David Bailey creates memorable images. Over his 50-year career, the British born photographer has amassed a culture-defining collection of portraits of fashion and music's most famous faces, which are now part of a major exhibition, sponsored by Hugo...
David Bailey in Nagaland, India, by Fenton Bailey, 2012
Tricia's dad was a master storyteller. It was almost impossible to tell a joke without him knowing the punch line. David "my name is Bailey", on the other hand, is the grand f***ing master of outrageous stories, all extravagantly embellished with colourful expletives. Outspoken, witty and irreverent, Bailey is never afraid to tell it like it is, and is quick to divulge his opinion on everything from life, death and class, to women, sex and fashion.
I asked Bailey to tell me a selection of his favourite jokes (that were suitable for print!). He told me he has nothing written down. Words just come out of his mouth. Bailey has the selective memory of a dyslexic elephant, and perhaps for the benefit of his new assistant Hannah - who is from Stroud in Gloucestershire - he recalls a limerick he was told by an Irish priest that begins:
"There was once a young lady from Stroud
Who opened her legs in a crowd…"
My brotherly love affair with Bailey started in the early 70s. We worked together during my five-year stint as art director for British Vogue. We had a lot of fun. I have many great memories and I am enormously grateful for all the lessons I learned during that time. I left Vogue in 1977, and for 25 years Bailey and I didn't talk. We didn't have an argument or fall out; we simply led separate lives, until we met again in 2002. It was like time had been compressed and my naughty elder brother was back in our lives.
Bailey is prolific and his archive is priceless. He is a British national treasure, and one of the first photographers in the world to gain the same notoriety as the celebrities he photographed.
His new book, Bailey Exposed, comprises only a fraction of his personal work, yet it's a wonderful insight into his wicked wit and richly varied career. Displaying some of Bailey's most iconic photographs alongside unseen images from his private archive, this pocket-sized epitome coincides with the largest retrospective of Bailey's work to date, held at London's National Portrait Gallery from 6 February until 1 June 2014.Sponsored by Hugo Boss, the exhibition, entitled Bailey's Stardust, explores the man behind the camera and includes iconic portraits of Jean Shrimpton, Cecil Beaton, Anjelica Huston, Jack Nicholson, Catherine Deneuve, Diana Vreeland, Mary Quant and Jerry Hall, to name just a few. Each photograph comes illustrated with one of Bailey's outspoken observations, which, like the man himself, are often as confrontational as they are enlightening! From Hanover Square, London, in the 60s to Nagaland, India in 2012, the images reflect Bailey's rich and diverse life as a photographer, and the many adventures and stories he's collected along the way.
How many pictures have you taken in your life?
More than most.
How do you edit?
It's getting harder because when I go back over my archive, I spot things I missed. The Man Ray portrait I took is fantastic, but I missed it the first time. I only remember the really memorable shots.
You took a picture of me in colour; I'd love to include that in this story.
Well, it might not be any good. It won't be a masterpiece that's for sure.
But it will be a rare colour portrait.
I don't get many masterpieces, if I get five good pictures a year I'm really happy.
Why are you so hard on yourself?
I'm not. I'm truthful. Isn't that better?
So you feel lucky if you get five pictures that you'll remember in fifty years time?
I don't think I'll remember much in fifty years time, unless I find someone to aggravate up there!
How many pictures are going in the National Portrait Gallery exhibition?
Between 250 and 300. It's called Stardust, Bailey's Stardust. It's inspired by Hoagy Carmichael. I've always thought Hoagy Carmichael was the first cool white man. There have been a few cool black guys, but when Carmichael did To Have and Have Not I with Humphrey Bogart, and he plays piano with a hat on the back of his head with a fag hanging out. It's one of the greatest images of all time.
Not many of your pictures feature people smiling…
Some do. It depends on the person. It would be hard to get a smiley picture of me. I think I'm smiley but people always say to me why are you so angry? But I'm not angry!
Do you have a favourite portrait?
The pictures of Catherine [Bailey's wife] are my favourites.
I meant of yourself?
The point of photography is to be personal. That's why I like Bruce Weber. He's so personal. But when people do generic great pictures, they're just generic great pictures, they're not personal. They have to have an attitude.
When do you know you've got the photograph?
You don't, that's the excitement. You never know. That's why I don't like digital because once you see it you think oh that's not very good, but with film you just have to bite the belt. I like seeing the pictures afterwards, I don't want to see the picture while I'm doing it because I prefer to watch the person I'm photographing. I used to take a Polaroid at the end of the shoot to make sure the camera had been working! It used to make me laugh, but it was probably a bit stupid. I should have done it at the beginning, but I never did a picture to see what the picture looked like. I never understood why people take a Polaroid of something that's in front of them?
They do it to check the light.
You can see what the light is like without taking a picture, can't you? Then they chase the Polaroid with the film. Well they used to, Polaroid after Polaroid. Then the Polaroid's usually better than what they do on film because they've got more of an instant moment, and the sitter hasn't fallen asleep by then!
Photographers used to be less serious about Polaroids because they never thought they were going to be published.
You don't know that, you can't tell what everyone thinks. Not everyone's got the same level of perception, have they? Some people probably got it and some people didn't. I realised early on some photographers shouldn't publish their film pictures. They should just publish their Polaroids because by the time they move to film they've lost the person.
When you took the Polaroids of the tribesmen in Papua New Guinea they'd never seen a camera before…
Oh yeah, but that was in New Guinea. They didn't think much of the Polaroid, they thought it was a broken mirror when it didn't change, they were pretty smart.
They also had this belief that you were taking a bit of their soul.
I've never heard that in my life, anywhere in the world. No one's ever said to me you're stealing my soul. Never, never, never! It's one of those myths, it's a bit like the British film industry, everyone says how great the Carry On films were, they weren't. They were awful. How great the Hammer Production horror films were, they were awful. How great the James Bonds were, they were ghastly most of the time. It's those myths that grow out of recent history that are all wrong. I never went out with a girl in the 60s who wore knee length white boots, a white jacket and sunglasses that made her look like a bug, it's just a myth. In history, it's always the caricature that gets left behind. It's not the reality. There's no such thing as history anyway, it's made up of lots of different people's interpretations, the old belief that the people that do the hanging are the people that win the war.
Aren't fashion and fashion photography about creating a dream factory, like Hollywood did?
It depends on what sort of fantasy world you want. Fashion is the same as advertising really. I'm not talking about the talented designers, who are very few and far between.
Are you including fashion images in Bailey's Stardust?
No, just a few personal portraits. There's a section on fashion icons, like Karl Lagerfeld, Vivienne Westwood, Diana Vreeland, people like that. Diana's the queen of fashion. Like I said, it's like advertising, it has to be aspirational. You have to think up all the time, if you want to sell to an eight year old you have to use a ten year old in the commercial.
And if you want to sell to a sixty year old, you use a twenty year old?
No, no, you use a fifty year old. It's got to be aspirational, otherwise you're not selling the dream and fashion's all about selling the dream and so is advertising. Even if it's soap powder, it's still selling a load of nonsense. As far as I can see they're all pretty much the same, it's all about the people selling it.
There's a picture of you in the book by Terry O'Neil in which you're throwing a pose like a dancer.
Oh I was showing off… Terry always says it's Jean Shrimpton's leg in the picture, but it's not, it's Sue Murray's. I know because I have the other side of the picture. It's Sue Murray and he wanted me to pose like Mick did, so I'm showing her how.
Did you ever dance with Mick?
No, of course I didn't dance with Mick! Slobber lips!
Was it fun photographing The Stones?
The Stones were the nicest rock 'n' roll group ever, all of them. They're all great. The Stones, no bullshit. They're Londoners remember.
But Mick was a posh boy.
Much posher than me. My father was a gym teacher, which was considered posh from where I come from. The poshest people I knew owned tobacconist's shops, some even owned off licenses. But no, definitely not posh. My mother was aspirational, but women always are. It's always women that want to make things better, not men. My father couldn't give a shit really.
Your mother looks pretty glamorous in the photographs.
Well, she looked like an exotic gypsy. She kind of looks a bit like the girls I liked, the girls I photographed like my wife and Christy Turlington, that kind of mystery. I like dark haired girls, they have more mystery.
Anjelica invented her own beauty. She made her own beauty. Sophia Loren was another. Her personality was her beauty.
That period working with you at British Vogue in the 70s was fun, before digital existed…
That was the 60s, wasn't it?
Are you sold on the idea of shooting digital to film?
It depends. It's like choosing a Land Rover Defender, a Ferrari or a Ford Fiesta. They're all pretty good cars, but you have to choose what's right for the job and sometimes digital's right for the job. It was perfect in Afghanistan because I knew there'd be a lot of sand and a lot of x-rays in Helmand Province. We used it in Delhi as well because every time you go in to a hotel you get x-rayed. Sometimes digital's sensible. If you're in a rush in Afghanistan and you've got to move quickly, it's easier to shoot digital than to muck about trying to load film in the sand and dust. I never try to make digital look like film, you know you can use all these filters? You see people shooting on digital and they put a 10 x 8 border around it, but obviously it's not 10 x 8…
You can also use filters on your iPhone now…
Oh yeah, but you shouldn't do that, that's Disneyworld.
Didn't you use a filter on the album artwork for The Stones' Goats Head Soup?
Yeah, I shot that on Gan. I loved that film, you never knew what you were gonna get. I used to shoot a lot on Gan. Then it went out of date, and you couldn't get it any more... I gave a load to Sarah Moon. She liked it as well.
Did Sarah Moon ever take your portrait?
No, I took hers. It would be nice to have a portrait by Sarah Moon. She get's rid of all the wrinkles.
Too late to worry about that. I never worry about my looks.
You're never tempted to go in to a gym?
Go to the gym?
No, no. I probably should, I'd probably live six months longer.
You seem to have a pretty good constitution.
Someone said to me recently, 'oh, it's awful getting old, isn't it?' I said, 'yeah, how old are you?' He said 'oh, about your age'. I said 'how old's that?' He said '65, how old are you?' I was ten years older than him! I'm 76 in January, shit!
The earliest pictures in the exhibition go back to when?
The first picture I ever did.
The one with your mum and dad?
Yeah, I remember my dad bollocking me for tilting the camera. I wasn't tilting it artistically. I'm a bit dyspraxic…
Was that in Margate?
I always thought it was in Margate, but it turns out it wasn't. It was a day out on a coach, worst thing in the world. Drunks singing in the coach all the way back.
Are there plans for Bailey's Stardust to travel?
France, Germany, Australia, Brazil maybe… We're planning on going all the way to Australia.
Did the National Portrait Gallery come and see your archive before the show?
No, they've got nothing to do with the choice of images, nobody has. How can people choose better than I can? They can't remember what I did. They don't even know I went to Sudan… So how could they possibly do it? The only one who could come close maybe is Martin Harrison, but I don't think he's that interested, he's more interested in taking the piss now, isn't he!
Text Terry Jones
Image © David Bailey