“Journalists are difficult. Critics are easier. They judge what you do. Journalists judge who you are,” rasps David Bailey, as I hover on the threshold of his studio. Nervously, I subside on to a leather sofa while the man behind some of the 20th century’s most iconic images prowls about the high-ceilinged loft. Wearing a battered leather jacket over mud-brown combats, Bailey’s legendary dark good looks have translated felicitously into tones of steel-grey. He reminds me of a cat – part Aslan, part tabby – who is both wary yet fascinated by strangers.
Finally, he flops on to the other sofa, then looks me up and down from head to toe and back again. It’s disconcerting yet not disagreeable to find yourself so profoundly noticed. And it’s soon clear that Bailey’s spiky façade hides a soft centre. He teases those who work for him, who include his son Fenton, assistant Mark and PA Helene, with real affection.
Also touching is his devotion to his wife of 26 years, the model Catherine Dyer, who drifts in and out as we talk. “Where are you going?” he murmurs, as she glides towards the stairs. “Are you coming back? Can we have a bite of lunch later?”
His opening comments to me were fuelled by an unhappy encounter with another writer who had described his home in Devon as redolent of the 1960s. “There is nothing vaguely 60s about that house!” he snorts furiously. “It is full of Oceanic and Islamic art. And all the furniture is 16th-century. Is she f***ing blind?”
It’s unlikely she could have wounded him more fiercely. Fifty years on, Bailey is still struggling to escape the label of the 1960s’ most famous fashion and celebrity photographer. Alongside fellow snappers Terence Donovan and Brian Duffy, his images of figures such as Jean Shrimpton, the Kray twins, Michael Caine and Andy Warhol immortalised that decade in our collective memory.
His frustration is comprehensible. Leaving aside the non-photographic oeuvre, in the past four decades Bailey has created a body of work in which places figure almost as prominently as people. Among the landscapes chronicled are London, Sudan, Afghanistan, Havana and Papua New Guinea. His latest book is Delhi Dilemma, a two-volume work documenting the Indian capital in 2009, just before a facelift for the Commonwealth Games.
Asked why Delhi grabbed his imagination, he replies: “Everywhere fascinates me, it’s just that in India, there is more of it.” A stint in the Boy Scouts introduced him to Kipling. “I liked all those Jungle Stories.” Grinning, he misquotes “If” to add a layer of sexual innuendo, then suddenly breaks off to ask me how old I am.
That insatiable curiosity is behind his acclaimed gift for capturing the essence of his subjects. “You talk to people, you find out about them, their body language, what they’re wearing, how they do their buttons up, how they wear their hair. You keep all that and somehow you get to the person.”
Such relentless observation has rewarded him in Delhi. Straying into the poorest quarters, his flair for telling detail, close-cropping and honest colour delivers the city at its most vital, ruthless and intense. A pig-tailed woman sits, legs splayed and barefoot, on a filthy, tiled floor; a bony-cheeked girl peers over her mosaic-like stall of acid-bright bangles; a skinny boy canters bareback down the road on an equally emaciated horse wreathed in wilting flowers.
With no text save an introduction by Delhi resident William Dalrymple, the pages unfurl like a panorama that zips the reader through a world of dumbfounding paradoxes: acute poverty in a tropical-bright palette; energy and despair battling it out in people’s faces. Asked how he ferrets out his scenes, he looks nonplussed. “It just happens. You just keep your eyes open.”
His singular way of seeing has been with him since his east London childhood. As the son of a tailor, life was far from easy; in the “silly class” at school, later he would be diagnosed as dyslexic. His father “left and came back” although Bailey dismisses the notion such instability might have affected him.
“That’s all a nonsense. I mean, [I had] teachers trying to kiss me.” Noticing my shocked face, he declares firmly, “It never bothered me, really.
Yet such experiences left no scar? Bailey guffaws. “What, more than the war? Being bombed every night? I don’t think so!”
By then he sensed that he was a child less ordinary. “I knew that I could do things, see things, in a different way. I don’t know how or why.”
He was fascinated by natural history, particularly birdwatching. The first photograph he ever took was of his mother on Margate beach. “My father gave me a bollocking because I tilted the camera.”
By the age of 12, he was developing film, because he loved the process. Why did he not go to art school? He fixes me with an amused, exasperated glare. “In East Ham, you didn’t think of going to art school. You thought of getting a job in a factory. [And if] you had an accent and were dyslexic, you could be a boxer or a car thief.”
Instead, he joined the RAF. Posted to Malaya and Singapore, he started taking photographs regularly and thought it might make “quite a good job”. Back in London, his images were spotted in the Daily Express by an editor at British Vogue. By 1965, he was an icon, married to Catherine Deneuve and the inspiration behind David Hemmings’ character in Blow-Up (1966) by Michelangelo Antonioni.
Bailey responds good-naturedly to questions about the era. Jean Shrimpton, his third wife and most famous muse, was “like Kate [Moss]; they are the only two models I know who have a completely democratic appeal. [Yet] neither is as beautiful as Catherine, say, or Christy Turlington. They just have magic you can’t put your finger on.”
Soon he changes the subject. “Who’s your favourite writer?”
Literature, it turns out, is what he really wants to discuss. Having overcome dyslexia, he says, by memorising the words as if they were Chinese pictographs, he is a voracious reader. His laconic recitation of Auden – “Like love we often weep/Like Love we seldom keep” – leaves you in no doubt how he has won the heart of some of the most beautiful women in the world.
Among his favourite authors are Graham Greene, Mark Twain and Cormac McCarthy, whose novel about American scalphunters, Blood Meridian, he describes as “the ultimate in cruelty”. It may be a subject that fascinates Bailey. He tells me a story about Salvador Dalí, who once “kicked a poor old blind beggar, and the judge said: ‘Why did you do that?’ and he said: ‘Because he’s privileged not to have the burden of seeing.’ You can’t say that now, because it is politically incorrect. But I knew exactly what he meant.”
‘Bailey’s Delhi Dilemma’ is published next week by Steidl in a two-book set