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ARTS: EXHIBITIONS Foggy nights in London Town

John Deakin caught the bohemian spirit of Soho in the Fifties like no other photographer. A new show at the NPG celebrates his work
The establishment never puts up statues in commemoration of bohemians but the National Portrait Gallery has done the next best thing by mounting a show of photographs by John Deakin. They are quite varied, including pictures taken in France and Italy and much material from the Vogue archives, but the most telling prints are of Soho characters from three or four decades ago, and this sort of portraiture was evidently Deakin's forte.

I am too young to have been part of Deakin's milieu, but my elders gave

me a thorough Soho training and I can identify a number of people who may be unknown even to Robin Muir, whose exhibition this is and who has edited a nice book to go with the show (Schirmer Mosel, pounds 20). Who, for instance, visitors will ask, is the Terry Jones who appears in a saturnine, beautiful print between the two Bernard brothers, Jeffrey and Bruce, outside a drinking club? A first- rate chap! - though admittedly somewhat morose in a Welsh sort of way - Terry had the gift of gliding to one's side as if from nowhere. He was known as the Phantom of the Opera, from his job as caretaker of the old Scala Theatre at the corner of Tottenham and Charlotte Streets.

Being a stagehand was a common job among people Deakin knew and portrayed. The calling was irregular and more than slightly rough; it was a touch glamorous and attracted young people who liked the West End and knew that they would be failures if they undertook life's graver tasks. For me, Deakin's best photographs have this kind of flavour. They belong, as it were, to the scene at the back of the set. There are a number of glamour shots of actors and actresses at the NPG, Gina Lollobrigida and Robert Morley among them. They are OK, but not seedy enough. I like the one of Maria Callas, though. Deakin managed to make the diva into a sort of stagehand's girlfriend.

By temperament, Deakin was best with boyfriends. He was born in 1912, brought up in Liverpool, got himself to London, did a bit of naive painting and was then taken up by a rich art dealer, Arthur Jeffress, who gave him quite a lot of high life around the world. Deakin knew Paris well, and there he discovered photography. This was before the war. No doubt he had much native skill, for in 1939 he joined the Army Film and Photography Unit; and when peacetime came he joined Vogue, where he worked for some years - even though pissed half the time, regularly losing equipment and filing ludicrously high expenses.

To the credit of the people at Vogue, they stuck with Deakin and his talent. Hard to define this talent, though it certainly existed. One of his sitters, Elizabeth Smart, helplessly said that he had "extraordinary eyes". Muir thinks there is a connection between Deakin as a naive artist and Deakin as the strangely frank photographer who often got effects because he seemed to be careless of effect. There's much to be said for this view, though Deakin was surely also affected by post-war documentary styles, the cinema of the day and the general make-do-and-mend atmosphere of London before the Sixties.

These pictures are also unsettlingly wary, as though they had been taken by a man who sensed that events, or death, or the coppers, might soon catch up. Nobody else has ever made artists look so much like criminals. Well, the likes of Francis Bacon did have some dodgy friends. Alan Reynolds (an RA nowadays) looks as if he'd just come out of the nick. The third Bernard brother, Oliver, poet and translator of classics, also looks to be on the wrong side of the law. I am reminded of early-Fifties press photographs of teddy boys and "cosh kids", and perhaps such pictures were also an influence on Deakin.

To return for a moment to The Phantom of the Opera, and his name. The memoirs of Henrietta Moraes - represented here by split-legs pictures of no aesthetic merit, though they may have helped Bacon (more open shots, known in the pornography trade as "Blackwall Tunnels", were sold by Deakin in pubs) -have already mentioned the Soho love of nicknames. She writes of Sid the Swimmer, Big Jean and Stout Sally. Let me salute some others, all of whom would have brushed against Deakin before his death in 1972: Scarlet Auntie Inez, Wheatsheaf Daphne, Mister Double Allen, Fred-on-the- Wing, Freaky Fiona and Tommy the Dustman.

Like a certain kind of criminal, they had these names because they were folk-heroes rather than celebrities. In the old Soho there were any number of bums, scribblers, book dealers and so on who had a genial fame only within that area. Of course some were famous, but even well-known artists were part of the village atmosphere. Deakin's photography reflects this paradox. It served Vogue, with its wide and classy circulation, but its roots were in street life.

Is the camera the natural instrument of the bohemian ethos? Maybe, and there's certainly a tradition of Soho photography. Bruce Bernard and Harry Diamond are well known in this area. I bet you didn't know that Jeffrey Bernard had a six-month-long career as a photographer. (The result was a book called Soho Night and Day, published in 1966.) But although Bernard's subject matter overlaps with Deakin's, there's always, in Deakin, a powerful sub-theme of menace and mortality.

Somewhere a killer is lurking. It's interesting that Deakin most strongly suggests death when his sitter is a male, is rich by Soho standards and has some kind of dignity or fame in the world at large. Louis MacNeice wants to frighten you but he's on the way out. The portrait of John Minton, a wealthy boy who drank himself to death, is reminiscent of Aubrey Beardsley, and this is one of the few moments when we sense artistic cultivation in Deakin's vision. John Huston is brooding about who he's going to shoot. Other cinema people include Visconti and Simone Signoret. Artists are Bacon, Freud, Camille Bombois and William Scott; among the poets are Auden, George Barker, Dylan Thomas and WS Graham. I was going to count up how many of Deakin's subjects are still alive, but then felt too sad for the task.

! NPG, WC2 (0171 306 0055), to 14 July.