Edited by Karen McQuaid and Julian Rodriguez

Prestel. 160 pages. Ł24.99. ISBN 978-3-7913-5889-5

Reviewed by Jim Burns

Someone once said that Soho is a state of mind. I take it to mean that you don’t necessarily need to live there to share its culture. It perhaps represents something that people aspire to in terms of its creativity, freedom of expression, and indulgence in styles of behaviour which would be frowned on elsewhere. People have been drawn to Soho for these reasons, some permanently, others just as occasional visitors who feel the need to break away for a time from a more-settled existence. A period spent in Soho can help to rejuvenate the creative impulses. It can also just be fun.

I suppose I’d place myself in the “occasional visitor” category. I first ventured into Soho in 1952 as a sixteen-year old fan who had gone to London in search of bebop, the then-dominant form of modern jazz. One of the places I found it was in the Studio ’51 Club, located in Great Newport Street, off Charing Cross Road. It was somewhere near where the Photographers’ Gallery is now, and I’ve visited that establishment more than once over the years. During those few days in London in the early-1950s, I wandered through Soho, too young to go into pubs like The French, but fascinated by the lively streets which had a different atmosphere to other parts of the city. London was quite shabby then, following the war years and the dreary post-war austerity, but there was a little light and colour in Soho. Or was it my imagination supplying the comparative brightness?

I think my notions of Soho had then been formed by lurid references to it as a place of vice and crime in newspapers, but it did begin to dawn on me that there was more to it than that. It was two or three years later, when I began to spend weekends in London during my three years in the army, that my awareness began to widen. I was old enough by then to pass through pub doors, and I’d also read material by and about some of the writers who’d frequented Soho in the 1940s. The old copy of Julian Maclaren-Ross’s The Nine Men of Soho that I’d found in a bookshop on Charing Cross Road is still on my shelves.

When I came out of the army in 1957 I began a cycle of regular visits to London that has continued until the present, going into the jazz clubs and galleries, and prowling around the second-hand bookshops. There are still galleries, but not as many bookshops and outlets for jazz. And I’ve seen the changes that have affected Soho over the years. There is a feeling that it isn’t what it used to be, and that gentrification has deprived it of much of its character. I have to agree with most of the criticism, and it occurs to me that, when an area starts to be written about in a nostalgic sort of way,  it probably is undergoing a transformation that sees the old bohemian atmosphere in decline. There have been books written about Greenwich Village and Montparnasse that have essentially recorded the fading away of their reputations. Instead of bookshops there are now boutiques, and fancy café-bars have replaced the old pubs. I’ve noticed more than one recent book about Soho which celebrates its past diversity and differences, and that makes me wonder if those attributes are no longer easily noticed in Soho?

Julian Rodiguez, in his introduction to Shot in Soho. States that “by the 1960s Soho was outperforming even its own reputation for sleaze, overrun with ‘fixed’ roulette wheels, one armed bandits, adverts for ‘French lessons’, three card trick teams and bent coppers”. It was during this period that Christine Keeler was photographed sitting seemingly naked astride a chair in a photographer’s studio in Greek Street, and the boxer Freddie Mills died in mysterious circumstances in a car at the rear of his nightclub. The police put it down to suicide, but there have always been suspicions that Mills was murdered because he’d crossed gangsters who were trying to move in on his club.

Both events (the Keeler photo, and a picture of Mills’ car, are in Shot in Soho) seem to represent certain aspects – sex and crime – of Soho in the 1960s. Or of the area at any time, though attempts were made at periodic intervals to “clean up” Soho. Strip cubs, pornography shops, and advertisements about available prostitutes could be seen everywhere.  There are plenty of photographs in the book which illustrate aspects of the sex and porn industry.  Rodriguez asserts that many of the porn shops in Soho have closed down and that the surviving ones are like “quaint heritage centres”. Pornography can now be easier accessed on the internet than by sneaking into a shop stocking it.  And he worries about the effect that Crossrail will have as it cuts across the northern end of the district: “A total collapse of the community is now feared”. Paul Flynn, in his essay, “Neon Glory”, isn’t quite as pessimistic and accepts that change is inevitable, but that something of the old spirit will survive.    

There are a couple of things in Shot in Soho that aroused my curiosity. Rodriguez says that “In the 1960s Jeffrey Bernard – infatuated by the anarchy of the place and its watering holes – could be seen with Francis Bacon, Dylan Thomas and Marlene Dietrich”. Thomas certainly frequented the pubs and clubs of Soho in the 1930s, the 1940s, and into the early-1950s, but he died in New York in 1954. And Rodriguez also comments that “The Second World War temporarily put a damper on Soho”. I wonder if that is true? From the number of factual accounts, memoirs, and other material, I’d guess that Soho was still fairly busy, even if bombs were falling. Prostitution certainly thrived when the streets were dark.

I mentioned Julian Maclaren-Ross earlier, and his Memoirs of the Forties (Alan Ross, 1965) is well worth reading. There’s also a novel by Julius Horwitz, Can I Get There by Candlelight (Andre Deutsch, 1964), the title of which places it in the wartime London of blackout curtains. Fitzrovia, to the north of Tottenham Court Road, does creep into these accounts, so some pedants might say they’re not completely about Soho. But I have a sneaking suspicion, perhaps unfairly unfounded, that Julian Rodriguez may not be too familiar with the vibrant  bohemian community of writers and painters that existed in Soho in the 1940s and 1950s. It’s well-documented. Colin Wilson’s Adrift in Soho, and Terry Taylor’s Baron’s Court, All Change are a couple of novels that are worth referring to, and Daniel Farson’s Soho in the Fifties is is valuable for the period.  

Most of the illustrations in Shot in Soho are of its streets, clubs, café, and pubs from the 1960s and later. It might be necessary to go back to photographers like John Deakin and Daniel Farson to see what they were like prior to that. But I’ve no intention of setting up any sort of competition in terms of whether or not they established a standard the others can’t possibly attain. Deakin had his way to approach a subject and record it in a photograph, and Kelvin Brodie had his. A talented news photographer, often working in conflict zones, Brodie also took pictures along the streets of Soho, sometimes going out with the police as they went into amusement arcades, coffee-bars, clubs, and other places where teenage girls might be found and who could be susceptible to approaches by criminals looking for naďve recruits for the sex trade.

It’s a trade that John Goldblatt captured in his backstage portraits of strippers relaxing in between performances. They’re perhaps indicative of Goldblatt’s talents for not only taking photographs, but also for putting his subjects at ease with the presence of a stranger. As the commentary says, he “produced a set of incisive and tender images”. There is a story which points to the fact that it was not always safe when photographing around Soho. Goldblatt was taking a picture of the outside of a strip club when the bouncer came over and “I shot him, then he swiped at me. Pow! Glasses broken in the gutter. Head full of noises and bright flashes”.

William Klein, an exponent of “expressionist documentary”, also seems to have caused some embarrassment that might have turned into violence when he photographed a group of men emerging from a Sauna and Massage parlour. They’re all desperately attempting to cover their faces. Klein, like Corinne Day and Darragh Soden, uses colour photography, at least in the images included  in the book, and for me it raises an interesting question of what seems to work best. I have a predilection for black and white photography when it comes to urban images. It seems to me to capture the atmosphere better. It may be that I was partially conditioned by the cinema, and all the 1940s and early-1950s film noir with their shots of night-time streets. But I do like Klein’s photograph of Francis Bacon at Wheeler’s Restaurant, which establishes a kind of link with an earlier Soho, Bacon having been there since the 1940s. And there’s a splendid wide shot of a man having a shoeshine on a busy Coventry Street. Klein is the one photographer who points to an older, more-established community in the area when he portrays “The Rotondos family and antecedents in Soho’s Little Italy”.

Francis Bacon frequented the notorious Colony Club Room, and Clancy Gebler Davies worked there in 1999/2000 to pay off a large bar bill. Photographers were not often welcome in the club, but she managed to strike up a friendship with the proprietor, Michael Wojas, and it was agreed that an exception would be made in her case. As the commentary says: “Her approach was neither subtle nor clandestine – she was always forthright about using the camera”. And “she didn’t always know  or care who was ‘notable’, and neither did the other patrons. It was not important who you were – simply that you weren’t boring”.  Looking at the photographs, it would seem that Gebler Davies managed to catch the patrons of the club in quite natural situations. She also managed to capture what is described as the “almost claustrophobic atmosphere” of the Colony Club Room.

Daragh Soden’s “Looking for Love” sequence sometimes makes one think that Soho has become the playground of the young. The text accompanying the photographs in the book does indicate that the sequence has a wider application and includes material relating to an interview “with an older man in which the man talks about love and relationships”. What is meant by “an older man” isn’t clarified. But reading the information about Anders Petersen, I came across this comment by him: “In the heart of many big cities, there are now only young people. I think this is sad. It is like the old have been banished. I did not feel that so much in Soho. It has changed, for sure, but there is still a big mix of people and many special characters, old and young. For me, Soho is something special”.

There is much to be gained from looking at these photographs. Sometimes, as in Corinne Day’s “Rose and George Skinning Up”, an underlying sadness comes through, as if the hunt for good times, pleasure, new experiences, and love isn’t really succeeding. If most of the people concerned are young what can they do next when Soho doesn’t live up to their expectations and nothing satisfies them? Perhaps I’m projecting too much into what I’m looking at?  Or is it that the photographer has knowingly brought to the fore what is behind the exuberance shown in other contexts?

Shot in Soho is published to coincide with the exhibition of the same name at the Photographers’ Gallery, London, 18th October, 2019 to 9th February, 2020.