The big picture: Soho's neon nights

From the series Sleepless in Soho by Joshua K Jackson.
From the series Sleepless in Soho by Joshua K Jackson. Photograph: Joshua K Jackson
From the series Sleepless in Soho by Joshua K Jackson. Photograph: Joshua K Jackson

Joshua K Jackson’s portraits of late-night London life feature vivid rain-soaked streets full of strange intimacy

Tim Adams
Sun 13 Dec 2020 02.00 EST

Windows are almost ever-present in Joshua K Jackson’s pictures of late-night Soho. Misted up, or rained on or red-lit, glass often separates the restive men and women in his photographs from satisfactions just out of reach. London’s shameless, shameful heart is seen through the searching gaze of those after just one more drink, one more good time. Promises are reflected in crimson and indigo neon, and everyone, photographer included, is cast as a voyeur.

Jackson started taking the pictures – gathered in a monograph, Sleepless in Soho – as an antidote to his own insomnia. Using a portrait lens and drawn to saturated colour, his images recall a world of intimacy strangely alien to lockdown eyes – first snogs and last kisses are snatched in doorways and tube stations, drinks are abandoned on bar-room tables, solitary silhouettes draw on desperate smokes, melancholy clubbers’ bodies are packed on to night buses home.

It is not just the pandemic that makes this look like a disappearing world. Developers are once again engaged in the perennial effort to monetise and sanitise the wayward hub of the city. Jackson’s pictures of the alleys around Old Compton Street are a reminder of how they were built with stolen pleasures in mind; nostalgia is priced into bars and clubs that have always been the hangovers of what they once were.

You might look at some of Jackson’s photographs with a raspy Shane MacGowan soundtrack in your head: “I took shelter from a shower / And I stepped into your arms / On a rainy night in Soho / The wind was whistling all its charms…”; or you might instead feel the raddled ghosts of the closed-down Colony Room and the old Coach and Horses telling you that last orders are not what they used to be.

Sleepless in Soho is published by Setanta Books