“A vicious little drunk of such inventive malice”: John Deakin with some of his photographs. Image: Oswald Jones Archive. All rights reserved 2024 / Bridgeman

Deakin blues

Even in a new, semi-biographical book and film, the legendary Soho photographer is a wraithlike presence
April 23, 2024

Those who knew the photographer John Deakin tended not to forget him. George Melly, usually so amiable, recalled him as “a vicious little drunk of such inventive malice and implacable bitchiness that it’s surprising he didn’t choke on his own venom.” If the name doesn’t ring any bells, it’s likely you’ve seen Deakin’s work. There was scarcely any artist or whisky-guzzling writer in 1950s and 1960s London whose portrait he didn’t take. Dylan Thomas, Frank Auerbach, Eduardo Paolozzi, John Minton, Dom Moraes, Jeffrey Bernard, Francis Bacon. Often they look alone, vulnerable, harrowed. “My sitters turn into my victims,” he believed. A painting based on one of his photos—Bacon’s Three Studies of Lucian Freud—sold at auction for $142m in 2013.

Deakin died, aged 60, in 1972. Alone in a seaside hotel in Brighton. Like many alcoholics, he didn’t take care of his own art. He had wanted to be known for his paintings; his photographs, many of which were lost, survive in spotted, crinkled and torn form. However, during the Covid lockdown, 17 albums of fresh prints, made from negatives and contact sheets left in his Brighton room, were delivered to the east London novelist and essayist Iain Sinclair, who has made them the starting point for a suitably unstable fictionalised biography entitled Pariah Genius.

For Sinclair, Deakin was “a shape-shifter, a chameleon that decided, for strategic reasons, to stick with a single role: pariah, solo artist. A foul-mouthed solitary with a mob of inconvenient acquaintances.” His book is its own dark cinema. It features guest appearances by directors such as Michael Powell and Michelangelo Antonioni, and reads like the screenplay of an increasingly unhinged crime thriller. This is to be expected: Sinclair first came to the English capital in the early 1960s in order to study at the London School of Film Technique. The money he made directing Ah! Sunflower (1967), about Allen Ginsberg’s time in London, allowed him to buy the house in Hackney where he still lives.

Pariah Genius has also been made into a film of the same name by Sinclair and his collaborators—editor Emma Matthews, composer/sound artist Susan Stenger and writer/filmmaker Chris Petit, who, over the years, has written his own grimly compelling crime thrillers, such as The Psalm Killer (1997) and The Butchers of Berlin (2016). Documentaries about photographers often present biographical portraits, interview their sitters about what it was like to be in front of the camera, use the images to illustrate a clear social or historical argument. The team here offer nothing of the kind. They deploy dizzying, sometimes assaultive sound design, intense graphics that recall those of the Paris-based director Gaspar Noé, and samples from a range of vaguely familiar films, such as Brighton Rock. By the end, Deakin is as elusive as he was at the start—a shadow, an indelible stain.

Deakin was described as ‘one of the most disturbing photographers of the century’

Sinclair, its writer and producer, describes it as a “film-poem, Deakin’s posthumous cinema, his bardo cinema.” He had heard that Deakin, “drunk or half-dead, hid out in Soho cinemas between sessions, and took photographs from the screen, which he sometimes passed off to magazines.” Here, even in close-up, Deakin is barely present. A pre-ghost. Described by the writer Daniel Farson as “one of the most disturbing photographers of the century”, he gets from Petit the same treatment he meted to his subjects.

Pariah Genius is also a film about Soho, which, for much of its history, has been a city within a city, a magnet for chancers, dissenters and refugees, alluring to anyone with a fondness for the urban picaresque. Petit, who wrote about it in his 1993 novel Robinson, tells me he has long valued it as “a sinkhole, a free port where the normal rules don’t apply. It has a concentration of high life and low life. If you knock out the middle classes, then life becomes more interesting.”

Petit, like Sinclair, has often been drawn to fugitive cultural figures—be they lowlifes or hucksters or (self-appointed) visionaries—who, through bad luck or bad timing or because they’re their own worst enemies, are forgotten by the custodians of the contemporary canon. The Cardinal and the Corpse (1992), an earlier collaboration about the London book trade that he made with Sinclair, led the person who commissioned it—Channel 4’s Waldemar Januszczak—to declare, “I’m one of the most intelligent men in Europe and I don’t understand a word of it.”

Suffice to say, Petit has no illusions about Pariah Genius, which, because it’s mostly made up of existing footage, he describes as “an exercise in post-cinema”. Because it doesn’t spoon-feed viewers, he thinks it may also be “an exercise in post-audience cinema”. Even Deakin might laugh at that.