The PhoTograPher DAVID BAILEY, celebrity photographer, king of cool, chronicler of the ’60s, talks art, photography, and inspiration with Linn Haugen
“I’m not a professional, I do what I do,” says David Bailey, with a certain amount of understatement. Because Bailey is legend. For over half a century he has photographed everybody from The Beatles and The Rolling Stones to Princess Diana and Kate Moss. He may have shot to fame in the 1960s for capturing the spirit of Swinging London with his edgy photographs (think the box of poster-prints called The Box of Pin-Ups—black-and-white portraits of celebrities such as AndyWarhol, Mick Jagger, and Jean Shrimpton), but Bailey’s work is practically endless. He’s done fashion editorials. He’s famous for his portraits. He paints. He created a new genre, of the celebrity photographer, when along with photographers Terence Donovan and Brian Duffy—The Black Trinity—he both shot and partied with royalty, musicians, and actors.
Fast forward to 2014 and Bailey is the man of the hour with his exhibition
Bailey’s Stardust at the National Portrait Gallery in London, a landmark exhibition of portraits with over 250 images personally selected and printed by Bailey from the 1950s to the present day. Not short of options, besides the celebrity portraits, it also includes people he met on his travels to Australia, India, and Papua New Guinea. There’s a self portrait from his first job, with the Royal Air Force in Singapore, in 1957. There are pictures from Nagaland. There’s Kate Moss, Mick Jagger, Johnny Depp. The exhibition is one of the largest the gallery has had to date. The reason? “Well, because they asked me!” Bailey exclaims. He won’t let you blow it up, either. “It’s not a retrospective— it’s just a collection of portraits from different periods in my life.”
Bailey bought his first Canon rangefinder in 1958, after being demobilised from the Royal Air Force, and managed to become a second assistant to David Ollins. “I didn’t get breaks, I made them,” he says of his journey. His progress from then is well documented: Photographic assistant at the John French studio, photographer at John Cole’s Studio Five in
“I’m not interested in photography; I’m interested
in what you can do in it; it’s just another paintbrush, really. The biggest mistake is if you start copying yourself, you have to change all the time.”
1960, and soon after, work with British Vogue (one year, he created an incredible 800 pages of editorials for the magazine).
When we speak, it emerges that Bailey likes to talk about art (he still shoots, and also likes to paint). So what is art to David Bailey? “Photography is an art, and painting is an art. It depends on the person doing it as an artist. For instance, I’m not interested in photography; I’m interested in what you do in photography. I’m interested in what I can do with it; it’s just another paint brush really. The biggest mistake is if you start copying yourself. You have to slightly change all the time.”
The discussion continues on to the relationship between art and photography, and how much of photography is art to him. “There’s nothing wrong with being a photographer, but when you’re a photographer, it means that you’re an artist. Nothing wrong with being a painter, but not all painters are artists. It’s a fact.”
Seconds later, an explosion. It’s sparked by an innocuous question about favourites. He doesn’t like it. “I don’t do favourites! I don’t have favourite children, I don’t have favourite countries, I don’t have favourite colours, and I don’t have favourite pictures. I’m interested in some people, I’m interested in whether they are artists or not, and some people I’m not interested in. That’s the way I judge things.” But surely there must be something that stands out for him after all these years—a crazy memory from the ’60s, a shoot where everything went wrong, a special history? A pause. “The best thing in my life is my wife [fourth wife Catherine Dyer]. And she stands out.”
At 76, Bailey is still considered one of Britain’s best photographers. Did he ever expect to come this far. “How far is that,” he asks. “All the way to New Delhi and back?”
(Above) Bailey’s portraits of Italian fashion icon, the late Anna Piaggi, and Britain’s queen of punk, Vivienne Westwood