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 & Entertainment
Who laughs lass: Jenny Collier on stage
ComedyCollier was once told there were "too many women" on bill
Arts & Entertainment
film

Arts & Entertainment
Don (John Hamm) and Megan (Jessica Paré) Draper are going their separate ways in the final series of ‘Mad Men’
tvReview: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Arts & Entertainment
James Franco and Chris O'Dowd in Of Mice and Men on Broadway
theatre

Review: Of Mice and Men

VIDEO
Arts & Entertainment
art

By opportunistic local hoping to exhibit the work

Arts & Entertainment
Leonardo DiCaprio will star in an adaptation of Michael Punke's thriller 'The Revenant'
film

Fans will be hoping the role finally wins him an Oscar

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Arts & Entertainment
Cody and Paul Walker pictured in 2003.
film

Arts & Entertainment
Down to earth: Fern Britton presents 'The Big Allotment Challenge'
TV

Arts & Entertainment
The London Mozart Players is the longest-running chamber orchestra in the UK
musicThreatened orchestra plays on, managed by its own members
Arts & Entertainment
Seeing red: James Dean with Sal Mineo in 'Rebel without a Cause'
film

Arts & Entertainment
TV
Arts & Entertainment
Heads up: Andy Scott's The Kelpies in Falkirk
art

What do gigantic horse heads tell us about Falkirk?

Arts & Entertainment
artGraffiti legend posts picture of work – but no one knows where it is
Arts & Entertainment
A close-up of Tom of Finland's new Finnish stamp
art

Finnish Postal Service praises the 'self irony and humour' of the drawings

Arts & Entertainment
Pierce Brosnan as James Bond in 2002's Die Another Day
film

The actor has confessed to his own insecurities

Life & Style
Green fingers: a plot in East London
TV

Allotments are the focus of a new reality show

Arts & Entertainment
Myleene Klass attends the Olivier awards 2014

Oliviers 2014Theatre stars arrive at Britain's most prestigious theatre awards
Arts & Entertainment
Stars of The Book of Mormon by Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park

Oliviers 2014Blockbuster picked up Best Musical and Best Actor in a Musical
Arts & Entertainment
Lesley Manville with her Olivier for Best Actress for her role in 'Ghosts'

Oliviers 2014Actress thanked director Richard Eyre for a stunning production
Arts & Entertainment
Rory Kinnear in his Olivier-winning role as Iago in Othello

Oliviers 2014Actor beat Jude Law and Tom Hiddleston to take the award
Arts & Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch is best known for this roles in Sherlock and Star Trek
TV

Arts & Entertainment
theatreAll hail the temporary venue that has shaken things up at the National Theatre
Arts & Entertainment
musicShe is candid, comic and coming our way
Arts & Entertainment
booksHer new novel is about people seeking where they belong
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

    Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
    Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

    British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

    The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
    Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

    Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

    Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

    A History of the First World War in 100 moments

    A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
    Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
    Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

    Cannes Film Festival

    Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
    The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

    The concept album makes surprise top ten return

    Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
    Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

    Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

    Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
    10 best baking books

    10 best baking books

    Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
    Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

    Jury still out on Pellegrini

    Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

    As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
    Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

    Mad Men returns for a final fling

    The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

    Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit