SHOT IN SOHO: PHOTOGRAPHING LOVE AND LAWLESSNESS IN THE HEART OF
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
can help to rejuvenate the creative impulses. It can also just be
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
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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
London, 18th October, 2019 to 9th February,