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Meet The Artist: David Bailey In Conversation

Meet The Artist: David Bailey In Conversation

David Bailey’s reputation proceeds him. The legendary portrait and fashion photographer has been capturing the zeitgeist in black and white for over half a century. Now 81 years old, he is still as prolific as ever, and has just published a new sumo-sized retrospective, David Bailey, with Taschen. A 300-page epic documenting over six decades of work, it features his iconic portraits of everyone from Kate Moss and David Beckham to Salvador Dalí and the Queen. The forward, by his friend Damien Hirst, paints a picture of a scene-stealing renegade and unparalleled talent. “He’s so different from other photographers; his art is real, it’s full of accidents, it’s beautiful and it’s absolute.” To celebrate the launch of this landmark book, we’re hosting a pop-up space with Taschen at FLANNELS London and last night welcomed Bailey himself to The 2nd Floor of the store. With a twinkle in his eye and a roguish charm, he discussed his life’s work with GQ’s Editor Dylan Jones. His anecdotes of ‘60s London, from a run-in with the Krays to shooting the Gallagher brothers in the ‘90s, captivated our audience. Read on to find out more.

John Lennon and Paul McCartney by David Bailey photograph
John Lennon and Paul McCartney by David Bailey photograph

DJ: This book has been in gestation for quite some time. How long did it take you to choose the pictures, and how did you go about that process? Why is this book different?

DB: It’s not really. Different? It’s big. The pictures sort of choose themselves really. I think ‘ooh I like that one, it’s an old mate, I’ll use that one’. You just like the pictures, you know, how do you choose? It’s easy in the end, because you just know they’re right. I mean, I could do three or four more books like this and not repeat anything. This is just portraits really. It’s good. I’m very pleased, I’m very happy to work with Taschen. They’re good guys.

DJ: How do you feel when you’re looking through your vast archive? Because you’ve been photographing since the very end of the 1950s. What’s it like to trawl through all that work?

DB: Actually it’s quite exciting. The first person I every photographed was Somerset Maugham, just before he died. It was at the Dorchester, I was very poor, I went there, I had an old Rollop which is a copy of a Rolleiflex, and I couldn’t afford a neck strap so I had it on a piece of string. He was very nice, he said "sit down", he was the nicest bloke I’ve ever met. I thought “God, if they’re all like him this will be a pice of p*ss”. He was so charming. He asked me if I’d like to go to the south of France. He said “I’ll tell you a secret Mr Bailey, don’t give them everything, hold something back, just let them think you’re giving them everything, but hold something back.” He was a good guy. And he died about a year later. One of my favourite writers. Have you read any Somerset Maugham? Of Human Bondage?

DJ: When you started, you had this huge opportunity to work for Conde Nast, you were working for fashion magazines, but almost immediately you had your own way of doing things. You didn’t listen to people, you’ve never listened to people. Where did that confidence come from? You had this huge opportunity, but you were determined to do things your own way.

DB: Like Frank Sinatra, I did it my way.

DJ: Where did that confidence come from?

DB: From the East End. I had nothing to lose, and if you’ve got nothing to lose, you’ve only got things to gain. If you’ve got nothing to lose, you go for it. If you’re brought up a bit poncey and go to nice middle class schools, have two dogs – they all have two dogs, the middle class, usually those poodle things, labradoodles. They all have two children as well.

David Bailey photograph the Queen
David Bailey photograph the Queen

DJ: Lots of people who became successful in the very early ‘60s, if you speak to lots of those people, whether Terry O’Neill, who passed away recently, Michael Cain, and lots of them say that when they became famous, or at least became successful, they had a very cavalier attitude because they didn’t think it was going to last.

DB: Charlie Watts is the funniest, he is very dry, Charlie, playing drums for all those years, can you imagine? I have sympathy for Charlie, never mind the devil. He always says “you know Dave, it’s only gunna last two weeks." And he’s been saying that for 60 odd years”. I went down to his, he’s got 60 Arab horses, another mate said “let’s go down and see your mate Charlie Watts and I’ll buy a horse”. So we went down to the stable, and the stable is like a palace, and he paraded these horses. My mate asked me what I thought, and I said “looks like a black horse to me, they all look exactly the same.” He said “well that’s a very special one, I want to buy that.” He asked Charlie, and said he’d give him a million dollars for it, but Charlie’s wife said that she didn’t want to sell it. Charlie said “he’s got an open check” she said she didn’t want to sell it. Boring story, but it’s true.

DJ: I’ve heard you talk in the past about the way that you developed your way of photographing people in black and white. For the people who haven’t heard that story before, can you talk about how you worked out your way of photographing people, close up, black and white, white background. It became a very iconic way of photographing people, and it’s been copied by photographers in the last 50 years. Lots of people think you used a wide-angle lens but you didn’t. Where did that idea come from and how did you develop it?

DB: It just seemed common sense to me, a white background. John French, he always used a white background, I was an assistant for him for 11 months. I thought he was clever using a white background, because everyone thinks I got it from Avedon, but I didn’t, I got it off John French. Using a white background, you didn’t have to borrow props and things – if you put a prop on a white background it looks like a catalogue. So the simple thing was to use a white background like John French did. Getting closer, you don’t have to worry at all about anything, because the most important thing is the person, getting closer to the face, common sense really. Good common sense, as my mum would say.

DJ: For the uninitiated, how did these close-up portraits on white backgrounds differ from Avedon who was doing this in the 1950s?

DB: They didn’t really. It’s the same, just a different way of looking. Avedon was fantastic. He once said about me, in Woman’s Daily or one of those magazines – not GQ – he said, “Bert Stern and David Bailey are pens without ink”. Such a clever thing to say. I was a pen without ink. Because [Irving] Penn was the most famous photographer in the world, he was like Mother Theresa but he was a fella. I loved Penn, worshiped him, and Diana Vreeland, who was a great fashion editor, said “Bailey’s studio is like a nightclub, but Penn’s is like a cathedral.” I’m not sure whether that was a compliment or not.

Mick Jagger 1964 by David Bailey Photograph
Mick Jagger 1964 by David Bailey Photograph

DJ: You also once told me that shooting in black and white is much easier than shooting in colour because you get distracted by colour. Can you explain that?

DB: No, I didn’t mean shooting, shooting is always difficult. It’s just that if you see colour, you think about the colour. If you think about a Van Gough picture, you think about yellow, but it’s about Van Gough. When people look at something, they don’t go direct to the image, they go to the colour, and then they look at the image. But with black and white, you have to go straight to the image. I do anyway. It looks more serious, too.

DJ: What was it like when you first started taking pictures of people, because you were doing a lot of repertoire and fashion photography, and then you started doing a lot of studio portraiture. What was the process of talking to people? Because I’ve seen you shoot lots of people, and you talk to them a lot before you start photographing. Why do you do that?

DB: It’s difficult to photograph somebody you don’t know. So when they come to the studio, I usually talk to them for maybe two hours before I photograph them, and the picture only takes 10 minutes. So in a way, it’s a shortcut to taking the picture, because then I know something about the person. You think you know something about a person, the way they dress, the poncey double breasted suit, the shiny shoes, so you take them in very quickly, the Rolex watch. I’ve already summed you up, and now I have to find out who you really are, underneath that suit.

DJ: I’ve seen you in action photographing people lots of times, but how do you deal with difficult people.

DB: Nobody’s difficult, they’re just in a bad mood or something, that’s how I see it. Why would they be difficult? I’m doing them a favour, they’re doing me a favour. I always fall in love with people in the hour or two hours I’m with them. I feel that I owe them something for giving me their time, and time is the only thing we’ve got. I’m very thankful if someone takes the trouble, so I always try to do my best, and make them look like how I think they should look. They might not think they should look like that, but if I did it any other way I’d be lying.

DJ: Who are the most difficult people to photograph?

DB: Difficult or dangerous? I suppose Ronnie Kray, he was difficult. I couldn’t get an assistant. I asked them all to come and shoot with me, they asked who it was with, and I said the Kray twins. They said no. Finally, John Swallow, who is sitting over there looking sheepish, said he’d come. We were with Francis Wyndham, who was a fantastic writer for the Sunday Times, and I spent about two weeks with the Krays.

DJ: You’ve always said that actors are difficult to photograph, because they’re always pretending to be other people.

DB: Yes. They’re not pretending, you don’t know who they are. I knew Peter Sellers quite well, he was always hanging out with Tony Snowdon, and you never knew who he was. He was like six different people, and it’s hard work being an actor, and it’s hard work to photograph them, because how do you know who you’re photographing? You could be photographing Lawrence Olivier, you could be photographing Lassie! It could be, from day to day it changes. It’s very confusing for the photographer, and I imagine quite confusing for them. Actors are really the most difficult, the don’t know who they are.

Jean Shrimpton by David Bailey photograph
Jean Shrimpton by David Bailey photograph

DJ: You’re quite disparaging about contemporary fashion photography

DB: Yes, because it isn’t very good. Especially now, it’s lost its passion. We were all so excited, I used to wait for the magazines or The Sunday Times to come out, to look at the fashion and the pictures. It’s not like that anymore, now they just want product. They don’t care what the product is, because you’ve taken the picture and that’s enough. There’s not that passion anymore, there’s not that thing between the model and you, the story you’re trying to make or the image you want to produce. I’m not saying it’s wrong, but it’s not the same. It’s lost its charm.

DJ: So is the age of photography over?

DB: Yes, I think it is. It’s not the same. You should be thankful, there’ll be no more David Baileys working for you. It’s over, that star photographer thing. Like with anything, there’s no star fashion person any more, it’s all spread out. That ‘one thing’ has gone really, hasn’t it? I don’t see that there will be any more Diana Vreelands. She was the greatest woman and fashion editor I’ve ever met.

DJ: When you’re collating a book like this, do you object to the ones that are popular, that everyone likes, that have become iconic almost in spite of you?

DB: No, because everyone has got their own opinion. If they like it, I’m not going to argue with them. I mean, I prefer the ones that tell more of a story. I got it with the Gallaghers. I was doing a cover of them for Rolling Stone, I thought they were gunna kill each other, so we got it done very quickly and got them out of the studio. You can always sniff it, you can smell something.

DJ: Do you have a favourite picture?

DB: I think I stopped having favourites when I was about five. Sherbet lemon was my favourite.

DJ: But is there a picture that you like more than any other?

DB: Yeh, the next one. Because you always try to do better.

Andy Warhol by David Bailey photograph
Jean Shrimpton by David Bailey photograph

Images from top: John Lennon & Paul McCartney, 1965 © David Bailey, Her Majesty The Queen, 2014 © David Bailey, Mick Jagger, 1964 © David Bailey, Jean Shrimpton, 1965 © David Bailey, Andy Warhol, 1965 © David Bailey