David Bailey: Hollywood and Hitler were my influences
I’VE NEVER entirely liked the idea of David Bailey. Something about all those screen portrayals of swaggering Cockney photographers priapically jumping on wide-eyed teenage models must have rubbed off by association. That and the string of gorgeous wives and girlfriends for such a, well, ordinary-looking fellow.
But when we speak on the phone he confounds my prejudices with a genial, larger-than-life disposition and a lively turn of phrase punctuated by a wickedly raspy smoker’s laugh.
It seems likely that the man who says he’s “never given a shit how I looked” charmed Catherine Deneuve, Marie Helvin and Jean Shrimpton into bed.
Unwilling to make great claims for his medium, beyond the assertion that he “makes, not takes pictures”, he’s engaging company, endlessly curious about the world around him.
But, of course, you can’t take iconic photos of people unless you engage with them.
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We are discussing his current exhibition, at the Pangolin Gallery in Kings Place arts centre, of bronze and silver sculptures, many cast from models of the animal skulls he collects, accompanied by photographs also of skulls. It includes a humorous depiction of his old friend Andy Warhol created with jelly beans.
All were completed in the last two years but when I ask where the impulse sprang from to sculpt, he insists it’s no different from his other creative efforts.
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“It’s not like an impulse, I always do other things, I paint as well. In the 80s I mostly directed commercials. This is just another thing I do, it’s all interconnected, it’s all about exploring my curiosity about the world.
“There is no difference between a photograph or a sculpture or a building, it’s all part of the creative process, whether you hold a camera or a paintbrush it’s another thing I can make as work.”
So why the skull – a recurring theme in his photography. Is it memento mori? Bailey disagrees.
“I don’t see death and I don’t see them as skulls, but as nature’s ultimate sculpture. In a way, every mammal ends up as a beautiful sculpture.”
It could be said that Bailey uses work to keep his own mortality at bay. This June marked the 50th anniversary of the 72-year-old’s first Vogue photograph. Half a century on, he has a dozen projects on the go, including two photography books on Delhi, fundraising photos of British soldiers in Afghanistan and a handful of other exhibitions.
Bailey attributes this work ethic to his upbringing by hard-toiling mother Gladys in post-war Britain. Born in Leytonstone in 1938, he vividly remembers huddling in the garden shelter when his house was destroyed.
“I was three and a half and the bomb hit the house next door but destroyed ours too.”
The family moved to East Ham and six nights a week, he, his sister Thelma and mother would go to the movies because “it was cheaper than putting a shilling in the meter”. They’d take bread and jam sandwiches and watch Gone With The Wind, or Bailey’s favourite, Disney cartoons. He quips that his visual sensibilities were influenced by “Hollywood and Hitler”.
“Some of that must have rubbed off. I got used to seeing bombed buildings with the wallpaper still on the walls and sometimes chests of drawers suspended on a ledge. As a kid you don’t know any better, it just seems normal, but a lot of people lived through Hollywood to help them get through it.”
Bailey calls his father Herbert “a scallywag” whom he rarely saw, but has nothing but praise for tough Gladys who held the family fort.
Such were the ingrained lessons of austerity and poverty that he still abhors profligacy and, I suspect, never quite believes he has enough money. The man whose photographs sell for thousands of pounds accedes to being “comfortable” but grouches that if he was really trying to make money “I would do another job”.
“I still switch lights off in other people’s houses,” he admits. “When I made commercials I used to have an office with Ridley Scott and I would go around his office switching off his lights. Nothing to do with the bloody environment, I hated the waste. My mother used to say things like ‘waste not want not’. I remember her yelling upstairs for me to switch the light off so I used to read under the blanket with a torch.”
With undiagnosed dyslexia he did poorly at school, but developed an early interest in nature photography and bought his first Rolleiflex while on national service with the RAF in Singapore. After demob, he landed a string of jobs assisting London photographers and in 1960 got his photographs in the Daily Express which brought him to the attention of Vogue.
He went on to define the decade, photographing The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, The Krays, actors like Michael Caine, and numerous models including Shrimpton.
“Like anyone would be, I was pleased to get published but you soon get used to it and it becomes natural. It’s a long time ago, it feels like another lifetime in a way.”
Bailey’s mantra was always simplicity, doing away with fussy sets and backgrounds to shoot his subjects against a white background. (Which he points out is harder because it “leaves you nothing to hide behind.”)
There was “a kind of energy, a working-class energy I suppose” in these boys and girls from ordinary backgrounds suddenly rubbing shoulders with the rich and royal. But Bailey is quick to remind me it sprang from talent and hard graft.
“I have had some good fun, but people don’t realise how much work there was too. It’s that old thing that the harder I work, the luckier I get. I think nothing of working seven days a week.
“These days you are a celebrity just because you are a celebrity but back then you got known because you were talented. I am not just being a grumpy old man, I know there was always the Duchess of Bollockbrain in the 1760s who did nothing, but the Stones turned out to be the greatest rock and roll band ever and John Lennon wasn’t bad.”
He now disdains fashion photography, saying he only took the jobs because of the promise of some creative freedom.
“The only way of being vaguely creative, and I stress vaguely, was to do fashion.”
When I ask whether photography can be art or is essentially commercial, Bailey bridles at the distinction – exclaiming that “everything’s commercial”.
He’s hugely reluctant to wax on about being an artist (rather hippyishly asserting that “everyone’s an artist, they just need to find out what they can do”). But when pressed he explains that what marks artists out is continuous inquiry into the world about them.
“All the people I know are so-called artists, whatever you want to call them, and the key to life is curiosity – to find out as much as you can.”
Although he adds rather bleakly, “it’s not going to do any good in the end”, it gives him energy in his seventh decade. At night he gets so excited thinking about a new project he’ll write notes to remind himself in the morning.
“At least I can wake up every day and be excited about doing something and exploring something, that’s the most you can ask for.”
But if he doesn’t like elevated claims about his craft, he’s equally upset by people thinking it’s easy.
“Everyone thinks they are an expert, “ he complains. “And it’s true that anyone can take a picture but I hope I make my pictures.
“Do you know what the journalists used to call groups of photographers in the 40s? Monkeys.” “I’m afraid they still do,” I admit.
“Ha!” he wheezes triumphantly. “They didn’t know this one was going to turn into King Kong!”
o David Bailey: Sculpture + is at the Pangolin Gallery, Kings Place arts centre, 90 York Way, King’s Cross, until October 16.