John Deakin: the perfect anti-hero of the tawdry Soho scene

During the various lockdowns I found myself wondering how Iain Sinclair was coping with the restrictions. It seemed unthinkable that this unflinching punisher of pavements could be stuck with 30 minutes round the park. But, as it turns out, sequestering, in a fashion that only the Scots word ‘thrawn’ can do justice to, has resulted in the most archetypal Sinclair book yet. John Deakin is the pariah genius of the title. During the ‘brain-dead hibernation’ of the pandemic, Sinclair got a short-term loan of ‘17 albums of John Deakin’s photographs, fresh prints made from recovered contact sheets; a substantial history of his labours, a flickbook parade of the stunned and

The quiet brilliance of street photographer Saul Leiter

This is the second exhibition of mid-century New York street photography at the MK Gallery in Milton Keynes. The first, in 2022, surveyed the work of Vivian Maier, who at her death left behind a vast quantity of prints and negatives: evidence of a hidden life unsuspected even by those in whose household she lived and worked for four decades. There are continuities between Maier and the subject of the current show, Saul Leiter. They were contemporaries, loners who lived into their eighties (Leiter died four years after Maier, in 2013), prolific but uninterested in recognition, their reputations largely posthumous. Leiter was born in 1923 in Pittsburgh, like Andy Warhol

No one should trust the camera in the age of AI

This war is being fought with pictures more than words. The poignant shots, often selfies, of families, children, even babies, who were to become victims of Hamas butchery, the wailing mothers and children on stretchers in Gaza, the missile strikes and collapsed concrete buildings. We know politicians on all sides lie, but photography is a mechanical process; these pictures must, surely, be the truth? Almost all these photos have been taken with mobile phones. To a rough approximation, everybody now has a smartphone. There are said to be seven billion smartphones in use around the world – there are only eight billion people. (Sales of what we used to know

Huge, impersonal canvases designed for the walls of billionaires: Tate Modern’s Capturing the Moment reviewed

‘Photography has arrived at a point where it is capable of liberating painting from all literature, from the anecdote, and even from the subject. So shouldn’t painters profit from their newly acquired liberty, and make use of it to do other things?’ argued Picasso. The inventor of cubism took advantage of his liberty in ‘Buste de Femme’ (1938) to turn Dora Maar into a precursor of Peppa Pig, flaring her nostrils to form a snout. Perhaps he wanted to teach a photographer a lesson about paint by rubbing her nose in it. Picasso didn’t abandon the subject or the anecdote. He was one of the first modern artists to turn

Jenny McCartney

The stuff of nightmares: Retrievals podcast reviewed

It is the stuff of nightmares, or a queasily dystopian film plot. A woman is undergoing a surgical procedure in a top-rated US clinic. The aim is ‘egg retrieval’, a process which collects eggs from the ovaries for use in IVF. It involves nerves and hope, long needles and pain – except the patient has been promised that the latter will be minimal, thanks to an injection of fentanyl, a powerful opioid. The pain certainly isn’t minimal, however. It’s excruciating. When the woman says how much it hurts, the nurse tops up the dose, and then says the patient has now received the maximum allowed. There might be a touch

Barbara Ker-Seymer – Bright Young Person in the shadows

English Modernism was graced by five daring and gifted women who were in many respects well in advance of their native male counterparts: Virginia Woolf and Anna Kavan in prose, Edith Sitwell in poetry, Elisabeth Lutyens in music and Barbara Hepworth in sculpture. Barbara Ker-Seymer is not remotely in this class. She took some attractive photo-portraits before the war in her studio above Asprey’s and that was it. After leaving St Paul’s Girls’ School, Barbara was soon drinking, drugging and dancing round town Not that Barbara cared. Though trained at the Chelsea School of Art, she had a deprecating attitude to her activity which was characteristic of English amateurism and

The woman who pioneered colour photography

When colour photography first came in at the start of the last century, it met a surprising amount of resistance from distinguished photographers. But Madame Yevonde loved it, owned it, revelled in it. She invested in a new Vivex repeating back camera, exhorting her fellows at the Royal Photographic Society in 1932: ‘Hurrah, we are in for exciting times. Red hair, uniforms, exquisite complexions and coloured fingernails come into their own… If we are going to have colour photographs, for heaven’s sake let’s have a riot of colour.’ But what she went on to create was far better than that. In her classical series ‘Goddesses’ (1935) she controlled colour like

When Lee Miller met Picasso

During the liberation of Paris in August 1944, the photographer Lee Miller made her way to Picasso’s studio on rue des Grands-Augustins, where she was greeted with a wide-eyed grin. ‘This is wonderful – the first Allied soldier I’ve seen, and it’s you!’ the artist exclaimed, reaching up to place his hand affectionately around her neck. Miller had just escaped house arrest for breaching the terms of her press accreditation by entering a combat zone. The PR office of the US Army had dispatched her – one of just four American female photographers they granted an official commission – to Saint-Malo in the mistaken belief that the fighting there was

Promethean grandeur: Maurice Broomfield – Industrial Sublime, at the V&A, reviewed

When Maurice Broomfield left school at the age of 15, he took a job at the Rolls-Royce factory, bending copper pipes on a turret lathe. That was what you did in Derby in 1931: Rolls-Royce was the town’s biggest employer, and entire generations expected to pass the best part of their lives behind the walls of its 13-acre plant. But Broomfield didn’t stay. Not long into his new job, he saw a photo of an ageing employee being packed off into retirement with a handshake and a gold watch. This was a person who’d never had any real control over his own life; who’d worked when he was told to,

Was Thomas Edison guilty of murder?

In September 1890 a Frenchman called Louis Le Prince left his brother in Dijon and boarded a train to Paris, with the intention of connecting to London and then to Leeds, before finally joining his wife Lizzie and family in New York. But the weeks turned into months, and to his wife’s astonishment and dismay he never arrived or saw his family again. He had disappeared. A mere eight months later Thomas Edison would unveil the ‘Kinetograph’ to the world, claiming his apparatus to be the birth of the moving image, featuring ‘pure motion recorded and reproduced’ for the first time. Recognising the device as a version of one invented

The beauty of gasholders

On 25 October 1960, a Boeing pilot aiming for Heathrow accidentally landed at an RAF base, only realising his error when the runway turned out to be alarmingly short. Disaster was averted, but the near-miss caused some embarrassment, and the minister of aviation had to answer questions in the House. What had confused the pilot, it emerged, was the advice from air traffic control to start his descent ‘in line with the gasholder’. He had picked the wrong one. Ever since, the gasholders near Heathrow and RAF Northolt have had painted on them, in 50ft-high letters, ‘LH’ and ‘NO’. There is a surprising amount of strange lore about these industrial

Valuable reassessment of British art: Barbican’s Postwar Modern reviewed

Notoriously, the past is another country: what’s more, it’s a terrain for which the guidebooks need constantly to be rewritten. That’s one attraction of the new exhibition Postwar Modern at the Barbican. It’s a survey of what might seem all-too-familiar territory: British art in the two decades that followed VE day. Yet it succeeds in revealing numerous half-forgotten or undervalued movements and people, the good, the bad and – most intriguingly – candidates for reassessment. The decades that followed the second world war were marked by dreary austerity, perhaps explaining the tendency for the art to be coloured oatmeal, beige, grey and brown. But this was also a time of

Restless visionary: Man Ray was always ahead of his time

In the summer of 1940, after almost 20 years in Paris, Man Ray fled the Nazis for the country of his birth. Disliking New York, where he’d spent his youth, he made for the West Coast. He hoped to get as far as Tahiti or Hawaii. But his trip came to an end when, braced by the space, lifted by the lack of skyscrapers (‘made me feel taller’) and swept off his feet by a dancing girl (the latest in a long line of hoofers for whom he’d have the hots), he settled in Los Angeles. Though he would live there for more than decade, he never really liked the

Meet climber, photographer and filmmaker extraordinaire Jimmy Chin

‘Why did you want to climb Everest?’ reporters quizzed mountaineer George Mallory in 1922. That the question even needed asking shows mountaineering is fundamentally different from other pursuits. No journalist would ever ask a footballer why they kick a ball around. But mountaineering is gruelling and you’re way more likely to perish from it than to make a fortune. So why would anyone climb any mountain, let alone Everest? Mallory’s rationale was short and sweet: ‘Because it’s there.’ And what about Jimmy Chin? Why does he climb? Chin, 48, is part Bear Grylls, part David Attenborough. He has not only climbed snow, ice and rock terrain on all seven continents,

The art of seizing the moment in photographic portraiture

A Tatler photographer once told me that the secret to taking a good photo was the three Ts: tum, tits, teeth. Suck it in, push ’em out, show your pearly whites. Leaving aside David LaChapelle’s portrait of Pamela Anderson, there’s a shortage of Ts in Phillip Prodger’s Face Time. This looks likea coffee-table book but doesn’t bark like a coffee-table book. On first flick through, I found the pictures desultory, even depressing. I was expecting more of a Condé Nast vibe. Glossy and glossier. On second approach, taking text and pictures together, it became a more interesting beast. Prodger is a former head of photography at the National Portrait Gallery

Fortifying snapshot of the gardener’s year: Saatchi Gallery’s RHS Botanical Art show reviewed

Elizabeth Blackadder, who died last month at the age of 89, was probably the most distinctive botanical artist of our time. Her paintings of lilies and irises, of cats poking their heads imperiously between poppies and freesias, are more alive than any such chocolate-box description could convey. The first woman to be elected to both the Royal and the Royal Scottish academies, Blackadder showed that botanical painting did not need to be twee and parochial. It could be as vibrant and interesting as narrative. The 15 artists and 19 photographers participating in this year’s Royal Horticultural Society exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery follow in Blackadder’s tradition. The Saatchi may not

Hugely pleasurable – a vision of summer: Jennifer Packer at the Serpentine Gallery reviewed

We need to talk about Eric. In Jennifer Packer’s portrait of her friend and fellow artist, Eric N. Mack sits on a yellow chair that might have been borrowed from Van Gogh’s bedroom. He’s wearing excellent odd socks, one pink to rhyme with his shoes, the other yellow matching his trousers and chair. But it’s Eric’s face that’s most compelling. Like the ‘Mona Lisa’, Eric’s expression is inscrutable. He might be thinking about what’s for tea, the crisis in pictorial representation or, quite likely, nodding off. This enigmatic quality is intentional. ‘When I painted Eric, I wanted accuracy, but I also wanted to privilege his subjectivity and privacy,’ says Packer.

A high-end car-boot sale of the unconscious: Colnaghi’s Dreamsongs reviewed

In 1772 the 15-year-old Mozart wrote a one-act opera set, like The Magic Flute, in a dream world. Il sogno di Scipione was based on an account in Cicero’s Republic of a dream experienced by the Roman general Scipio Aemilianus while serving in North Africa in 148 BC. In the dream the younger Scipio is visited by his adoptive grandfather Scipio Africanus, who foretells his destruction of Carthage, dishes out advice on dealing with populist politics and shows him ‘the stars such as we have never seen them from this earth’. Scipio’s is a recurring dream: it inspired Dante’s vision of Heaven and Hell and it returns to haunt us

William Boyd on the miraculous snaps of boy genius Jacques Henri Lartigue

What must it be like for an artist to achieve success only at the end of a long, relatively ignored career? The word ‘bittersweet’ seems particularly apt. Yet, late recognition is better, I suppose, than dying in oblivion like Vincent van Gogh, Franz Kafka or John Kennedy Toole. One of my favourite photographers, Jacques Henri Lartigue (1894–1986), did manage to savour the sweet smell of success in his old age. Lartigue’s late flowering was down to New York’s Museum of Modern Art and its then director of photography, John Szarkowski. There’s a very good argument to be made that during Szarkowski’s tenure at MoMA (1962–91) his shows transformed 20th-century photography.

Mother nature is finally getting the art she deserves

I guess that few would currently dispute that the world is in crisis. I’m not talking about Covid-19. Nor am I primarily addressing the issues arising from the 36 billion tonnes of carbon that the human project sends into our atmosphere every year. Climate chaos is a part of the issue, but I’m thinking principally of those things that most impact upon the biosphere as an ongoing live enterprise. They include the additional billion humans that our planet acquires every 12 years; the four-fifths of fish populations harvested to or beyond sustainable levels; the half of all the world’s trees felled by our species; the catastrophic depletion of soils by