As I walk into David Bailey’s rather unpretentious mews studio in London’s Bloomsbury he is hunched over a laptop going through images for his forthcoming exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. He looks up. “Sorry mate, just be a minute,’ he says. “Do you want to look at the book?”
A large tome the size of a paving stone entitled, Bailey’s Stardust, with a multi-coloured cover by Damien Hirst, is dropped in my lap. It is the catalogue or shall we say book of his forthcoming exhibition – its title taken from Hoagy Carmichael’s 1927 song about a love song: “My stardust melody/ The memory of love’s refrain.”
Accordingly, inside the book I see my past, indeed our past, parade in front of me in the shape of portraits of anyone and everyone who has helped form contemporary culture both counter and otherwise: David Lean, Warhol, Dali, Johnny Rotten, David Bowie, Kate Moss and Brigitte Bardot are just some of the names inside; and then there’s a nude section – “Democracy” – featuring among others, Albert John, a gnarly old man who, tattooed all over, sports a good hundred odd piercings on face and testis. Other areas include, “Artists”, “Papua New Guinea” and “Beauty”.
It is an astonishing collection by anybody’s measure that is at once, humorous, brutal, perceptive and refreshing.
“I don’t take pictures,” explains Bailey. “I make pictures. A five-year-old can take a picture. But that is not what it’s about or what I do. I don’t think of myself as a photographer or an artist. I don’t even care how I am perceived. But there is a difference between making pictures and taking pictures. It’s an art. Bruce Webber can do it. Robert Frank can, as did Cartier-Bresson. But photographers come here to take photographs of me and don’t even talk to me. And they take so fucking long. It’s like masturbation for them. I talk to people more than take their pictures. Probably an hour’s talking to 10 minutes of shooting.”
And perusing the myriad images from the book it is apparent that his modus operandi pays off. After viewing the picture-maker’s work, the novelist William Golding, wrote in his preface to Bailey’s 1985 book, Imagine. “I am not sure I shall ever be the same again.” Undoubtedly, his photographs get beneath the skin of his subject’s to reveal more about their character than one might ever expect from a common or garden photo: Cecil Beaton is as camp as a row of tents (“He was really talented but a ghastly man, such a snob, the middle class are the worst snobs”), Jack Nicholson’s infectious smile fills the frame (“He’s the most intelligent actor I have ever met – he knows something the other actors don’t know”) while Francis Bacon looks intense and downright sleazy (“He tried to pick me up in Soho when I was young and I didn’t know who he was.”)
Jerry Hall (L) and Suzanne Wyman attend a private view of Bailey's Stardust, a exhibition of images by David Bailey supported by Hugo Boss, at the National Portrait Gallery. (Photo by David M. Benett/Getty Images)
Bailey has spent the last two and a half years going through his vast archive selecting and reprinting his images for the exhibition. Some are a different frame of a well-known image, while the new black-and-white silver gelatine prints jump out of the frame and bite.
Another room in the NPG is devoted to David Bailey’s Box of Pin-Ups – a series of portraits he’d embarked on after he’d split up with model Jean Shrimpton in the spring of 1964 and became bored with fashion. Including the likes of Michael Caine, Nureyev, Hockney and Lord Snowdon, it was initially sold as loose portfolio of 36 shots printed on stiff paper. “As usual I lost money on the project,” he groans. “We couldn’t give it away at the time. Now they sell for £20,000.”
“They [the sitters] were mostly mates,” he explains. “They were the easiest to get to come to the studio.”
Both the Rolling Stones and the Beatles feature in Bailey’s Box. Mick Jagger peers out from under a furry parka while Lennon has his eyes closed.
“I much prefer the Stones to the Beatles but always loved Lennon,” clarifies the lens man.
Undeniably, some of Bailey’s most controversial, iconic and recognizable images are in the Box – namely his truly menacing shots of Sixties East End gang lords, the Kray Brothers, etched against Bailey’s characteristic stark white background. One of these prints looks down from the walls of his studio.
Kate Moss attends a private view of Bailey's Stardust, a exhibition of images by David Bailey supported by Hugo Boss, at the National Portrait Gallery (Photo by David M. Benett/Getty Images)
“But these pictures [from the Box] completely stand up and are simply against a white background,” he explains. “Still, they’re the hardest shots to do. You’ve got nothing in the background to help you... but all those things distract you anyway.”
Enormously driven, Bailey admits to working every day (“I was printing on Christmas day,” he laughs) and gave up alcohol and party going some 40 years ago as it got in the way of his work. This is a man who loves what he does and wants to do a lot more.