David Bailey: 'I don't take pictures, I make pictures'

As a major David Bailey exhibition opens at the National Portrait Gallery, the East End boy who helped create the Swinging Sixties tells Chris Sullivan that his best work is yet to come

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.”)

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.”

Mick Jagger (1964) Mick Jagger (1964) 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.

When I ask what they were like, he shrugs. “They were all right. Just East End blokes really, I knew them really well... People ask, ‘How could you like Reg?’ but I did like him. He didn’t do anything to me. Didn’t like Ron so much –I avoided him, ’cos a slip of the tongue and you’d be fucking dead. I saw him beat a bloke almost to death for not offering round the corned beef sandwiches.” He pauses, “One of the worst things Reg ever said to me was, ‘Dave, mate, you’re all right now, you’re on the Firm!’ And I would think: No! Please no!

“I used to see quite a lot of Reg. He even sent me a film script he’d written, a card every Christmas and poems.”

“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.”

Jack Nicholson (1978) Jack Nicholson (1978) 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.

He was born in 1938 in the solidly working-class east London neighbourhood of Leytonstone. Mother Gladys was a sewing machinist while his father Herbert (“a bit of a rogue”) was a gentleman’s tailor. Bailey remembers little of the war. “We spent most of the time sheltering in Tube stations and coal cellars from the Luftwaffe bombs,” he recalls. We were evacuated to the West Country but my mum couldn’t stand it so we were back in a few weeks looking up watching the V2 rocket as they went over London.”

One of the exhibition’s most endearing  sections, “East End”, fields shots of shop fronts, bomb sites and streets in Bethnal Green,  Shadwell and Whitechapel taken between 1961 and 1962 – just as the Jewish folk were leaving and way before the Bangladeshis arrived. The difference between then and now could not be more marked. “It looks like fucking Czechoslovakia in 1938,” he comments. “The streets of the East End looked lonely back then.” Alongside the cityscapes are wonderfully insightful colour shots of the area’s characters (“East End Faces”) taken in 1968. “These are just people I met,” he says.

Bailey, who’s just turned 76, didn’t have it that easy growing up in the East End. “It was a bit rough back then,” he snorts. “There were two big gangs, the Barking Boys and the Canning Town Boys. The Barking Boys did me when I was older. Beat me up and left me flat out in the smashed window of a furniture store.”

Previously, he’d been heavily chastised throughout school for his inability to learn. Years later he discovered he was dyslexic. “One teacher told me that someone’s got to dig the roads,” he laughs. Luckily, he was taught how to use a darkroom and by 16 was really interested in photography.  “I played the trumpet when I was 14, 15 and I used to take pictures of me trying to looking like Chet Baker in the back yard.” After National Service in the RAF, he was taken on as an assistant with  fashion photographer, John French, and by the early Sixties he was shooting Vogue front covers.

Bailey, is not only the world’s most famous photographer, he is also the man who catalogued and defined the Sixties – the decade that changed world’s cultural landscape. I  wonder what it was like being slap bang in the middle of the maelstrom.

“ We didn’t really see what was happening as we were right in the centre of it all,” he smiles. “It was all happening so fast we didn’t have time to turn around and see it.”

But the rest of the world saw Bailey. His relationships – with Jean Shrimpton (the face of the Sixties), Catherine Deneuve (France’s first lady of film) and Marie Helvin (every schoolboy’s dream in the Seventies ) – were front-page news while he himself inspired Antonioni’s landmark film, Blow-Up.

Considering that Bailey has not only photographed the truly iconic but, is an icon himself, one wonders why this exhibition hasn’t  happened before? “You’ll have to ask all those scholarly fools!” He snarls. “They overlook and marginalise photography.”

“But it is not a retrospective,” he stresses. “It’s in no order whatsoever and it’s not about looking back. I’m still working flat out. I’ve got a lot of work left in me.”

And looking at the man – a veritable bundle of combustible energy – I could not agree more. 

Bailey’s Stardust, National Portrait Gallery, London WC2 (020-7766 7331) to 1 June

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
News
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
people
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Revealed: Why Mohammed Emwazi chose the 'safe option' of fighting for Isis, rather than following his friends to al-Shabaab in Somalia

    Why Mohammed Emwazi chose Isis

    His friends were betrayed and killed by al-Shabaab
    'The solution can never be to impassively watch on while desperate people drown'
An open letter to David Cameron: Building fortress Europe has had deadly results

    Open letter to David Cameron

    Building the walls of fortress Europe has had deadly results
    Tory candidates' tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they seem - you don't say!

    You don't say!

    Tory candidates' election tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they appear
    Mubi: Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash

    So what is Mubi?

    Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash all the time
    The impossible job: how to follow Kevin Spacey?

    The hardest job in theatre?

    How to follow Kevin Spacey
    Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

    Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

    To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
    Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

    'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

    The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
    Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

    This human tragedy has been brewing for years

    EU states can't say they were not warned
    Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

    Women's sportswear

    From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
    Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

    Clinton's clothes

    Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders