Who does he think he is?
David Bailey keeps on keeping on. The Krays didn't scare him. Nor do computers.
Monday 17 February 1997
"Who's been the biggest influence on your work?" "Me Aunt Dolly. And Picasso." "Did you ever get to meet Picasso?" "No, but I knew Aunt Dolly well. She was the one with her hair in curlers under a scarf." "How would you like to be remembered?" "As the bloke that never met Picasso." Collapse of audience.
It's hard to see the direct influence of Picasso in Bailey's characteristically blunt portraits (white backgrounds, in-your-face lens work, Michael Caine, Ronnie and Reggie Kray, you must have seen them), but we did get to see the direct influence of another artist, Dali, in one of the television commercials he showed us. It was for Vanity Fair. He has made 600 commercials to date. "Never turn down a job." Turned down Dali, though. "Met him in a lift the first time I went to New York in the early Sixties. Tried to pick me up. But he had this umbrella with a handle covered in mutant babies, so I wasn't too sure. Funny sort of bloke. We became friends afterwards."
A lot of arty blokes tried to pick up Bailey in his early days. He was a pretty thing. "And anyway," he says over a cup of tea in Soho the day before his lecture, "if anyone was ever meant to be gay, I was. Loved to death by my mum. No love from dad, so she gave what she might have given him to me. Right mummy's boy I was." Gay men encouraged Bailey from the night he finished National Service in 1959 and got a job as assistant to John French, the fashion photographer. "John French: Comely Wench. That's what we called John, to his face of course. Brian Duffy was `Born Scruffy' and I was `David Bailey: Makes Love Daily'."
The men in the fashion world loved the young Bailey, but so did the "birds". "You see, I can't take a picture of a beautiful woman unless I'm in love with her." So he took instantly memorable pictures for Vogue (200 covers for the British magazine in his portfolio) of Penelope Tree (the Sixties model who became a girlfriend), Jean Shrimpton (ditto), Catherine Deneuve (wife number two) and Marie Helvin (wife number three) before settling down in his mid-forties with a regular "trouble & strife". Bailey is now settled with three young children, a factory conversion in King's Cross, the oldest house on Dartmoor, a Mercedes 500SL, a Porsche 911, a Land Rover and "enough money not to have to worry again. I've kept the copyright of all my pictures and that's my pension. Not that I'm planning to retire."
Sex, innate talent, an inexhaustible energy and a winning charm got Bailey out of family background, a lack of education and the East End and into Vogue, commercials, art galleries, "Swinging London" and the big time. We still think of him as played by David Hemmings in Antonioni's film, Blow Up. Bailey turned down the lead role.
What happens then, at 56, when the tummy has filled out, the barnet is salt and pepper, his wife is a fixed feature on the domestic landscape and "Swinging London" is the stuff of pop history, revivals and nostalgia? The old sex thing can't work like it used to, either, surely? "Nah," says Bailey. It's not stopping that keeps me going.
"I like the joke about the young bull and the old bull standing on top of the hill looking at a herd of cows below. `I know, let's run down and fuck one,' says the young bull. `Nah,' says the old bull, `let's walk down and fuck them all.' I'm the old bull now.
" Even if I've got to slow down one day, you'll have a hard job keeping up, I'll promise you that.
"I'm too interested in what's going on. That and keeping ahead of the game. I've got every bit of computer stuff going on. Doesn't worry me if we all end up working on CD-Rom or whatever. You've got to be up with the times, keep inside the track. No one changes anything from the outside, do they?
"Look what happened to Donovan [Terence Donovan, the fashion photographer and Bailey's close friend and contemporary who killed himself before Christmas]. Reckoned it was all going bad. New technology. The end of the craft and the art of photography. Everyone wanking about with computers. He couldn't make sense of what was changing around him. It got him down. I say fuck them, if they want computers then I'm going to see what the fuckers can do and do it better than wanky, nerdy types who use computers to make everything dull.
"The trouble with the computer in the media and advertising is that it can make a bad photographer look average and a good photographer look average too. It encourages the overuse and abuse of images. It's killing the image. It's a pick 'n' mix sort of tool and I don't think much of that. Used as a creative paintbrush, though, the whole thing's fine. I remember when Bill Brandt [British photographer famous for chiaroscuro portraits of British people and townscapes] used to get out a 4B pencil to blacken his prints and people would gasp in horror as if the geezer was committing some sort of crime. He was just being creative, producing images better than anyone else's. That's what it's about."
When a student at the D&AD lecture asks Bailey what advice he has for today's photography students, he says: "Screw the teachers. Concentrate on doing what you believe in and keep doing it as well as you can. You might make it, you might not. But at least you will have pleased yourself. There's no point setting out to please other people, because you end up despising yourself and that's no help in the business of making images."
Keeping ahead of the pack, staying inside the track, doing what he believes in. Bailey practises what he preaches and he has never lacked the right breaks. "Do you think you've been lucky?" someone asks. "Of course I've been lucky. Lucky for being in the right place at the right time. I mean, imagine if Jesus had been born today. Priests and fashion victims would be wearing electric chairs around their necks rather than crosses, wouldn't they? My pictures caught a mood when I was 20 and 25. Yes, I was very lucky."
Lucky, but clearly different, a young man who stood out from the crowd. "I suppose I was always a bit off as a kid. I mean, I hated all the things an East End boy was meant to love, and I still hate football and all that stuff. I've always preferred women and making images. My dad was an East End tailor. I was circumcised. I thought I was a Jew until I was 15. That was odd, especially as Aunty Dolly was a right fascist - hated blacks and Jews and, well, everyone really, except me and mum. We'd all go to the pictures, eight times a week. Mum would have a good cry.
"I was dyslexic and put in the silly kids' class at school, so I never learnt anything, but I watched those films closely. Then I discovered Chet Baker and jazz and the photographs on the record sleeves, and that was that: I wanted to be a photographer."
Any regrets? Long pause. "No. Honest. I love what I do. Always have done. Birds, money and photography. There's not a lot wrong with that, is there? I'll just keep on going."
What's next? "There's my new book, David Bailey's Rock 'n' Roll Heroes. That comes out on 1 April, a date I particularly like. There's a three- hour documentary for the Beeb on the history of modelling. A load more commercials, and a film, I hope, of a Marquez story."
No rest for the wicked then? Bailey puffs on an outsized Dominican cigar and plays nervously with his lighter. "Can't stop, and don't see why I should. That way you get stale. There's no great virtue in being laid- back as far as I can see. Who wants to be an old fart when you can still be out there changing things and making new images. The family insist I stop at Christmas, and what happens? I get ill. Only time I do. Don't drink - not for 20 years - don't eat meat and only smoke the odd cigar. But if I come down to land, I'm out for the count every time.
"I mean, someone's got to keep pushing away full-time at the boundaries in this country, otherwise everything will be run by computer nerds and accountants. Britain is a bloody mean country. Business won't invest in the long term. It wants all the money it can get now, so everything has to be cheap, hurried and trashy. The ad agencies do it, magazines and newspapers do it; there's always some arsehole trying to cut budgets and do things for money. What a load of bollocks. We need to spend to spread the money about a bit and to get the most creative results whether we're talking about films or TV, magazines or commercials."
A part of Bailey's perennial appeal to ad agencies, though, is the fact that he is famously quick and hates waste. Never dillies, never dallies. Even takes many of his best portraits quickly as if undermining the secrets of the photographer's craft. "I remember taking a picture of Joseph Beuys [the German artist famous for his sculptures made of fat, fur and felt]. I pressed the button twice and that was that. Beuys said, `You're either a very bad photographer or a great one.' I don't know about that, but I do make up my mind quickly and can't see the point in hanging about."
The truth is that Bailey can't really teach a new generation of would- be David Baileys a thing. His approach to photography and films is instinctive, gutsy and rapid. You can't learn those things at college. Nor is everyone born with such restless energy, humour and charm. David Bailey is David Bailey, and that's that.
Or almost. "That line from the Olympus TV ads when this bloke says `Who do you think you are, David Bailey?' And then you see it's me snapping away. That was based on a true story. I was in this East End pub doing some pictures when this hood says `Oi, who do you think you are, David bleedin' Bailey?' Ronnie and Reggie Kray stepped round to let him know that, well, I was, erm, David Bailey."
"How did you get the Kray twins to look like they did in the portrait?" asks a young man at the D&AD lecture. "Scared them," said Bailey.
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