1/125 at f/11, ISO 900
Last weekend I visited the National Portrait Gallery to view Bailey’s Stardust, a major exhibition of over 250 photographs spanning more than 50 years of the artist’s work. Bailey, as curator, was given free rein to select and display his pictures and through his choices we are given an insight into the man as those choices range from his well known black and white, portraits to travel photographs, studies of the people of Papua New Guinea and aboriginal Australians, a whole room dedicated to his wife and family, documentary photographs of the East End and the Naga Hills and a selection of still life images.
Bailey is one a small group of British photographers, along with Terence Donovan and Brian Duffy later known as the “unholy trinity” * (1), whose influence on photography is global in scale. After discovering the joy of photography with a fake Leica he purchased in Singapore during his National Service with the RAF he forced his way into a profession that was dominated, in Britain, by aristocrats and well-healed, well-connected products of the private school system behind the lens and ex-debutantes on the other. Bailey was none of these things, an East End boy from Laytonstone via East Ham with an education severely limited by dyslexia, in his day better know as “being a bit thick”, and plenty of rough edges that he had no intention of smoothing.
In the exhibition and amongst the photos of household names, rock stars, fashion icons and the great and the good of the arts world is a simple black and white print of Paulene Stone taken in 1960. Stone would become one of the faces of the sixties but this image of a slim young women kneeling down to, seemingly, blow a kiss at a squirrel was to change the world of fashion photography. Mary Quant observed that “No fashion picture had ever been taken like that before. It was a great slap of excitement. It was tremendous.” *(2) it was a picture of a person not just of the clothes she was wearing, it was whimsical, it was funny, it was different and it not only launched Bailey’s career but changed fashion photography for ever. After Autumn Girl was published in the Daily Express designers and photo editors wanted models to be in interesting locations, they wanted movement, they wanted to promote clothes by making exciting images and above all they wanted models to have personality. The era of the supermodel began here. Bailey saw fashion photography as taking photographs of “personalities, portraits but wearing frocks.” * (4) He often worked with the same girls and needed his models to be passionate about their craft but is quite certain that the different women he worked with played a major role in shaping his style.
A walk through the show is a walk through the history of fashion photography in London, which in the 60s was at the hub of everything en-trend, music, film, fashion and everything else that combined to be the swinging sixties including photography. Starting with Autumn Girl we go on to meet Jean Shrimpton whose waif-like beuaty and Bailey’s camera launched her as an icon of her age. Their famous trip to New York amusingly and affectionately dramatised in the TV film We’ll Take Manhattan * (3) focusses on the battles between Vogue Magazine’s fashion editor, Lady Clare Rendlesham’s, demands for conventional fashion shots set against New York’s famous landmarks and Bailey’s refusal to conform. Shrimpton was, and is, a beautiful women, and many of Bailey’s photographs celebrate this but the picture that stood out for me is of her standing on Tower Bridge in 1964 with her hair windswept and her slender figure wrapped in an oversized coat that she is pulling tight against her legs. It is not a photo of a supermodel but of a young women who has run away from a conventional but unhappy home, vulnerable, perhaps a little out of place in a hard urban background and in a relationship with the photographer. It is this ability to see past the props and show us the essence of the person that stood Bailey apart in the sixties and makes his work as compelling now as it was then.
In the Sky Arts film, David Bailey’s Stardust * (4) released to coincide with the opening of the show Bailey reveals that the two women he photographed more than any others were Jean Shrimpton and his wife Catherine Bailey so it is a surprise that there are not more pictures of Shrimpton in the exhibition given their professional and personal relationship.
Bailey has organised Stardust into about eleven groups of photos although the largest room is in itself an eclectic mix. This variety of these collections was the most surprising feature of my visit as it shows the breadth of the artist’s work and that at the age of 76 he is still evolving. I had expected to see the classic black and white portraits of famous people and his iconic fashion photographs but had not expected the amount of work in colour or the travel and anthropological studies.
Black and White Icons
This is the collection I expected to see; studio pictures of famous people against plain white backgrounds. Bailey says that they are he hardest shots to make because there is nothing to help the photographer * (1). His style is deceptively simple, the subject usually looks straight at the camera, the lighting is either even or weighted to one side, the poses are rarely extravagant, and the edge of the negative is always included on the print to show that the original picture has not been cropped in the darkroom.
This simplicity raises the question as to why these images are so absorbing. Quite clearly the first factor is that I recognised nearly every subject, my daughter knew the few more modern icons that I didn’t recognise. This recognition makes it harder to be totally objective as the celebrity status of the subject and the artist’s skill are both part of the recipe that creates our response but there is something in his style that made me linger in front of each picture and I think it is his ability to capture people in a single photo that represents them in the way we expect to see them. Dylan looks moody, Bowie is just beautiful, Tina Turner is sexy, Marianne Faithfull wild, jack Nicholson loud, Malcom Muggeridge intense and so on. I know none of these people but they appear to have been stripped bare and distilled so their essence is all that is left and I believe that is the power of Bailey’s minimalistic style which concentrates on the subject to the exclusion of everything else. He says “It’s just the person I want. That’s the only thing I want. I don’t want anything else.”* (1) My favourite picture is of Bob Marley because Bailey’s style of excluding distractions is taken to such an extreme that we can’t see Marley’s trademark hair and only see the incredible beauty in his face.
In the Sky Arts Film * (4), Bailey explains that it was “common sense” to adopt the white background absent of all props and thereby absent of all distractions. He confirms that these, and all the other portraits in the exhibition are how he sees these individuals and is quite take aback when told that Don McCallum does not see himself in Bailey’s portrait. He initially says that he will take it again and then changes his mind and says that is is exactly how McCallum is, “he is a man that finds beauty in ugliness”.
Between 2001 and 2005 Bailey asked visitors to his studio to pose in the nude. This was an extension of the minimalist style developed through his black and white icons but went further. He used the same lighting, the same camera the same distance from the subject and the prints were printed with no cropping or editing on the same paper. This “enforced democracy” as Bailey puts it was designed to ensure that the only variation was the subject when asked to “be themselves”. This set is more than a photographic exercise it is a documentary project of the human form, not models, not perfect specimens, just humans with their clothes off.
Bailey obviously thought quite deeply about these images and, to some degree, sees them as an antidote to his photos of famous people and clothes. He says *(4) that he is interested in the fact we know nothing about the subjects but we are seeing them in a way that normally only their lovers would see.
It has taken me a while to understand these pictures, I needed to discard any notions of them being part of a genre of nude photography or glamour and recognise that they are pictures of what most of us look like without our clothes on, the real human form, not the stylised form promoted by fashion editors, casting directors, music videos or the tabloid press. This is Bailey as far from fashion photography as he can get, it is a study of the variety of shapes and sizes that humans come in and how beauty is not about conforming to a defined shape that looks good in the latest fashions.
This set of both black and white and colour photos taken in the East End of London between 1961 and 1968 were particularly poignant for me. My mother was a Londoner born within the sound of Bow Bells, my father-in-law was born in Laytonstone, both experienced and survived the Blitz and knew the East End well before moving to rural surrey. I started work at Times Newspapers in 1973 just five years after the Kray twins were convicted and many of my friends and colleagues lived in the streets that had been ruled by the notorious East End gangs and you still didn’t drink in certain pubs without a local to vouch for you. Bailey shows us a London that is now a distant memory, children playing in bomb sites, derelict streets such as Brick Lane when bankers and brokers now eat in trendy restaurants, what my mother would call “brassy” women and hard men, clubs and corner shops.
This area and its inhabitants are Bailey’s heritage and his photos are sympathetic but harsh, honest and un-polished and, in choosing to include these in this exhibition, he shows that he has not forgotten where he came from or how hard life was. My favourite is a colour photograph of a man in a pub or club taken in 1968 and simply entitled East End. He is holding up a pint of beer and in his left hand there is a part made roll-your-own cigarette or “rollie” as we called them. This is at the height of the swinging sixties, Carnaby Street and the Kings Road are just up the river, the Beatles published “The White Album” that year, I was just leaving school and taking awful black and white photos of local, and equally awful, rock bands. Yet, this man could be from a Dickens novel, he has a checkered cloth tied round his neck, his worn and stained suit jacket, un-matching high-waisted trousers and unbuttoned cardigan seem to be from another age. He looks hard with his large working mans’ hands but judging by his jet black hair he is probably much younger than he looks. He reminds me of my uncles who worked as brickies or at the Rockware glass factory in Greenford, big men who worked hard, drank hard, smoked cheap unfiltered tobabco and died young having never escaped the working man’s lot. Men un-touched by the swinging sixties.
This is the set in the exhibition that really surprised me. The portraits of the tribesmen in this remote region of India have many links to Bailey’s other work. they are in black and white, they focus on the individual even though there are props and backgrounds and it is clear that he has empathy with his subjects.
The surprise is the saturated colour photographs of the interiors of the people’s houses. They are crammed with detail, dark and rich in colour, carefully framed and presented alongside their owners. More Shore than Bailey and proving that this is a man of many styles and they certainly undermine his detractors who suggest that he is a one trick pony.
It is impossible to write about Stardust without talking about the large room dedicated to his wife. In the Sky Arts Film * (4) Bailey describes this part of the exhibition as a “love letter”, “the story of a women” and that statement helps explain a collection that includes classic Bailey fashion work, posed but casual family photos and graphic pictures of the birth of their children. It is very obviously a homage to his longest and last love but I did find some of the images a little too personal for comfort.
Bailey makes it clear that nothing is off limits * (4) so it is interesting to see Catherine’s statement on the wall of this room responding to being asked whether she “feels used in any way, objectivised, nailed and made public” – she says “Good God no, I am always in control. Always.”
This is the first exhibition I have attended that concentrates on the work of a single photographer and it is vast in scale both in terms of the number of pictures and the breadth of the artist’s work so I found it quite difficult to take in, it has take me a week to think about what I saw, look through the catalogue * (1) several times and collect my thoughts.
Bailey was the first British photographer to become a household name. I am very consciously avoiding the word “celebrity” as Bailey himself rejects that he took pictures of celebrity so he would be horrified to be called one himself. Talking of his iconic Box of Pin-Ups published in 1965 he says “I am not interested in people who can’t do anything” “they were not celebrities because they were talented people.” * (4)
This sums up the challenge presented by this exhibition. Many of the pictures are of people we recognise so I tried to decide whether the appeal of the photos of Mick Jagger are more about Jagger than Bailey’s art and the only conclusion I can reach is that they are intimately entwined; they are not great photos because they are of famous people, Jagger, Lennon, Mandella or Dali, they are great photos because they tell us something about each of these talented people. It might be something we think we already know and that is because sometimes Bailey sees them the way we see them but many other times he sees something that we don’t see, the essence of the individual so when we see the picture we know that he is right.
Bailey on film in 2014 * (4) is still the cheerful cockney, the rough edges are still apparent, the unwillingness to accept convention still colours his views. Unlike many successful artists he has not become part of the establishment, above all he doesn’t take himself too seriously and has very little time for anyone who does. He explains his ideas in simple terms and makes no attempt to sound “arty” and I find that very refreshing.
Bailey says that the collection are not necessarily his favourite photographs as he wanted to make the show entertaining. He believes that photography must be three things – entertaining, informative and documentary – this exhibition hits the mark on all three counts.
* (1) Bailey, David, (2014) Bailey’s Stardust: Published to accompany the exhibition Bailey’s Stardust at the National Portrait Gallery, London from 6th February to 1st June 2014, London, National Portrait Gallery
* (2) BBC News, (2002) Photography’s impact on the 60s, www.news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/arts/2178366.stm
* (3) McKay, John – Director (2012), We’ll Take Manhattan, Kudos Film and Television www.imdb.com/title/tt1885440/
* (4) McGann, Karen – Director (2014), David Bailey’s Stardust: Exclusive, Arrow International Media Ltd production for Sky Arts HD, London, British Sky Broadcasting Limited.