Best and worst of Bailey
Plaza nails down the eccentric British photographer at the National Portrait Gallery in London.
PLAZA NAILS DOWN THE ECCENTRIC BRITISH PHOTOGRAPHER IN CONJUNCTION WITH HIS RETROSPECTIVE AT THE NATIONAL PORTRAIT GALLERY IN LONDON.
Few photographers have defined modern pop culture and the fashion scene like David Bailey. His pictures of swinging London in the 1960s set the tone for a whole decade. With love interests including Penelope Tree, Jean Shrimpton and Catherine Deneuve, he became a natural part of the scene. He was soon employed as the royal photographer at American Vogue, where he worked for the legendary chief editor Diana Vreeland. During the busiest time of his career, he produced as much as 800 newspaper pages a year. When joining the British air force aged 18, Bailey discovered Henri CartierBresson, whose work inspired him to become a photographer. It’s no coincidence his work consists of starving children in Sudan as well as iconic models, artists, starlets and authors. The exhibition Bailey’s Stardust, which opened in February at the National Portrait Gallery in London, showcases over 250 pieces from Bailey’s career. He chats to us on Skype, unafraid to voice provocative opinions while slurping his coffee.
Which are your personal favourites in the exhibition?
“They’re all my favourites. The pictures of Mick Jagger and Kate Moss get stuck with the fashion victims and shallow viewers. Those are the only pictures they can relate to. But there are unknown people featured in the exhibition. I have photographed cannibals and people who collect heads in Papua New Guinea. I’m curious about people yet unaffected by external civilisation.”
But it was within the 1960s fashion industry you first had the opportunity to work creatively.
“It was the only place you got paid for being creative. I haven’t done fashion since the eighties. I shoot celebs and talented individuals. Some stuff I do for charity. I’ve never been interested in money but have only ever done what feels right. The only time I ever compromised was when I directed adverts. It was purely commercial, not art.”
But isn’t art commercialised today?
“It’s always been. My exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery is sponsored by Hugo Boss. Who paid for the Italian renaissance? The church and the Medici family.”
Michelangelo Antonioni’s film classic Blow Up from 1966 was inspired by your work as a fashion photographer.
“It wasn’t an amazing film. Seven Samurai was. Also, I’m not a photographer, I’m an artist. I paint and make sculptures, those are different ways to explore my curiosity.”
Do you often work with the same motive?
“Yes, nowadays I make paintings based on the annunciation. I think the whole process of an angel flying down to tell the Virgin Mary she’s expecting a child, it must have been pretty emotional for her.”
You also do self portraits.
“Only if it can prevent a dull photographer stopping by and spending three hours to take an ugly picture of me. I can take an ugly picture of myself in two minutes.”
Which photographers do you admire?
“H. Cartier- Bresson, Walker Evans, Helmut Newton, Bruce Weber.”
You’re working on three books. How many have you published?
“Forty maybe, not counting the catalogues. It’s like when someone asks how many models I’ve slept with. I’ve lost count.”
Was it more than 100?
“Hell no. It wasn’t some show on the telly.”
Were you allowed a greater artistic freedom by being born into a working class family?
“No, in fact it was probably a disadvantage. In the fifties you weren’t allowed to talk to some people if you didn’t have the right accent. It was like the Indian cast society. And on top of that I was dyslexic. I didn’t go to university, where people just get more stupid and are taught the wrong things.”
Is the school of life better?
“No, that’s the worst one. Most people don’t have a chance since their too busy supporting their families.”
Many envy your lifestyle.
“They couldn’t work as hard as me. I get up at six in the morning and go to bed at 2am. I make sculptures and paintings. I’ve painted since I was three. That’s what I do. Some people make coffee, others create things.”
Mick Jagger, 1965.
Kate Moss, 2013.
Head hunter at Papua New Guinea , 1974.