Beaton was a master of the exquisitely-tied foulard and was forever in search of the garden hat that didn’t fall irritatingly “over one’s eyes so that one can’t really see,” as Mr. Bailey filmed him explaining in the delicious 1971 documentary “Beaton by Bailey” (on DVD with his films on Warhol and Visconti).
Compare Beaton’s bird of paradise with Mr. Bailey’s potty mouth (which he still cultivates) and the leather jacket British Vogue warned him not to wear to the St. Regis hotel in New York on his first assignment abroad for the magazine, in 1962, a trip made with his great love of the time, the model Jean Shrimpton. Mr. Bailey wore the jacket, the Vogue ladies gnashed their pearls. While the trinity didn’t depose Parkinson and Beaton, it certainly meant fewer checks from Condé Nast.
Despite the canyon of differences between them, the photographer Bruce Weber sees a straight line from Beaton to Mr. Bailey. “Like Beaton, David can take a society portrait and later that afternoon one of a gangster and later that night a fashion magazine cover and run out the next morning and shoot a crime scene.”
With a whoosh of nostalgia, “Four Beats to the Bar and No Cheating” — the line is Count Basie’s definition of jazz — shows how Mr. Bailey’s early fame was based on getting models to do things editors had always forbidden, things that seem charming but un-extraordinary today, like kneeling on the floor to converse with a taxidermied squirrel. “I didn’t try and do fashion pictures,” Mr. Bailey tells Mr. de Missolz. “I tried to do portraits of girls wearing dresses.” One of the greatest pleasures of “Four Beats” is watching Mr. Bailey tying himself in knots on the question of a personal style.
“I want very sophisticated passport pictures. Without any window dressing. No palm trees. ... You can’t really copy what I do because I don’t do anything. ... When I say I have no, I don’t have any style, I do but I don’t want it, I don’t want the style to — My style is nothing.”
The Gagosian Gallery holds the record for a Bailey photograph, about £120,000, about $190,000, for a 72-inch-square silkscreen of the two most beloved Beatles. It is distinctly afashionable to say the least critical thing today about Mr. Bailey in England, where he is nearly as fetishized as, say, the best man at his 1965 wedding to Catherine Deneuve, Mick Jagger. But Francis Hodgson has spoken up. The former head of photographs at Sotheby’s, London, complained that images at a Bailey show last year were “blown up not only larger than is interesting, but larger than the negative can bear.” He added that a photograph of Michael Caine had been “stretched to fit its £50,000 price tag.”
Even machine prints of Mr. Bailey’s work bring big numbers. The record for a copy of “Box of Pin-Ups” — a deliberate mash-up of portraits published in 1964, including ones of the murderous Kray brothers, Lord Snowdon and P.J. Proby in a crucifixion pose — is north of £20,000. As recalled in “Four Beats,” “Pin-Ups” — coming soon after the Lady Chatterley obscenity trials — returned Britian to a state of “high Tory moral panic.”
Buoyed by such sales, Mr. Bailey hasn’t tiptoed into the sculpture market. Reflecting his long interest in West African and Oceanic art, the 14 bronze and silver works in his first exhibition as a sculptor, at the Pangolin Gallery in London last autumn, were produced in editions of 6 or 20 and priced from £1,500 to £25,000. Of 112 pieces, 8 have sold.
A New York art adviser, Wendy Cromwell, said: “Sculpture must be seen in person, but based on pictures it’s an amalgam of primitive, tribal, masks and Picasso. David is an enormous talent. Is he as good as Avedon? No. Is he better than Leibovitz? Yes. So I give him the benefit of the doubt. It’s not high art, but I wouldn’t dismiss it. Remember, though, he’s collaborating with a fabricator. How much of it is him and how much the foundry?”
While Ms. Cromwell said the prices were in line with bronzes by emerging artists, Benjamin Genocchio, editor in chief of Art + Auction, called them “an absurdity — the objects will be largely valueless the moment they leave” the gallery. “Bailey is working with art-historical clichés,” Mr. Genocchio added, “tribal artifacts, Surrealist serendipity. The sculpture has a naïve quality that feels a little forced.”
David Cohen, editor of the Web zine artcritical, likened Mr. Bailey sculpting to Luciano Pavarotti painting. “They’re somewhere between pro and celeb. Pro in that they’re accomplished in another art form, celeb because they wouldn’t expect to enjoy the reputation they have on the basis of this new outlet of expression alone.”
Having seen only images of Mr. Bailey’s pieces, Mr. Cohen said they were neither “bad” nor “remarkable,” but rather an “assemblage out of a long tradition that obviously looks to Picasso, Miró, Rauschenberg.”
“You wouldn’t pay much less for a total unknown,” he added. “But if you’re looking for a critic to sound off about how degenerate the world is that celebs make art as if they were ‘real’ artists, the problem is that in this case the celeb is an artist in his own field, and many of the sculptors feted today aren’t making anything much more distinguished.”
Enough about art. Is there any sex in this movie? There is. Sex, of course, is central to Mr. Bailey’s career. “Four Beats” shows Jerry Hall with her panties down and, as it must, revisits “Blow-Up,” the 1966 Michelangelo Antonioni film Mr. Bailey inspired about a fashion photographer.
“The David Hemmings character was a polite composite of the group of mostly foul-mouthed cockney lads Bailey was part of,” said the photographer Eric Boman, who met him around this time. “Bailey, however, had a very real charm many of them lacked, which took him into the hearts of the girls he photographed, and it was really that glow that showed in his early work. His contribution is exactly what Vreeland saw in him: He represented a break with the ‘elegant’ past and made the girls look sexy in the most direct and simple way. Sort of the way he is.”Continue reading the main story
The veteran portraitist has chosen 250 works for his Bailey’s Stardust show at the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh later this month.
This show, packed with images of the Rolling Stones, Man Ray, Andy Warhol, Salvador Dali, Francis Bacon, Kate Moss, Damien Hirst and the tribespeople of Papua New Guinea and the Naga Hills [on the India-Burma border], has triumphed in London and internationally. Is the Edinburgh exhibition any different?
Yes, there’s another show within it called Moon Glow. Mostly mixed media, oil, collages. Some of it’s completely new. Some of it’s from as early as 1970. I don’t like the idea of a retrospective. I always feel I should try something new. Continuous change. That’s what the Buddhists say. I’d be rather a good Buddhist.
You’d like to wear the saffron robes?
I don’t want to dress like them. I want to think like them. I’m not religious. Not even spiritual. But I’m open to learning. If you want to be really camp you’d have to join the Catholic church. I love all that – pure theatre. The best art, the best smells. It’s operatic. We’re all part of something. Like William Blake said – the whole universe in a grain of sand. He’s one of the thinkers. But I like that Hindu thing, too – we’re all the dream of Krishna. That’s good, nice. I’ll listen to anybody.
That could be dangerous.
Yeah, very dangerous. I know what I think. But I could be wrong. I can always see the other side. That’s why I’m not political. I’m glad the Conservatives won the election. I’ve spent all my life reinventing the class system, then Ed Miliband comes along and screws all that division. He’s set the class war back years.
You like the Conservatives?
No, not particularly. That guy George Osborne is pretty clever about the economy, even if his hairstyle is awful.
How is it you’re always called Bailey? Do you insist on it?
No way. That was Jean Shrimpton. It stuck. In the East End I was Dave. Or Da’ – as in “day”. I suppose it’s a bit public school to be called by your surname. At Condé Nast they just credited us as Avedon, Horst, Bailey.
You’ve said about some women, “the camera loves her”. What do you mean?
I’ve said it often, but there are very few. They’re not necessarily the most beautiful women ever. Jean Shrimpton, Kate Moss, Dietrich, Garbo – they all had that quality. It’s a mystery. The idea of beauty has expanded. The Romans had a very particular idea. I think a lot about the seeds of beauty. As a kid there was a shop that sold packets of seeds. I was obsessed with the idea of these little black things growing into different kinds of beauty. Magic.
Instagram, Snapchat, we’re all photographers now…
Anyone can take a photograph. Like anyone can use a pencil and paper. But can anyone be Picasso? It’s the same with photography. A chimpanzee could take a good picture. It’s like when the Box Brownie was invented in 1900. Everyone said, that’s the end of photography. And the same when digital came along. It’s a kind of doodling. It might come to something, a happy accident. Good luck if it does.
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You say you make photographs, you don’t take them …
It’s more how you feel than how you see. It’s the emotion. I spend an hour chatting and a few minutes taking the picture. I wish my ears could do the snapping. I’m thinking of inventing an ear camera. Even seemingly boring people have stories. That’s what keeps me fascinated. Landscapes are OK If you’ve got time to sit around and wait for a cloud to arrive. I can’t talk to the trees – unless I’m an Ink Spot. You know who they are?[starts crooning]: “Whispering grass, don’t tell the trees / ’Cause the trees – don’t need – to... know-ow …” Of course they fucking don’t. They’d probably feel incredibly bored. But I love trees. I think they’re here to stay.
Your East End past, your friendship with the Kray brothers … does that world still exist?
Yes and no. I’ve gone back and put it in my three volumes of East End books. You have to understand people ate tea leaves they were so poor. They’d do anything to feed their children. Women sold their bodies. It’s time and place. Easy to judge, easy to be pompous. The Krays were a bit like Tolstoy’s Cossacks. Fucking anarchists, but with their own morality. They didn’t do prostitutes or drugs. I quite liked Reg, even though when he was 19 he slashed my father’s face with a razor. Ron was a basket full of rattlesnakes. They were dotty guys. Reg took me aside once – everything always had to be secret with Reg – and he said “‘Ere, Da’. I wish I could have done it legit like you.” That was touching. There was me, a fucking dyslexic cockney with no qualifications, and I got out.
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The Krays were a bit older. How did you meet? In the street? Playing football?
Playing football? Football? Are you fucking mad? Silly sods kicking balls around. I detest sport. The idea of competing… now that’s vulgar, even for an East End boy.
Were the 60s, the time that made you famous, all they were cracked up to be?
Yeah for about 2,000 people living in London. For everyone else, steelworkers or coal miners or the very poor, it was a shit time.
You’ve kept the hard-living image, but you gave up drink and drugs long ago?
Yes, 40 years ago. Drugs and prostitution should be legalised. The politicians know. But it’s not a vote winner. “Excuse me, madam, we’re going to legalise cannabis.” Ha. People only want to know what’s in their pay packet.
Do you agree that most of what you do comes from the past?
Yeah… but from my past. The Renaissance is bad shit! I’m still fascinated with Hitler and Churchill and Mickey Mouse and the war and living down in the coal cellar. Growing up in East Ham by the river, I had a sense of the foreign. It was like being in Twin Peaks. You know – the sound of the foghorn? My uncle – who was gay and lived with us; I just knew, no one told me – he was in the navy. He came back with a wind-up gramophone and records of Maori songs. I loved them. My dad was homophobic. My mum – it was her brother – was in denial. She was the one who pushed for a better life. It’s always the woman. Mum was the tough one. Even the gypsies were scared of her.
What was school like?
I was in the silly class. Kids with a limp or a twitch and people like me. I was at the top. Being at the bottom of the silly class – now that would have been bit of shit wouldn’t it? I left school on my 15th birthday. Out. End. The headmaster said, someone has to clean the roads.
Did you have a sense, deep down, that you were going to have some starring role in life?
No, no way.
Heaven or hell, I imagine. I was feeling pretty dicky yesterday. But I’ve had a fucking good time.
Bailey’s Stardust is at the Scottish National Gallery, The Mound, Edinburgh, 18 July to 18 October