John Deakin (8 May 1912 – 25 May 1972), the great chronicler of 1950s and 1960s Soho, was a photographer who never received recognition during his lifetime. Due to his difficult personality (he was a chronic alcoholic who was loved and hated by people in equal measure). As a result, he never had any interest in organising or publicising his unconventional treatment of the medium of photography, his work was frequently overlooked, leading to many of his images getting damaged or even lost forever.
Deakin’s only stable periods of employment as a photographer were two stints of work for Vogue, between 1947 and 1954, a job from which he was fired twice. During the intervening years, he picked up work wherever he could while continuing to pursue his own interests in photographing European cities and an eclectic array of bohemian street characters.
He died aged 62 in obscurity and poverty. Luckily one of his few remaining friends, the art historian Bruce Bernard, rescued Deakin’s uncared for prints and negatives from under his bed at his flat in Berwick Street, thereby saving his work from complete oblivion. 1979 saw a rise in the photographer’s profile, when the art critic John Russell commented that, with Deakin's death, "there was lost a photographer who often rivalled Bacon in his ability to make a likeness in which truth came wrapped and unpackaged. His portraits...had a dead-centred, unrhetorical quality. A complete human being was set before us, without additives." A number of exhibitions and books dedicated to Deakin’s works were published throughout the 1980s and 1990s. John Deakin is now recognised as one of the leading British photographers of his time.
John Deakin was both participant and chronicler of the Soho scene in the 1950s and 1960s. This was Soho at its most grimy and glamorous. His more famous photographs feature well-known British artists and writers of the time, including Francis Bacon’s Soho inner circle. Boozy meals at Wheeler’s in Old Compton Street and drinking sessions at the French House were recorded on Deakin’s camera. As well as photographing the luminaries of the art world, he photographed the characters who worked and frequented the many bars and pubs in Soho, including drag queens, tattoo artists, and local shopkeepers.
John Deakin was first a foremost a portrait photographer. His lens is direct and confrontational. Deakin’s gritty portraits of fellow artists, writers, poets and intellectuals, such as Oliver Bernard, J.P. Donleavy and Frank Auerbach, chime perfectly with the nonconformist spirit of the time and are today among his most acclaimed photographs.
Deakin travelled quite a bit during his lifetime and took photographs of these trips mainly for his own pleasure. These images are for the most part less brutal than those taken in London and show more affection for his subject.
Deakin got to know Lucian Freud through his friendship with Francis Bacon and took many photographs of the artist (some of which were used as a reference for Bacon's Three Studies of Lucian Freud). Freud, in turn, painted the photographer, and this is now one of his most celebrated portraits.
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