David Bailey: the man behind the lens

From The Beatles to Andy Warhol, William Cook meets the architect of some of the most iconic portraits of the sixties

Features

20 Feb 2019

I’m standing next to David Bailey, Britain’s greatest portrait photographer, in a London gallery called Gagosian. We’re staring at a photo of his second wife, Catherine Deneuve. I mean to ask him about her, about their marriage, about their time together in the Swinging Sixties, but the picture draws me in and we end up talking about photography instead.

That’s the funny thing about Bailey – he’s a nightmare to interview. Not because he clams up, but because he’s so good at shooting the breeze. When you think about it, that’s no surprise. That’s part of the reason why he gets such great portrait photos. You arrive with a list of questions, and end up chatting about all sorts of other stuff instead.

Bailey is here to open a new show called The Sixties, featuring some of his most famous portraits from that extraordinary decade. It’s a small show – just two rooms, seven photos in the front room and five more out the back – but these twelve monochrome images are quite enough. You can stand in front of each one for ages, and let your own life drift away. The seven big photos in this big front room are mesmeric: Michael Caine, Mick Jagger, Jane Birkin, Andy Warhol… I’ve seen these pictures a thousand times and so have you; they are part of our cultural psyche.

Andy Warhol 1965 © David Bailey. Courtesy of the Gagosian

Before Bailey arrived I got talking to his son, Fenton, who’s here taking photos of his own. Fenton looks a lot like his father, but he looks even more like his mother, Catherine Dyer, Bailey’s fourth and final wife, who’s also here today. Fenton has his dad’s dark good looks. He’s tall and graceful, like his mum. He told me Bailey chats to his models for hours before he takes a single photo. That’s how he reveals a side of them that no-one else can see. ‘He looks to see their good angles, to see what see what sort of mood they’re in,’ concurred his wife Catherine.

David Bailey is 81, and he doesn’t look any younger. There are bags beneath his eyes. But when he sits down and starts talking, there’s a vitality about him that belongs to someone half his age. You can see why he charmed some of the world’s most beautiful women into bed. There’s something wild about him. His eyes are full of fun.

‘I probably spend about two hours – at least an hour and a half, anyway – before I take a picture,’ he says, sipping a cup of coffee. ‘Some photographers don’t talk to people! How can you take a picture of somebody if you don’t know who they are?’ Bailey gets the shots the others don’t get because he engages with his subjects. ‘I’m very interested in who they are.’

That’s why his portraits are stripped down, black and white, against a bare white backdrop. ‘Get rid of everything – minimalise everything,’ he says. ‘You just end up with their personalities.’ These are powerful, successful people, but his photos make them seem intense and fragile. Can he still photograph someone if he doesn’t warm to them? ‘I warm to anyone, really.’ He has a talent for making anyone warm to him.

I ask him about his photo of Lennon & McCartney, which looms above us, John towering over Paul like a bossy elder brother. ‘I knew they didn’t like each other,’ he chuckles. Maybe, maybe not, but you wouldn’t say they look like close friends.

Bailey will always be associated with London in the Sixties. As a working class London lad, he was in the right place at the right time. ‘They were mostly working class, the people who made it in the Sixties. There’s never been a moment like it. Michael Caine, Terry Stamp – they’re all working class. In fact, Terry was in Plaistow, just a couple of streets away from where I was born.’

Born in Leytonstone, in London’s East End, in 1938, Bailey was brought up by his mother who was a machinist and his father who was a tailor’s cutter. He struggled with undiagnosed dyslexia, and left school when he was fifteen. He did various dead end jobs before he was called up for National Service, in the RAF. It was during that time, far from home, that he started taking photos, a hobby he’d first dabbled with as a schoolboy. Don McCullin, the great war photographer, got into photography in exactly the same way. While McCullin went away to war, Bailey returned to London and the rest is history. As John Lennon once observed, he was as much a part of the Sixties as the Beatles.

His first passion was painting – he’s painted throughout his life. One of his earliest inspirations was Picasso. ‘It was Picasso’s attitude that I liked. When he said, “A wheel doesn’t have to be round,” I thought, “That makes sense.”’ He was once asked to photograph Picasso, but he said no. ‘Suppose I’d walked in and met Picasso and he farts?’ he told me, last time I spoke to him. ‘I think it’s best to try and keep away from your heroes.’

And this is perhaps the crux of his work: the people in his photos are our heroes, but they’re not Bailey’s. He knows them, and he makes you feel like you know them too, even though you don’t. ‘It’s like being a dog, really,’ he says, of his extraordinary ability to see beneath the surface of his subjects. ‘You sort of sniff people’s attitudes without them knowing it.’

David Bailey’s portrait of Michael Cain, courtesy of the Gagosian gallery

We stop in front of his classic portrait of Michael Caine. People always associate this photo with Caine’s starring role in The Ipcress File, the film that defined him, but in fact this shot came first. ‘I never saw the movie,’ says Bailey. Caine was about to light a cigarette when Bailey stopped him. ‘Don’t light it!’ he told him. ‘Keep it like that!’ And a star was born.

Jean Shrimpton, shot by David Bailey, courtesy of the Gagosian

Next in line is Jean Shrimpton, Bailey’s former muse and lover. ‘I loved her – she was great,’ he says, quietly. ‘She would have made it with or without me, and I would have made it with or without her.’ And yet they were a unique combination, more than the sum of their two parts. ‘Her and Kate Moss are the two most attractive models I’ve ever worked with.’ What makes them different? ‘I don’t know. It’s like Garbo and Dietrich.’

We turn to the photograph of Mick Jagger, his pouting face wrapped in a fur hood, like a Rock & Roll Eskimo. ‘I think it was my coat,’ says Bailey. ‘I said “Put this coat on.”’ On the adjoining wall is a contact sheet, blown up huge, of all the Rolling Stones together, mucking about. ‘Nothing was planned at all.’ Brian Jones is there too, gazing at the camera while the others horse around. ‘I was with him about a week before he died,’ says Bailey. ‘They didn’t like him much – he was the only one who went to public school.’

Mick Jagger © David Bailey. Courtesy of the Gagosian gallery

He’s not so interested in other photographers. He prefers to do his own thing. ‘I don’t want to get influenced – I don’t want to see something and think, “Oh, I can’t do that, because I’ve seen it.”’ If it turns out like someone else’s work that’s fine, but he doesn’t like the idea that he might be copying someone else. Not much chance of that. His vision is his own.

The interview is over. Bailey is whisked away. On my way out, I remember something he said last time I spoke to him, a few years ago. ‘Everyone’s got a story – you’ve just got to find it.’ Bailey finds the story of everyone he photographs, but after all these years I’m still not sure anyone has ever quite found his.


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