When He Was Good…

14th February 2014

Bailey’s Stardust is a somewhat indulgent ‘landmark’ exhibition on the celebrity photographer David Bailey, argues Jack Watkins, but it does have its moments…

David Bailey turned 76 last month, but in recent pictures, arms draped round Jerry Hall and Marie Helvin, his one-time muses, he looks every inch the old roué with a devilish glint in the eye and the lines round the mouth creasing into an impish grin. I’d guess he’s not a subscriber to the idea of ageing gracefully. It takes no great leap of the imagination to see why a former girlfriend from when he worked for Vogue described him as ‘the lion king on the savannah, incredibly attractive, with a dangerous vibe.’

Norman Parkinson, one of the old guard of British photography, didn’t think much of Bailey – or his cohorts, Terence Donovan or Brian Duffy – when they rudely barged their way onto the sedate and gentlemanly scene in the early 1960s. Parkinson dubbed them ‘the Black Trinity’. Another establishment snapper, Lord Snowdon, thought it disgusting when the unabashedly working-class lad from Leytonstone included images of those notorious East End thugs, the Kray brothers, in his arresting early book, Box of Pin-Ups, which featured poster prints of celebrities of the time.

Yet, like it or not, Bailey is now one of the grand old men of photography himself, which is why he has been accorded this lavish retrospective entitled Bailey’s Stardust at the National Portrait Gallery; so large, in fact, that it takes up most of the ground floor of the exhibition area. His heyday – the Swinging Sixties – is as remote from us now as the style and decorum of the1920s must have seemed to people then. It’s a ripe moment, therefore, to see how his work, freed from notions of fashion and trendiness, stacks up as art.

Bailey has had problems with what people lazily term art, though. Even today, there are some who still question whether photography has the right to be considered a true art form. It’s possibly the wrong way to approach the issue. As Bailey bluntly put it when one dinosaur raised the matter at a press conference announcing the staging of this show last summer: “Photography is not art, and painting’s not art. It’s whether the person who is doing it is an artist.” And then, he added, with typical directness, “So up your bum – I’m an artist.”

Back in the early days, Bailey, who suffers from dyslexia, probably wasn’t so much worried about ‘art’ as to how he would ever be able to hold down a job. His parents were in the rag trade, but though he was actually sent to a private school, he was constantly playing truant. He was illiterate at the age of 15, and went through a succession of dead-end jobs, but he had a natural talent for painting and drawing and, inspired by a photograph by Henri Cartier-Bresson, realised that there might yet be an escape route out of his tough existence in East London.

He was taken on as a photographer’s assistant, and by the age of 21 he was working for Vogue as a fashion photographer. His rise on the publication seems to have been meteoric, and soon he was being used to shoot its prestigious covers. He became the boyfriend of the early supermodel Jean Shrimpton, and is widely credited as having had a massive influence in creating her image. She, in turn, gave him the exposure required to become one of the great personalities of the swinging sixties, considered as glamorous in some quarters as the countless stars whose pictures he took.

One of the problems with the new show is that it spurns a chronological presentation in favour of a more thematic display, so it’s quite difficult to track any discernible changes in Bailey’s approach to his work over the decades. That may be deliberate, of course. He’as never been one to over-complicate his methods, or engage in pseudo-intellectual pontification. Even so, a little more insight would have been welcome.

I read recently that he admired Ansel Adams, but without being a big fan of what he did because, “Really, it’s just another [expletive] tree, isn’t it?” That may sound cool, and raise a laugh down the pub, but from a 76-year-old, it’s a pretty sad – and also completely simplistic and wildly inaccurate – dismissal of the great Californian maestro of the sublime, immaculately lit, landscape.

In spring last year, the V&A mounted a massive exhibition devoted to another icon whose career launched in the 1960s, and whose fame has rested greatly upon his image: David Bowie. But whereas the latter’s personal commitment to that show was readily apparent, the same cannot be said here; even though Bailey personally selected the portraits on view in Bailey’s Stardust, you don’t feel as close to him, and there’s less insight into his thinking or influences.

Featured in Bailey’s Stardust is a shot of another name from the past: Brassai, a Hungarian expat photographer who, having relocated to Paris in the 1920s, produced some of the most poetic night-time images of his adopted city ever seen. Bailey’s portrait, capturing him as a frail, rather suspicious old man on the balcony of his apartment, is superb, seeming to absorb something of the older man’s style. But what did Bailey feel about Brassai’s work, or what did he learn from him, or from Bill Brandt, or even from Cartier-Bresson – other greats whose picture he took? It would have been nice to know.

Then again, Bailey has declared that people and portraiture are the only things that have ever really interested him, so that immediately imposes limitations. There’s an incredible samey-ness about this show, one face next to another, and at moments you might find yourself succumbing to a Yes, I recognise him, don’t recognise her’ kind of dizziness. Walking into one room where the images appeared to be mounted ceiling-high, I experienced a thought similar to the one that crossed my mind at the David Hockney blockbuster in 2012: less might be more.

And Bailey’s minimalist approach – figures or faces generally shot against plain white backgrounds – doesn’t lend variety, although that doesn’t mean there are no striking character studies. He professes to disliking taking pictures of actors, but two of his personal favourites are Jack Nicholson and Johnny Depp. I preferred one of that opinionated windbag from the past, Malcom Muggeridge, caught with his mouth open in extreme close-up, in that irritatingly didactic way he had. Another gem is the shot of Bishop Desmond Tutu, eyes bright with animation and generosity of spirit. Here Bailey was catching the essence of these vastly different men. There’s one of Bob Dylan looking impatient – keen to get back on his everlasting tour perhaps – and Bowie looking, as ever, beautiful.

Yet too many of these images are just show-off pictures of the beautiful people, encouraged to perform for the camera, whereas you feel the really curious artist would be interested in peeling off layers to reveal something below the surface.

Did Bailey sell out his real talent for the vacuous pursuit of celebrities? In the last room are some fascinatingly evocative pictures of the East End of the early 1960s, black and white shots of streets still bearing the bomb-damaged scars of World War II, and huge colour images of some of the old characters from a now vanished social scene. I couldn’t get enough of these. They show that when Bailey, the old rascal, was good, he was very good indeed.

Bailey’s Stardust, sponsored by Hugo Boss,
continues at the National Portrait Gallery, London, until 1 June

See www.npg.org.uk for more information

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