Soho Of The 1950s And 1960s At Photographers' Gallery

By Louise Banbury | 31 October 2008

Exhibition review - Soho Archives: 1950s & 1960s is running at The Photographers’ Gallery until November 16 2008.

Soho's reputation as a hotbed of sleaze, crime and creativity has not yet entirely faded. But the Soho of today seems positively drab compared to the one depicted in The Photographers’ Gallery exhibition, Soho Archives: 1950s & 1960s.

During this period, Soho was in its heyday. London was throwing off its post-war austerity, filling the bars and jazz clubs and embracing a new era of sexual liberation. It was also fertile ground for artists, writers and photographers in search of inspiration, and for newspaper snappers in search of a story.

The exhibition is a neat collection taken from three very different photographic archives - Jean Straker, David Hurn and the Daily Herald library.

First on display are the figure studies of Jean Straker from the mid 1950s. Straker was an enthusiastic and prolific photographer of the female nude, and he founded the Visual Arts Club at 12 Soho Square, where members were also offered nude photography sessions.

In the nine nudes on show here, Straker’s anonymous subjects are photographed in delightfully surreal compositions. In one example, the subject is wearing a skirt made of chicken wire and the set includes a bed frame, a spanner, and various other pieces of ironmongery. But for all their theatricality, the studies are also striking for their anatomical realism - the models are revealed in all their stretch-marked, un-retouched glory.

Straker was always insistent that his work was art – not pornography, but the authorities at the time weren’t convinced. In 1967 Straker had many of his prints confiscated and he was prosecuted under the 1959 Obscene Publications Act.

The legal action may seem ludicrous today, but this display does pose the question of whether the members of the Visual Arts Club were really that different to the patrons of the nearby peep shows and strip clubs.

It was the strip clubs of Soho that provided Magnum photographer David Hurn with subject matter for his insightful collection, taken over a period of two years between 1963 and 1965. First we see a set of five images in which a stripper is photographed at work. The camera focuses not on the woman whose head is out of shot, but the male audience sitting on wooden benches, solemn and awkward.

Next is a series of four photos that capture strippers relaxing in their dressing room. In contrast to the overtly erotic setting of the club, they are shown in various mundane activities – watching television, changing, eating, or sprawled on a chair taking a between-show nap. Yet the intimate and arguably voyeuristic quality of these images makes them perhaps the most sensual and erotic of the exhibition.

A head and shoulders shot of a man wearing a suit.

Image courtesy of The Daily Herald Archive at the National Media Museum / Science and Society Picture Library

(Above) Billy Hill, self-styled ‘King of Soho’, photographed aboard the Liner Southern Cross after returning from Australia, where he was refused permission to land, June 13 1958.

The jewel in the exhibition’s crown, however, is the archive of the Daily Herald, a popular newspaper published in London that was later to close down and re-launch as The Sun. The images in this collection portray a Soho at its most colourful and vivacious, through the eyes of the media.

Among the 15 enlarged prints that grace the back wall of the gallery is a pageant of local gangsters – Billy Hill (the self-styled ‘boss of the underworld’) Jack Comer (known as Jack Spot) and Victor Russo (also known as Scarface Jock). There are also images of rock ‘n’ roll idol Tommy Steele’s wedding and stag night, and an all-night party at the Cy Laurie jazz club in Great Windmill Street.

An image of a woman crying, surrounded by other women and police officers.

Image courtesy of The Daily Herald Archive at the National Media Museum / Science and Society Picture Library.

(Above) A young fan wipes the tears from her eyes outside St Patrick’s Church in Soho Square during the wedding of Tommy Steele to Ann Donoghue, June 18 1960. Photographer: anon.

Alongside the prints, we see how the photos were edited and captioned by the newspaper picture desk, which provides a vignette of the sensibilities of the time. Images of inside the jazz club, for example, are accompanied by a caption: “In some well-conducted jazz clubs – like this one – there is an atmosphere of youthful exuberance. But in others, jazz and jive combine to produce demoralising, unhealthy excitement.”

Overall, this compact exhibition, curated by Val Williams and Bob Pullen, is a lively, nostalgic sketch of a bygone era. But the themes it visits and the questions it raises – when does documentation become titillation, when does art become pornography and when does curiosity become voyeurism – are no less relevant, important and fascinating today.

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