During the decades immediately after the Second World War, the louche square mile of Soho in Central London lured and vexed the suburban English imagination with equal force. In Edmond Gréville’s comically overwrought exploitation movie Beat Girl (1959) – its script a farrago of stilted drama-school teen-speak and prurient ‘square’ moralizing – the district threatens to corrupt a flighty blonde ingénue with its mix of sex, violence and energetic John Barry tunes. (Drugs are merely hinted at: ‘Drink’s for squares, man!’) But while the film singularly fails to convince either in its depiction of nascent British teen culture or the strip clubs that catered to an older, sadder clientele, Beat Girl still manages to hint at the complex backdrop to Soho’s postwar notoriety. The area was both part of the coming decade’s Pop ascendance – singer Adam Faith plays the rebel-with-acoustic-guitar – and a reminder of an older, more theatrical, perhaps ultimately more bohemian, milieu.
Something of this disparity marked the Photographers’ Gallery show. The three strands of the exhibition, curated by Val Williams and Bob Pullen, archived competing visions of Soho in the 1950s and 1960s, and only one of them could really be said to reflect adequately the mix of rumour, fact and desire that gave the place its reputation. Magnum photographer David Hurn’s images of strippers in performance and backstage seemed to court the worst clichés of an overworked genre. In the first five black and white images, a woman’s face is obscured as she performs for a room full of glum, overcoated men; in the second half of the series, the club’s strippers slump and preen in private, eating, chatting, sleeping, readying themselves before dingy mirrors and two-bar fires. Hurn’s sympathy for his subjects is obvious, but the triteness of the distinction between public spectacle and private reality – it is the photographer, after all, who crops off the woman’s face, not the punter – renders the specificity of the women’s lives almost invisible.
In contrast to Hurn’s somewhat pat social realism, the photographs of Jean Straker seem, precisely by their awkward theatricality, more authentically a product of postwar Soho and its eccentric history. Straker’s Visual Arts Club (which he founded in Soho Square, 1951) purported to cater for those, like its founder, who appreciated the ‘Truth, Beauty, Power and Purpose of the human form’. The ruse is laughably transparent, but to dismiss Straker’s bizarre compositions as mere ‘nudey’ fare would be to miss their odd overlapping and connection with the cultural confusion of Soho. Straker’s tableaux are more accurately downmarket erotic versions of the Surrealist-inspired fantasias the theatrical photographer Angus McBean had contrived in the 1930s and 1940s. In fact, there may be no better visual précis of popular British cod-Surrealism than the sight of a naked woman with a lampshade on her head: an endearingly dumb conceit of Straker’s that is only a discreet bit of drapery away from a joke about modern art straight out of Hancock’s Half Hour.
Straker also produced more ostensibly innocent studies – dreamy, topless teenagers surrounded by records, books and matinée-idol posters – but it is his absurd, clumsy, artlessly ‘arty’ images that insist. He seems to have relished a kind of allegory that almost never comes off as he plans: a pair of stiffly poised women with books on their heads; a living shop-window dummy with crudely drawn joints; a woman with carnival masks tied to bits of her body, who looks about to collapse in giggles. His efforts at photographic self-reference are boisterously overdone: he intrudes himself into the frame as photographer (sometimes half-undressed) or surrounds a bored model with camera enthusiasts, fiddling with their equipment. And yet, all of this smutty pantomime probably says more about the nature of clandestine desire in postwar Britain than does Hurn’s reportage; Straker’s photographs are an essential archiving of the psychic, and legal, displacement of eroticism onto art.
There were clues, too, to Soho’s role as cultural nexus in a selection of photographs from the archive of the Daily Herald newspaper, the third strand of this exhibition. The toothy pop star Tommy Steele – who would soon revert to chirpy music-hall type, the default setting of British Pop until the mid-1960s – gets married in 1960. But the paper’s photograph of a hectic jazz club reveals a more intriguing coterie: among the Tommy Steele quiffs and trad-jazz enthusiasts, an aloof trio looks on: a hollow-eyed girl with Jean Seberg hair; a stern boy in tight t-shirt; the only black youth in the room, still sharp in the heat and throng. They seem to have arrived from some more rigorously hip universe, as yet unnoticed among the journalistic clichés about Soho’s moral licence.