If F. Scott Fitzgerald invented the Jazz Age, then David Bailey invented the Sixties — his Sixties, an iconic black and white world full of glamour and possibility. The decade when everybody could be famous for fifteen minutes was reinvented to include East End gangsters and burds like Twiggy with estuary accents.
Bailey is the sexy East End boy who grew up to marry Catherine Deneuve, an ice queen who never married anyone else. Vogue frizzbomb and ex-model Grace Coddington described Bailey as better-looking than the Beatles, though to be fair, the Fab Four would not have been so easy on the eyes without their mod suits and Hamburg haircuts.
Bailey brought Vogue into the 20th century during an era when photographers had been upper class, or tried to be, like Princess Margaret’s husband Tony Armstrong Jones and Garbo’s mate, Cecil Beaton. He gave the Sixties their swing, creating the coolest decade of the century. Plus, he invented the first supermodel, Jean Shrimpton, a shy girl with a swan neck whom Vogue at first thought was funny lookin’ until they saw his images of her in Manhattan.
The Shrimp became the first model as famous as a pop star like Mick Jagger, who was dating her sister. Without Jean there couldn’t have been Twiggy, or even Kate. The Shrimp has long since retired to Cornwall to run her own hotel, but even if you don’t know her name, you would recognize her face on a bag sold in the gift shop of London’s National Portrait Gallery, where Bailey’s photo exhibit has just opened. The title of the show, Stardust, comes from the notion that, as he says, “We are all made from and return to stardust.”
Bailey became as famous as the people he photographed and he photographed everyone, from the Beatles and the Stones to the Kray twins. Would the East End gangsters, who probably “did” his father, giving him an ear-to-mouth scar, have been glamorous enough to be celebrities without the iconic Bailey image of them that now adorns a mug at the NPG? Apparently god isn’t in the details, he’s in the souvenirs.
Like most glamorous people, glamour doesn’t interest Bailey. He has an obsession with skulls, which predates that of Damien Hirst, another one of his subjects. Like Chanel, he thinks style is more important than fashion. “Whatever you see in the photograph, whether you call it glamour or edge, it’s already in that person. I can’t put it there. It’s finding it and bringing it out.”
What is he bringing out in Marianne Faithfull, photographed alarmingly in her bra and pants, no longer looking like the tarnished angel of her Rolling Stones days? Did Ma Faithfull do something to upset him?
Stardust, despite covering the entire ground floor of the NPG, isn’t even close to representing his entire body of work. Anyway, the dude’s still in demand, having recently turned down Lady Gaga because she sounded like a headache.
His pictures of Kate Moss give her a sophisticated but innocent allure, but a lot of his best pin-ups are boys. Damon Albarn, Noel Gallagher and Karl Lagerfeld are just some of his 21st-century portraits. And Johnny Depp never looked more beautiful that when Bailey shot him showing his Betty Sue tattoo.
Andy Warhol insisted on going to bed with Bailey when he was interviewed by him for a documentary that was banned. But Andy wouldn’t take off his clothes, confiding, “I have more stitches than a Dior dress.”
Bailey selected the 250 images in this show himself, so there’s no annoying curatorial spin. Only one picture of Deneuve, whom he was married to for seven years, but an entire room is devoted to current wife Catherine Bailey, including nude shots which are more sexy saint than Readers’ Wives.
There’s some reportage, as well as sculpture influenced by his hero Picasso (whose own sculpture was influenced by Gauguin) included in Stardust, but it’s his pictures of monochrome faces that seduce the eye. The camera doesn’t steal your soul, but the photographer has a good try. “The camera doesn’t take the picture, it’s the photographer,” as Bailey is quoted on my pink fridge magnet.
“I’d like to have taken more pictures of the old East End, but I was busy having a good time,” he said. But Bailey doesn’t take pictures, he makes them. In an age when everyone has a camera, everyone has bad pics. Instagram can’t supply an imaginative eye. “The silly selfies craze will die out,” he says.
Maybe. One craze replaces another. But Bailey’s work endures. He isn’t interested in nostalgia, but understands that “The 1960s didn’t end in 1969.” Once the world changed, there’s no going back. Bury your past in a successful future. “I’m only interested in now. When this moment is gone, it’s another moment…But I’ll have a word with the devil at the crossroads and see if I can get a bit more time.”
Read more about Vivien Lash in her evil twin Carole Morin’s novel Spying on Strange Men