As a `Vintage' David Bailey exhibition opens in London, Richard D North focuses on the man and his images
David Bailey is amiable, and displays no side. On the wall of his studio off the Gray's Inn Road, there is his famous, bleak, full-on portrait of Michael Caine, looking as though he might burst out of the Gelatin Silver photographic coating. The place is thoroughly male and scruffy and it seems improbable that a sexy calender is about to be shot there. It's always "Bailey", if his two male assistants are anything to go by. Bailey has a light, almost high-pitched, voice which has gone a bit gravelly, perhaps because of the vast cigar he's smoking. "I like this brand because they never go out," he says. He's a twinkling, paunchy 60-year-old, a Buddha in blue jeans.

A very smart young man with Fox's mint blue eyes enters. This is Tim Jeffries, a scion of the Green Shield Stamp empire, and partner in Hamiltons, the grand West End photography gallery. He's there to fix the prices of pictures in Vintage Bailey, a retrospective, which will open tomorrow and from which prints should be changing hands for up to pounds 10,000.

It's a million miles from the John French advertising studio, where, as second assistant nearly 40 years ago, David Bailey launched his bid to become famous and become a photographer (in that order).

Asked if the intervening years have made him rich, Bailey effortlessly parries. "The New York Times says the real rich are snooty about the Little Rich - that's people with 10 million or so." Perhaps he's identifying his own financial territory, but then: "Of course, the rich don't look down on people like us, because we're bohemians. But you know, I go to work every day, and that's no way to make money. To get rich, you have to be making money while you're asleep".

It's a question of having a product. It is becoming easier for mature but famous photographers to make money from their history. Mr Jeffries says that "vintage" prints (made within a year or so of the photograph being taken), but also any signed prints, are quickly gaining in price. Bailey prints his own material, but does it seldom, so his prints are the more precious.

It's easy to be snooty about photography. For much of the century it was the RAF of the arts: a newcomer, a bit technical, flashy but somehow pedestrian, too. It lacked bottom. Things were changing by the Fifties, though. The Second World War had brought a different kind of action photography, and in its great bastion, The Picture Post, it developed into a new sort of social commentary. The new "art" was still, as Mr Jeffries ruefully notes, "a poor cousin", but it had achieved something like social and creative elan with Cecil Beaton and Norman Parkinson, and socialite glamour was soon to come with Lords Snowdon and Lichfield. Then along came the Terrible Three: Brian Duffy, (the late) Terence Donovan and David Bailey. The last, especially, came to epitomise the period, as much for living it as for snapping it. In those days, class delineations were quite precise. Social mobility was a lot commoner than is now supposed, but the Sixties plunged the commanding heights of popular culture into a frenzy of downward mobility.

Bailey was from north London's upper working class: a perfectly respectable background, and amongst the most secure. It's likely that the normalness of his childhood more than anything like resentment made him ferociously ambitious, and keen to live hard. Were you a bad boy, then? "Yes, of course", he replies, and you think of the times he must have spent with the Kray brothers, London's notorious gangsters. But then, they seemed to have operated a kind of drop-in centre for the non-delinquent. And in the next breath Bailey says he doubts he's smoked half a dozen joints in his whole life. "I haven't had more than a few glasses of wine in the past 20 years." Even the cigar is a recent habit.

He was one of the century's all time great Bird Pullers (as we called them then), and escorted or married Jean Shrimpton, Catherine Deneuve, Marie Helvin, and Catherine, "the last Mrs Bailey, I hope", according to her husband. Images of several of them are represented in the show and they embody one type of loveliness (leggy rather than bosomy). It's said that men like Bailey made fashion photography strongly heterosexual, but that's unfair to the many heterosexual (if sometimes camp) photographers who preceded them and produced sexy if distant images of femininity. And anyway, Bailey's nude photography, whilst apparently popular, is arguably rather more brutalist than erotic. It certainly isn't as sustained a genre with him as it is with Helmut Newton, who has also progressed from largely clothed to largely unclothed female subjects, and whose work appeals across the genders.

In the early days, Bailey concentrated on fashion, but as a portraitist he seemed somehow as dangerous and edgy - and nearly as famous - as the Beatles and Stones, whom he photographed. Very, very few photographers achieve the "signature" by which even a mediocre painter can get famous, and Bailey was actually forthright in insisting that he didn't want a "style". It was as though it might weaken what he preferred to be known for: attitude. He never quite broke loose of the ethos he invented in the Sixties. His portraiture is mostly rather limited, both as to subject (rock, film) and style (tough). There isn't often the delicacy and lightness that fellow fashion-plus photographers Richard Avedon or Irving Penn bring to some of their work. There isn't the insight of an Henri Cartier-Bresson, or the joyfulnes of a Jane Bown.

In his published books, though, one comes across pictures of Anthony Eden and of Harold Macmillan which suggest that Bailey had great portraits in him when he cared to find them. His picture of Diana, Princess of Wales, taken in 1988 and one of a series commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery, stands amongst the best of those most numerous images. And there are Bailey pictures of Francis Bacon and Somerset Maugham that are almost unbearably powerful and outflank even the Cartier-Bresson accounts of those subjects now on show at the NPG.

But it is Bailey's pictures - and his own unseen presence in them - of Shrimpton, or Jagger or the Kray brothers, which stand out at Hamiltons. They have an immense power to bring back the first decade in which he worked, with its weird mixture of vigour, triviality, viciousness, turmoil and innocence.

To 28 March. Hamiltons, 13 Carlos Place, London W1 (0171-499 9493)