pointedly unromantic study of the Victor Emmanuel monument in Rome, a great wedding cake obscured by a spider’s web of tram cables and shrouded in scooter-smog. For too long, much of Deakin’s work has been obscured by a similar fug of cigarette smoke and alcohol fumes. This book succeeds in clearing the air.


First published in World of Interiors issue 241. Reproduced with permission.

A Maverick Eye: The Street Photography of John Deakin

by Robin Muir  (Thames & Hudson)

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