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Light and camera in action; John Deakin's photographic talent is finally being recognised with a retrospective exhibition. Angie Sammons looks at his life and work.

Byline: Angie Sammons

IN THAT post-war enchanted twilight of London, when the cheroot-fuming dens of Soho wheezed with the coughs and chatter of painters and poets, what a simple matter it must have been for those shy of spirit to fade to grey, washed away in smoke-blue waves as Johnny Dankworth's alto sax ebbed and flowed over the scene. Visually, this may have been a monochrome world, otherwise it was jarred by colourful characters. While Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, Dylan Thomas and J.P. Donleavy held swagger and sway in the pubs and clubs of Dean Street, here another cohort, John Deakin, stood out.

Deakin was a man ever ready to snap, and in more ways than one. Wirral-born and with a fervent, yet unfulfilled desire to paint, photographer Deakin was on a mission to drag his subjects or, as he preferred to call them, his victims, from the comfort of their shadows and into a stark white light, the brilliance of which was entirely of his own making.

Deakin was the original jobbing photographer. Born in Bebington in 1912, where his parents had just moved to be near his father's place of work, at Lever Brothers, he left school and travelled extensively throughout a bomb-blasted Europe. He took up photography almost by chance, when he was in Paris in 1939. He was so good at it that, after the war, which he spent as a sergeant in the British army's photographic and film unit, he managed to make his first contact with Vogue magazine, which liked his work and hired him for the first time in 1947.

``He was a wonderful photographer,'' remembers his acquaintance, George Melly, ``but he treated his photography with neglect. Trampling prints on the floor. But some of those crushed, smeared pictures are wonderful.'' As one of the most significant and most overlooked of 20th-century photographers, his work, with its characteristic rawness and black tones, would become the illuminating force in later generations of photographers such as David Bailey and Richard Avedon.

But the 1940s and 1950s was a time when Vogue was synonymous with high elegance and charm, and here it was Deakin who added his own element of deadly danger that earned him few friends in the glamorous world.

His photographs bore a distinct clarity of vision and a brutal directness, in stark contrast to the more refined work of his colleagues. Whether he was photographing fashion models or British actors and Hollywood stars (like John Mills, Tommy Cooper, Humphrey Bogart and Gina Lollobrigida) for Vogue or his bohemian friends in London, his merciless eye made no concessions to his subject's vanity and was even sometimes confrontational. His drunken antics and rudeness to models often reduced them to tears. He was described by Barbara Hutton, the Woolworth heiress, as ``the second nastiest little man I have ever met''.

``He was also a vicious little drunk,'' concurs Melly, who knew Deakin at the height of his career. ``He quarrelled with everybody. ``He was short, witty, but very unpleasant to people - and he was very ugly,'' he laughs.

But was he misunderstood? ``Being fatally drawn to the human race,'' Deakin said in a rare insight in 1938. ``What I want to do when I take a photograph is make a revelation about it. So my sitters turn into my victims. But I would like to add that it is only those with a demon, however small and of what kind, whose faces lend themselves to being victimised at all.''

As well as taking photographs of his friends and the rich and famous (Francis Bacon, who rarely worked from life, commissioned Deakin to carry out a series of portraits of friends that he later used for his paintings) Deakin took pictures of European street scenes showing the quirkier sides of life in the cultural capitals of Rome, Paris and London.

But Deakin really felt most at his ease in the en vironment of the pubs and clubs of Soho where he ``ponced money and drinks off people all the time,'' according to Melly. In the end, his outstanding work was not enough to save him for the disorder in his life. ``The man with the aubergine tongue'' was how the writer Dan Farson described the red wine-and nicotine-addled state of his friend's mouth.

Incapable of working for days at a time when he was on a bender, careless about his photographic equipment which he often lost in taxis or pawned, Vogue, which had already fired Deakin once before and rehired him, ``let him go'' for the second and last time in 1954. He died in 1972.

``The celebrities of today wouldn't have stood a chance working with Deakin,'' Melly says. ``Although I rather suspect he would have been a special friend to somebody like Naomi Campbell.''DEAKIN'S ``final joke'' was putting Francis Bacon down as his next of kin. ``He was no relation of course,'' Melly recalls, ``but it meant that Bacon, rather crossly, had to travel down to Southampton and identify his body.

``When he came back, he went to the Colony Room and the famous proprietress, Muriel Belcher, who had barred Deakin out, said `Was it her, dear?'-- she called everybody `her'.

``And Bacon said `Oh yes, it was her, all right. First time I've ever seen her with her trap shut'.''

8 A Maverick Eye, The Photography of John Deakin, on show at the Walker Art Gallery until March 30.


Q LIGHT FANTASTIC: John Deakin, centre, captured his unique perspective on film, ranging from the humorous juxtaposition of these wig-shop dummies to,; clockwise, from top right, John Mills having a quiet cigarette, Italian beauty Gina Lollobrigida, a fresh-faced Prunella Scales, artist Francis Bacon - under whose bed many of the pictures were discovered - an anonymous masked girl, and the unmistakeable Humphrey Bogart Pictures courtesy of NATIONAL GALLERIES OF SCOTLAND
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Daily Post (Liverpool, England)
Date:Feb 20, 2003
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