October 2012

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A 1950s contemporary of Pamela Green’s was the photographer Jean Straker.  An interesting character by half. To my knowledge, he never photographed Pamela, but she did have a copy of his book, The Nudes of Jean Straker, on her shelf. I feel as if Jean Straker was too arty and highbrow for the pin-up crowd and not hip enough for the art crowd of the day.

Jean Straker was born in London in 1913 to a Russian father and English ballerina mother. He left school to work in a film publicity office. From there he ended up as a freelance journalist, ghosting articles for film and theatre magazines and illustrating them with his own photographs. A conscientious objector during the War he combined duties as an ARP (Air Raid Precautions) warden with working as a surgical photographer in London’s hospitals for the Ministry of Information.

In 1945, he bought a studio in Soho Square and formed a photographic firm called Photo Union. His experiments with colour photography proved expensive, and he became increasingly annoyed with being treated as a “plumber” by his clients. So in 1951 he turned his studio into the Visual Arts Club. The aim of which was to meet the needs of amateur photographers who found difficulty in obtaining nude models, and who wished to escape the stigma of secret nude sessions behind drawn bedroom curtains. It also enabled Straker, through lectures, demonstrations and the sale of his work, to pass on his ideas to others.

Jean Straker

Figure study by Jean Straker.

Models unknown. Many members were often shy in the presence of unclad models and preferred to leave their cameras at home and just watch the proceedings. But Straker’s masterly handling of nude compositions together with his artistic running commentary lifted this occupation out of the sphere of mere ogling. For those who merely wanted to watch and learn Straker coined the term “appraisers”. Life drawing classes were also a staple of the club and wives of members automatically received membership.

The Consultation

The Consultation (1956). The theme of motherhood inevitably stands second only to survival in the passion of man and remains the focus of his faith and purpose. By a strange inversion of ethical values, it is in our society often the object of circumspection and taboo. The image shows a pregnant woman consulting her doctor. The picture was taken at a series of Group Beta meetings of the Graphic Arts Faculty at the Visual Arts Club. Model: Joyce Williams — née Hunt.

His models were often far from being conventional beauties and apparently he discouraged the use of make-up. His sometimes-surreal use of props and odd poses meant that his work did not appear in publications of the day. As an art feature of the Soho Fair, however, Straker would often stage an exhibition called Femina. After ten years, he changed the name of the club to The Academy of Visual Arts.

With the passing of the 1959 Obscene Publications Act, the 1960s saw a number of controversial trials; Straker came into conflict with the authorities, as his own work was quite uncompromising. He refused to retouch his work at a time when a glimpse of pubic hair was sufficient to lead to prosecution. In 1962, Jean lost his case for the return of 1,474 negatives and hundreds of photographs. The court ruled they have “a certain aspect which would tend to deprave and corrupt. Police had seized the photographs from his London studio. Straker spent the rest of the decade refusing to curtail his activities or compromise his artistic integrity leading to a continuous cycle of prosecutions and appeals. He was instrumental in changes to the censorship laws of the day. After nearly a decade of litigation, he retired to Sussex.

Cover girls are meant to draw
    The eyes, and pence from pockets;
Those uncovered often score
    A pride of place in lockets.
Connoisseurs of visual art
    Make patronage a duty
When figure studies from the start
    Merge artistry with beauty.
Model forms of graceful line,
    Virtue unadorned displayed
Back our cover girl’s design:—
    Fair exchange for money paid.
Jean Straker