I think we’ve talked about David Bailey a few times here, but you know, it’s surprising the amount of times whenever I’m with friends and the talk gravitates to photography, that when the name David Bailey comes up, there are always a few people who’ve never heard of him!
That’s not at all surprising, especially this far West…the same would probably be true of famous people we have here….I bet they would be almost unknown back in Europe, too. I still chuckle about the looks I still get, after all these years in Vancouver, whenever I mention the word “fortnight”….I always get totally blank looks when they hear it…and I end up explaining what it means!
Anyways, back to the object of this post. Hardened photographers will know his work, but what of the man himself? How did he come to take up this line of work and what of his history? let’s examine a little of it today…
Having met the man myself on time during an exhibition and snatched a few words with him, I know he has a somewhat dry, wry sense of humor, but a sense of humor nonetheless. It is perfectly summed up in the career choices he describes that were open to him, living as he was with his family as a child in the East End of London, UK……”you could either become a boxer, car thief or musician…”!
In fact, he took up many jobs in order to survive…a window-dresser, carpet salesman and shoe, salesman to name but a few. It is true that he became to be well-known, at least in his home country, during the 60s flower-power, hippy-happy heydays, when everything and anything that seemed to be counter-culture was accepted as the thing to follow…..Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, The Beatles, anti-war movement, Nixon, Woodstock, bell-bottoms, Jimi Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane, Yogi Bhajan, Ravi Shankar, etc.
His childhood days were taken up by trying to keep well-fed and warm, especially during the tough, bitterly cold winters of those days….the winters nowadays in the UK are nothing like as cold….I remember being there as a student in the 60s….snow was frequent and heavy (1ft and more not being unusual), the frosts severe, central heating did not exist and all homes used either coal fires or inefficient and harmful to health kerosene heaters, many homes had no inside washroom (the toilets used to be housed outside of the house, in the garden!), most Englishmen bathed only once a week (true!), with many using the local communal bath houses where a fresh towel and bar of soap cost either 6d or a shilling (sixpence or 1/-).
Bailey paints an accurate picture of those austere days….”in the winter”, we would take bread-and-jam sandwiches and go to the cinema every night, because in those days it was cheaper to go to the cinema to keep warm than to put on the gas fire. I’ll bet I saw seven or eight movies a week.”
So you can well understand where his wry sense of humor comes from, having seen such difficult times….”I remember our house being bombed when I was three. It was in Leytonstone – AlfredHitchcock was born in the next street – in the East End..later we moved to East Ham. Some days you went to school and some days you didn’t, and some days at school you went into the bomb shelter…..I remember watching the doodlebugs (V-1 flying bombs) in the sky….such a rocket knocked out a cinema in Upton Park where I used to go. I was not happy, I thought Hitler had killed Mickey Mouse and Bambi!”
Very few people know that Bailey suffered from undiagnosed dyslexia, as well as the now known motor skill disorder called developmental co-ordination disorder. because of these problems, his schooling suffered, such that he had to attend a special school for children with these problems….unfortunately, he learnt even less here than his former normal school.
He left school at an early age of only 15, falling into dead-end jobs until his age reached that of signing up for National Service.
Bailey’s interest in taking photos was first aroused at an early age, when he tried taking shots with the family camera, a Kodak Brownie, which inevitably failed to perform; after this he almost gave up, but his redeeming moment came by chance when he joined up with the RAF in 1956 and was posted to Singapore, where he got involved with photography through his job. That was his seminal moment.
Finally he was earning a good wage, so he began buying all the glossy magazines he could….like LIFE and other photo journals, observing the interplay between light and dark and color, until a year later, he splashed out on his first camera, a Rolleiflex.
Soon he was demobbed from the RAF and he set about trying to find a job in his chosen career path, as a photographer. He purchased a Canon rangefinder camera and hoped to join up with a local college for some recognised qualifications in photography, but the London College of Printing refused his application due to his bad school record, so he found a job assisting David Olin, who at that time was a major supplier of photos to Queen magazine….his wages at that time were £3.50 a week (approx $6).
In 1959, he found another job as an assistant to the fashion photographer John French, during which time he developed ties with VOGUE magazine and started to produce work for them on a freelance basis.
Soon after, he was photographing a lot of famous people, such as The Beatles, Mary Quant, The Rolling Stones, The Who, Sandie Shaw, Mia Farrow, Peter Sellers, Michael Caine, Twiggy etc….”I wanted to be like Fred Astaire but couldn’t, so I went for the next best thing, which was being a fashion photographer” he says, tongue in cheek.
His career blossomed during the 60s, as mentioned above…in fact, at that time, people were more interested in his colorful exploits with glamorous women rather than his work. And because his work demanded close encounters with celebrities, he found himself elevated almost automatically to semi-celebrity status as well…not a bad thing at all.
At one time, he produced more than 800 shots in one year for VOGUE magazine. Penelope Tree, his girlfriend at the time, summed up his magnetic aura during those heady years…”he was incredibly attractive, with a dangerous vibe. He was the electricity, the brightest, most powerful, most talented, most energetic force at the magazine”.
Grace Coddington, who was a model herself in those days before taking over the helm at VOGUE, said of Bailey….”It was the Sixties, it was a raving time, and Bailey was unbelievably good-looking. He was everything that you wanted him to be – like the Beatles but accessible. We were all killing ourselves to be his model, although he hooked up with Jean Shrimpton pretty quickly”.
Jean Shrimpton, who modelled for Bailey for longer than almost any other model, was summed up by him as….”She was magic and the camera loved her too. In a way she was the cheapest model in the world – you only needed to shoot half a roll of film and then you had it. She had the knack of having her hand in the right place, she knew where the light was, she was just a natural.”
As for photography in general, Bailey has this to say….”The first half of the century belongs to Picasso, the second to photography…these days, everyone is called an artist, from Madonna to anyone who can just about hold a piantbrush…but its Picasso who really started the whole thing off and made me want to take pictures. I take my pictures as Ive always done…black and white, minimalist, very graphic and with high contrast between dark and light tones, using a variety of formats. I take the same approach today as when I started…Ive always hated silly gimmicks and pictures, which is all I see these days…or to put it another way, “the avant-garde has gone to Kmart..!”
all photos flickr.com