Meet the artist: David Bailey

Meet the artist: David Bailey

David Bailey needs little introduction. The prolific portrait and fashion photographer has been snapping the world’s most famous faces for over half a century, from his early days at Vogue to once-in-a-lifetime commissions from the Queen, Salvador Dali and The Beatles, but he’s less well known for his side-line in painting. Until now that is.

For the first time, 50 never-before-seen oil paintings from Bailey's personal collection will go on display at FLANNELS' London flagship store, and across the 36 screens which wrap it, in David Bailey Unseen, a unique collaboration with W1 Curates.

To celebrate the launch, we sat down with Bailey to talk Disney, Dali and the only man he’s ever held his tongue with…  

What inspires your paintings?
You’re never lost for ideas if you want to be a painter, because everywhere you look there are paintings. If you look at a concrete wall and all the cracks in it, you can make pictures from it. When you look at wood you can see where Disney got all those talking trees from. If you look at it, it’s all obvious.

There’s definitely a Disney influence in your paintings…
Disney was great. My first experience of why I hated Hitler so much was because I thought he’d killed Bambi and Mickey Mouse. I used to go to the cinema, which he bombed in Upton Park, and I thought Bambi and Mickey Mouse lived there. I was only a kid, six or something. I still use it in paintings sometimes; I did a painting which said: “Hitler killed the duck.”

I think he [Walt Disney] was a sort of a genius. Anyone who takes a mouse and says he can sing and dance, is a f**king genius. It’s totally ridiculous. It’s like my first fashion picture - not my first but the first one that was taken seriously - it’s a girl kneeling on the floor talking to a stuffed squirrel. People phoned me up and said: “That picture, did you do that? Was it an accident?” No, obviously it wasn’t an accident. It became iconic.

Painting, commercials, photography; is there a medium you prefer?
Painting in a way is never finished but a commercial or a still picture… you finish that because once you sign it or put it in a magazine you can’t add to it. You can always add to a painting. There has to be a point where you step away from it or you’d go mad.

Commercials are always about pleasing clients and about money. I used to make [Donald] Trump’s airline commercials and he was difficult to work with. He was just like any other businessman. I didn’t see him as this monster - maybe he is a monster - but one thing you know about Trump is that you know where he stands because he says everything he thinks. There’s no shy man in the closet. I quite like that about him.

You're not so shy yourself. Has there ever been a subject that has thrown you off?
Ron Kray was difficult because you never knew which way he was going to move. He’s the only person that I’ve ever watched what I say with. I remember Kate Kray [wife of Ron Kray] phoned me up and said: “I’m doing a book called Diamond Geezers and we think you could photograph these gangsters because you’re the only one not scared of them.” I said: “I don’t know about that, I’m a bit scared of Ron.” And she said: “Everyone’s scared of Ron Kray.” He was nuts, completely nuts.

You once refused to take Pablo Picasso’s portrait…
In case he farted and spoiled the image of the man who has had the biggest influence on me…

But you’ve photographed the biggest names of the past 50 years. Has there ever been anyone else you refused?
John Huston [the film director], but then I became friends with Huston so that ended it anyway. Then you see the bad things, you see he’s a bit of a ham, and I had an affair with his daughter [Angelica Huston]. He was great John, he’s a great film maker, one of the best.

Who are the great artistic innovators in your mind?
Yves Saint Laurent, he had the biggest influence on fashion design than anybody, including [Coco] Chanel… although Chanel freed women from those bras and girders sticking into you. Chanel probably had the edge over Saint Laurent in that way. She made your life better. And there’s only one Picasso. Somebody else couldn’t have done what Picasso had done, but so many other people could have done what somebody else did.

I like some photographers for the fact they do something completely differently to me, like Peter Beard, who just died, who did all the African elephants. They weren’t great pictures but the idea that he did those little drawings [around the photography], or rather Baroness Blixen’s tea boy’s son did. There’s no other photographer like him. I’m always shocked when I met people like that, because I always think, how did they arrive at something I hadn’t thought of?

What’s the secret to taking a great picture?
You’re looking for, not quite someone’s soul but… some cultures used to believe that you took away someone’s soul by taking their picture. I wish you could, I’d have a lot of souls in my collection. You learn to read someone; I know how much you pay for your shoes or your jacket. I could sum somebody up quite quickly. Superficially I’d know who they are. I’m not always right but I’d have a good idea.

Has anyone ever been different to what you expected?
In the last five years I’ve reassessed Salvador Dali. I was wrong. I used to dismiss him – I thought he was a bit of a showman, and he was, but I let that get in the way of his art, which is actually very good. I get seduced by the person, and he’s got such a personality.

He’s a very strange man, Salvador Dali. I met him in the lift in St. Regis hotel in New York, and he said: “Would you like to meet my sister and my wife?” And I said: “Yeah, alright.” And he said: “Here they are.” And he had a walking stick with a pillar on top, with two little naked dolls, and he said: “This is my wife, and this is my sister,” and he pressed a button and they span around. And that was how I met Dali in one of the poshest hotels in the world.

What do you think of photography today?
There’s not much of anything anymore, it’s all been watered down. I don’t think there will be another star photographer. I’m the last of the photographers. It’s all iPhones; iPhones are going to be the future. There’s no room for those big stars anymore, but there will be something different - it won’t be what you expect. I don’t think there will ever be another Marilyn Monroe again. You’ll never get photographs like [Richard] Avedon anymore, because the clothes don’t exist anymore. It’s all gone.

What impact do you think this year will have on art and culture?
I think it’s changed people; it’s changed society. It’s as good as the ‘60s as a key period in time. I think it’s made people more aware of things in life that they never took seriously. I don’t think things will be the same as they were, which I always like. I like continuous change. As Buddhists say, that’s the reason for life: everything changes.

As worn by David Bailey.

David Bailey Unseen will be on display at FLANNELS London from 7 September to 16 October 2020.