David Bailey 'would not be nobbled by being a smallish, dyslexic cockney with no education'
As he makes his Fringe debut, cultural commentator Peter York reflects on the legendary photographer
This article is from 2015.
David Bailey, the man who's been practically everyone's idea of a fashionable photographer for 50 years (an achievement in its own right), is marvellously grumpy now. If anyone looks like trapping him into anything remotely poncy and pretentious, he gets snappy. No, he says, he was never interested in fashion (only in the girls wearing it). But even in his earliest work for Vogue, it's obvious he understood exactly how young women would want to look, precisely because he was so … interested.
And he'll say, equally snappy, that some guys are just too sissy for him, though he acknowledges how he got his start from gay photographers and art directors and felt, at the time, that his cockneyness and their gayness made them a kind of outsider gang against the world.
And while his legendary breakthrough East Endness (a complete early 60s change from a previous generation of smart upper-middle photographers like Beaton and Parkinson) shapes his responses to absolutely everything, it's obvious that Bailey was a sensitive, curious, different and dyslexic young man in his teens and twenties. He was out of line with his class and his East Ham contemporaries, bitter beyond words at being dismissed as thick at school because he couldn't handle writing that well, but knowing – it's clear he did know – that he could do something … artistic.
His interests were photography, birdwatching and beautiful women. He was driven to get out from under; not to be nobbled by being a smallish, dyslexic cockney with no education and no contacts. He wanted to get out of that place. When he even faintly suspects that he's being patronised or boxed-up into clichés, he's into fight or flight mode. Even now.
Bailey's assets, huge as it turned out, were talent ('the eye'), drive and good looks. The right good looks and the looking-the-part looks (he didn't like the David Hemmings version of his Look in Antonioni's Blow Up). It's this combination of talent and insecurity, so completely understandable when you've seen a bit of Bailey, that makes his Stardust exhibition so impressive in every way. It's about what he's responded to, on every level. Beautiful girls, of course: and they wanted him too, as all the contemporary accounts show, for his Johnny Depp-ish naughty faun looks and his sheer sexual eagerness. But then there are the men he can identify with, near contemporaries like his friend of 50-plus years, Mick Jagger. And the extreme situations he responds to, from Sudan for Band Aid to Papua New Guinea.
It all came together for Bailey in that wonder year of 1963. He knew exactly what to do with it; with those early 60s people and their breakthrough moments, because he was interested in people and in what defines star quality. So, the near 300 photographs in Stardust (most taken as swiftly and simply as possible with no diversion from elaborate backgrounds, Big Ideas and studied compositions) are mostly rooted in the primacy of personality and its revelation. What is X really like, particularly under pressure, internal or external? What's really going on here? What are those people's lives like?
Bailey doesn't want to impose a big political or aesthetic idea on his observations. He believes that if he follows his instincts then his fashion, his portraits, his reporting will work. The clothes will look desirable because the model does; the portrait's subjects will reveal a lot about themselves; and the dynamic of a situation – famine victims or old cultures in the modern world – will be better explained than by a thousand expert words.
In Blink, the cultural commentator Malcolm Gladwell explains how people with experience and an 'educated eye' can make judgements in a nanosecond that more plodding analysts, who do it by the book with statistics and scientific tests, can't make in a lifetime. And then often find it hard to explain or defend their conclusions.
Bailey is like that: he knows how to read people and situations but he can't say exactly how he does it, and he absolutely doesn't want to be patronised or joshed for doing Grand Theory. So he over-corrects; he's disingenuous about how he arrived at an insight; he'll say it's not that good, that he's not doing things that way anymore as of yesterday. Anything to close the topic down.
In Outliers, Gladwell sets out to explain how legendary talents and surprising successes actually had a great deal in common, something that was widely read as a sort of recipe for success: be in the right place at the right time, and have 10,000 or more hours of practice.
Like millions of readers I liked this apparent demystification of the romantic idea of successes just emerging from under rocks and conquering all before them. But this reading – the basis of a billion Tiger Mothers putting their kids in for more homework or violin practice – leaves out the question of innate talent and of drive.
Bailey was in the right place at the right time and he put in the hours. But he was driven and talented too. The evidence is in Stardust, in the scale of the show, the breadth of the coverage and the extraordinary freshness of the pictures. He delivers, of course, all those key 60s people, the Pin-Ups, the Scotch of St James set, without them looking – mostly – period or dated. He'd focussed on faces rather than clothes, props or compositions (the great betrayers of a dated sensibility).
I've seen the Bailey approach in action. He photographed me thirty-something years ago, and this is what it involved: a) turning up at his house in Primrose Hill; b) talking to him a bit in the kitchen – I can't remember what about – but enough time for him to see how I looked and moved and talked and explained myself in an 'ordinary' situation, for him to develop his Blink idea of who I was; c) going somewhere else, posed on a stool, walked around and snapped. Talking time: 15 or 20 minutes. Snapping time about ten minutes max. No hair, make-up, props or Big Ideas. This perfunctory process produced the best photograph of me ever.
It was done for Ritz magazine. I loved it and showed it proudly to anyone around. Then I forgot about it. This was before people thought about photography as framed-up-on-the-wall art. I've wanted my own print for years now, but will the grumpy, grizzled old bastard give it to me? Apparently it's in a deep cave somewhere in Sussex and they can't find it.
Bailey's Stardust, Scottish National Gallery, The Mound, 0131 624 6200, 18 Jul–18 Oct, Mon–Sun, 10am–7pm; Mon–Wed, Fri–Sun, 10am–5pm, Thu, 10am–7pm (Jul, Sep, Oct), £11 (£9); Peter York: How to Become a Nicer Type of Person, Assembly George Square Studios, George Square, 0131 623 3030, 17–31 Aug (not 24), 1.25pm, £10–£12.