I love color photography. That’s all I shoot, and whenever I can get a rich explosion of color into a photo, I feel like I’m doing my job. I also love color shots at night. I often joke that I spend more time in Times Square (at least pre-pandemic) than any other New Yorker. The furious abundance of colors, the neon energy, the packed-in souls out for fun or at least diversion … pictures galore!
Which means that Joshua K. Jackson’s “Sleepless in Soho,” from Setanta Books, is right up my alley (or at least my narrow twisting street). London’s Soho of course is not exactly Times Square, but it is the night part of town, with its clubs, restaurants, sex shops, theaters, and flocks of people on the stroll, either tourists or natives. And in Jackson’s eyes it’s a place of lovely, mysterious, artful photographs.
One thing I like about the book is it’s not any kind of guide or overview of Soho, the square-mile district in Westminster, as much it’s the night area as backdrop for Jackson’s singular photos. What’s he after? First of all, those bursts of night color, the rich swells of neon reds, burgundies, greens, and turquoises (particularly vivid on a high-heeled woman’s legs as she strides down a brick walkway). He’s also masterly in the way he captures floods of interior yellows and oranges. One striking photo—actually the book’s power is that every photo is striking!—has a behatted, phone-toting man in front of glowing restaurant window.
Which leads to a second subject matter, those night denizens of Soho. There’s an intensely smooching couple in a doorway, passion in this dark photo as rich as the swaths of color in others. There’s a man’s head in silhouette before a slash of orange neon sign. Many of the people who do appear are not so much the subjects of the photos as much as, say, foredrops for them. In a sense, that is, there is no direct subject matter here, just arrangements of forms and color….
Which is only partly true. There is a vivid emotion underlying any number of photos. I’d call it loneliness, anomie, those night-haunt hopes that almost always crash by dawn. Here’s a shot of a woman and a beglassed man through a café window, her hands grasping his lapels, going at him intensely. Here’s a full-on shot of a cabbie waiting stubbornly for a fare. A close-up of a man, eyes alarmed yet empty, too, filling nearly half the frame beside a few smudges of color. A woman, arms folded over her breasts, a deep pensive look on her face. Perhaps she’s ruminating deeply on the explicit message of a photo that appears near the front of the book: a beautiful near-empty room of rich cherry-red light, two dark chairs, and a glowing neon sign that reads, “love is the drug.”
More on that in a minute, but first I want to talk about how “Sleepless in Soho” is made. The book is in Swiss binding, and is composed of four sewn signatures, with each signature’s first and last pages full-bleed abstract shots on thinner paper, glued to the next signature or, at the end, bound tight to the back casing. This lets the whole book of photographs set comfortably into an open spine.
Swiss binding … about as wild as the Swiss in general, I suppose; yet still there is something both clever and sweet about the way “Sleepless in Soho” is put together. Certainly the book’s form makes it all about the photos. Can’t ask for more than that.
Now back to those photos. The woman mentioned above is not the only pensive one. There’s a personal favorite of a woman in the back of a cab, only her wide, alarmed eyes visible between layers of light on paint and metal.
This photo is on the cover of the book, inset in thick black board, so it’s clearly a key shot. The layers of light and dark around her remind me of Saul Leiter, whom I’ve written about recently. Leiter, the master of photos of layered color, as with his famous shot “Through Boards, 1957” of stacked layers of red, black, a car on the street, and more black. Jackson looks to have learned much from Leiter, with his powerful silhouettes (smudges of people as means to define colors), his way with a blur (a woman and two metal-rimmed folding chairs in a very unfocused swarm of yellow and blue reminiscent of Leiter’s shots of Parisian waiters), and the way Leiter could make a simple detail sing.
Throughout “Sleepless in Soho” Jackson makes his photos sing, too, and tunes that even if at times they recall Leiter’s, also range far from his. A child in an open doorway with four pale blue balloons. A woman’s red skirt and ghostly shoes ablur in a frame. A woman with a purse before a few thin neon bulbs in the lower left of a photo that is three-fourths a dark cloud.
Well, that last one is back in Leiter territory. Jackson’s also learned a couple things from William Eggleston. There’s a grill in the corner of a restaurant that’s of a similar tenor as Eggleston’s famous green oven; there’s even an upward-peering shot of a bare light bulb among a swarm of wires before a red ceiling.
My guess is Jackson couldn’t resist the homage. And why not? With “Sleepless in Soho” Jackson proves he’s his own master, and shout-outs to those photographers who inspired and brought him here, well, that’s simple courtesy.
And deep feeling. That neon sign might read “love is the drug,” but Jackson knows love, and desire, and sadness, and loss are all so much more. Not drugs, no escape at all, just essential human emotions.
Which leads to the true point of strong, expressive color in photography. Used right, bold color leads to deep feeling. New realms of expression. Photos that move you like the best music.
As much as any photobook I can think of, “Sleepless in Soho” has soul.
Robert Dunn is a writer, photographer, and teacher. His latest novel is Savage Joy, inspired by his first years in NYC and working at The New Yorker magazine. His photobooks OWS, Angel Parade, Carnival of Souls, and New York Street are in the permanent collection of the libraries of the Museum of Modern Art and the International Center of Photograph (more info on Dunn’s own photobooks here; prints of his work can be ordered here, follow his instagram here). Dunn also teaches a course called “Writing the Photobook” at the New School University in New York City.