CATCH THE DEVIL | Rude Boys versus John Deakin

In the early summer of 2014, I reviewed two London exhibitions for Devise, a short-lived arts and culture blog. I reproduce it here in a slightly extended and revised form – like, Dig?!

Two London exhibitions in 2014 – Return of the Rude-Boy at Somerset House, and John Deakin & The Lure of Soho at the Photographers’ Gallery – were extraordinarily good. The first traced the rich, sub-cultural fault-lines of the notorious Jamaican lifestyle, whilst the second was a cogent meditation on the nature of (artistic) fulfilment. On the surface they may have seemed to have had little in common, besides a shared fascination with the outer edges, but both had something interesting to say and were worthy of much wider attention.

Each show – explicitly or obliquely – referenced the immediate post-war period: those few brief years of shared public optimism which would buckle and tear under a weight of expectation. In a rather neat move, the curators of Return of the Rude-Boy, Dean Chalkley and Harris Elliott, sidestepped the played-out shorthand of including b&w press-shots of hopeful, sharp-suited, young black men, newly arrived on The Windrush, preferring instead to couch their narrative in the present-day, reflecting the ‘contemporary and timeless’ nature of the culture.

Credit - Dean Chalkley & Harris Elliott

Walking into that first room of the show, the visitor was presented with a set of vintage suitcases artfully arranged and inlaid with Chalkley’s crisp, contemporary portraits. It was an audacious, witty synthesis of Rude-Boy’s ‘rich and fascinating’ heritage: a look forged in Jamaica, appropriated by mod and 2-Tone, and now being repurposed by a new generation of street individualists. Chalkley was at pains to point out that none of his subjects had been styled, but were presented ‘as is.’ These Rudies are ‘every bit as impressive as the sharpest of their forefathers,’ he commented.

Of course, all his models were preposterously hip, but he was still being unduly modest. His photographs were controlled and effortlessly cool: memorably, in one of them, an exuberant Pauline Black is pictured dancing with herself, her face an essay in ecstatic joy. Chalkley’s framing and composition recalled the pared down naturalism of pioneering jazz photographers, Francis Wolff and William Claxton – one particular shot even playfully appropriated Claxton’s iconic profile shot of tenor saxophonist, John Coltrane at the Guggenheim Museum. Highly selectively interposed throughout the exhibition were a few original archive images, evidence of the style’s wider cross-cultural resonances: here be the cultural signifiers of mod and bluebeat, ska and 2-Tone (though perhaps a little too sparingly for some).

Vogue photo-shoot by John Deakin
Vogue photo-shoot by John Deakin

Wandering through a series of interconnected rooms – Somerset House was such a wonderfully appropriate choice of venue – the impact and legacy of Rude-Boy style was extrapolated via contemporary fashion, design and found items of paraphernalia (a set of combs, a custom cruiser, a sixties Singer sewing machine). In one room, an authentic pop-up barbershop offered visitors a range of Rude-Boy trims, starting at an eye-watering £32 for a short back and sides. Each room featured its own ‘sound-system,’ playing a selection of era-defining tracks, and demonstrating some of the ‘creative expression and escapism’ identified by London based MC Mark Professor in his accompanying notes. (Lest we forget, this was a culture as much informed by its musical experimentation as by its sartorial good taste. Those wishing to investigate this fact further could do worse than track down the Trojan Rude Boy box set which is playing as I type).

At the Photographers’ Gallery across town, the photographs of John Deakin shone out from amongst the shadows of a life defined by its lurid profligacy. An incredibly gifted photographer, he was also a frustrated painter who had the singular misfortune to be closely associated with some of the leading figures in British modern art. Francis Bacon, who made a point of commissioning Deakin to take the source photographs for his unsettling works, acclaimed Deakin as ‘the best portrait photographer since Nadar and Julia Margaret Cameron.’ That Deakin himself regarded photography as little more than a paying job is one of the bitter ironies surrounding his life. He would die in Brighton, impoverished and alone, naming Francis Bacon as his next of kin – ‘It was the last dirty trick he played on me,’ Bacon would say later.

The exhibition was meticulously compiled – so much content and detail for such a compact space – and was shot through with a kind of mordant humour. (Robin Muir, the exhibition’s curator, includes this acid gem in his witty notes for the show: ‘He never appeared to take his career with Vogue seriously and never expected it to make him a living and he was not disappointed.’) Adding to a sense of the artist as human catastrophe magnet were copies of the numerous insurance claims for cameras left in the back-seats of taxi-cabs (presumably by an inebriated Deakin), his hiring and firing letters from Vogue, and the appallingly candid reply to a request for an obituary comment (‘I never liked him.’) which goes on to tell the ‘funny story’ of how the photographer met his end. Also gathered together for the first time were some of his paintings – increasingly desirable and collectable, we are assured – and really not very good. An accompanying note by Muir reminds us that ‘Deakin’s untutored primitive style was deeply unfashionable. His subjects tended at best to be idiosyncratic and at worst preposterous.’

Artist John Minton (detail) by John Deakin
Artist John Minton (detail) by John Deakin

But the photographs he took. The photographs were another matter entirely, and Robin Muir did a marvellous job of selecting and organising them for display. Based at the London office of Vogue in the forties and fifties, Deakin found himself rubbing up against the privileged and the entitled, at the same time as living a separatist bohemian existence in nearby Soho. The thrust of the exhibition was the inevitable gravitational pull of the latter. It was Deakin’s startlingly original style – what a friend called his ‘tyrannical eyes’ – which (intermittently) bridged the gulf between the two worlds. Deakin was a mean drunk – ‘the second nastiest little man I ever met,’ according to society heiress Barbara Hutton – and frequently found himself unemployed. He was taken on and sacked twice by the same editor, whilst working at Vogue.

Fifties Soho, with its square-mile of seedy pubs, coffee-bars and clip joints, played an important part in Deakin’s story. Here his circle of contacts and associates – one hesitates to call them friends – reads like a Who’s Who of the most significant
artistic, literary and critical figures in British cultural life at the time. The exhibition featured some wonderfully candid portraits – ‘prison mug-shots taken by a real artist’ – including the likes of Francis Bacon, Lucien Freud, Eduoardo Paolozzi, Dylan Thomas, and Jeffery Barnard. One photograph in particular demonstrates Deakin’s uncanny knack of divining the essence of his subjects. The artist, John Minton, stares into the camera. His pale, thin hands are drawn up about his face, and behind his eyes there is a deep sadness. It is an incredibly intimate and moving portrait; within a decade of its having being taken, Minton would take an overdose of prescription drugs.

For a man so despised for his caustic, unpleasant character, Deakin managed an easy sympathy with his subjects, whether they were a succession of young actresses, languishing gay and expectant in the capital’s myriad coffee-bars, or the traders of Soho being edged out by more prurient business interests. The exhibition incorporated a number of unused exposures from these social realist assignments (including one which focused on a group of young black men out for a night on town): these images bottled a world of neglect and cynical decline to mirror our own. Deakin’s studies of drag artists convey nothing but misery and loneliness, and they looked fantastic. Tellingly, his fashion shoots for Vogue were distinguished by the same eye for unusual, compelling detail: ‘His large scale portraits of artistic and literary life for Vogue … remain incisive documents of their time, mostly because he abandoned early on any attempt at flattery.’ In this, once again, Deakin was way ahead of his time.

Under The Influence: John Deakin and The Lure of Soho brilliantly pulled together the contradictory impulses of its subject’s life. It refused to flinch from the depressing details, but neither did it fail to make the connection that, for all his despicable faults, Deakin was capable of weaving gold out of thin air with his camera. He tapped into the inner truth of his subjects, and stared deep into their souls. By contrast, Return of the Rude-Boy was very much about the importance of surface details. Sometimes, it seemed to be saying, these are all you need to feel good about what’s on the inside. If only John Deakin had been a Rude-Boy!

Transvestite (Credit - John Deakin)

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