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Not many people would work for three years on a major exhibition of their own and then choose to put another artist on the cover of the catalogue. David Bailey is one of only three people to be granted the whole of the lower exhibition space at London’s National Portrait Gallery in the dozen years since Sandy Nairne became director. The others? Lucian Freud and David Hockney. It’s a ranking honour.

This is Bailey’s second show there, too, and very few have been granted that. This is public recognition at the very height of what Britain has to offer.

So it is perturbing, and revealing, that Bailey chose to put a frankly routine spin painting by Damien Hirst on the cover of the book, invitation card and other branding for the show. Why should Bailey yield his shop window to Hirst in this way? What is it about the working photographer that is still supposed to kowtow to art?

The show itself reveals the absurdity: its variety and range of expression will astound those who expect to see only Mick Jagger in a fur hood or Jean Shrimpton in New York.

Bailey came close to becoming a “national treasure”. We knew him well, we thought: the charming cheeky-chappie Establishment-busting East End geezer with the unbearably glamorous relationships and the world in his pocket. Fashion photographer; friend of the Kray twins. When he made ads for a new generation of small and light cameras, he was twinned with George Cole, the most gently parodic Cockney of actors. He seemed just to have wafted to eminence, along with his mates Duffy and Terence Donovan, on a 1960s zephyr of good vibes and new alignments. We thought we could sum him up: plain white backgrounds, black suits for the men and white knee boots for the women, Herbie Hancock playing in the background.

One of the key media words of the 1960s in Britain was “satire”. Many of today’s certified national treasures were once angry (or at least mock-angry) satirists. Bailey was never one of them – they were too Cambridge and too cosy for him – yet he worked in that context. He certainly wanted to break down convention. It is odd that he found allies at Vogue: he was never really a Vogue person, any more than Bill Brandt had been a Picture Post person a generation before. No art director ever told him what a picture should look like, and he quickly became part of the story as well as a chronicler of the story. The legend of Michelangelo Antonioni’s film Blow-Up, generally understood to be based on Bailey, was established in 1966, before Bailey was 30.

He has consistently made as much top-quality work outside the areas we thought were his as within. Sure, he photographed everybody who was anybody, and still does. Beyond that, he has been a kind of visual anthropologist, finding out which tribe people belong to and then dissecting how the tribe works. That is made overt in his pictures from New Guinea or Nagaland but it could as well be Warhol’s tribe, Diana Vreeland’s tribe, the Leytonstone tribe . . .

There are three important strands to Bailey, each pretty essential for any communicator. First, he has never lost his curiosity. He wants to know how things work, who says so, what he feels about the world. Second, he made himself a virtuoso across the whole range of instruments at his disposal: large-format cameras; Polaroid papers; available light. More than many photographers, he trusts and uses the lexicon of technical options to acquire different manners of expression. Many photographers found themselves making Pentax pictures; Bailey was always able to tell a Pentax to make a Bailey.

Third, he is completely literate in what previous voices have been able to say. On National Service in Singapore, the pin-up above his camp bed was not the traditional glamour girl but a portrait of Jacqueline Roque by Picasso. He laughs about the pounding he got from his fellow servicemen, but the underlying point is serious. Bailey has always situated himself to his audience because he does everything possible to know what his audience already knows, and to build on that.

The National Portrait Gallery show has no curator other than Bailey himself. The gallery has just let him think his own pictures through. In a suite of rooms, Bailey moves from more obvious clusters (the Rolling Stones) to less obvious ones. There are wonderful large colour portraits in the East End, and a harrowing study of a starving child in the Sudan, right under the gaze of Nelson Mandela.

A lovely, strong, emotional room is devoted to smaller pictures of his wife, Catherine, and is hung as if it were the pinboard in their home or the pictures on a fridge. This intensity of visible affection is a revelation in a man known for a certain wisecracking flippancy.

There are classic 11x14in black-and-white studies, and a glorious series of portraits of artists (including a lot of his own colleagues: photographers from Ansel Adams to Brandt and McCullin, and Duffy with Bailey’s finger in his eye). Another eye, huge and in colour, dominates the main axis of the show, wedged open by surgical tools. A nod to surrealism, a nod to photography itself. You’d call it a wink, if the eye were able to close.

There is good humour and lightness all over the exhibition. But we shouldn’t take the flippancy for the whole deal; in what amounts almost to a retrospective, Bailey shows once again that he has long had the range, the skill and the language to be considered one of the major communicators of his generation.

It’s a peculiar relic of the supposed inferiority of the camera that makes even Bailey put an art work of infinitely less merit than a hundred of his own on the cover of his catalogue. Luckily, you can’t see the cover once you open the book of this thoroughly engaging and convincing show.


‘Bailey’s Stardust’, National Portrait Gallery, London, until June 1


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