As I’ve just started People & Place, and the first section is about portraits, it seemed highly appropriate that the first exhibition I go to is David Bailey’s Stardust at the National Portrait Gallery in London.
Bailey is probably Britain’s best known living photographer, and for a while his name was synonymous with the craft (“Who d’ya think you are, David Bailey?”). He is undeniably ‘mainstream’ in this respect and I guess many critics might look down their noses at this ‘East End lad made good with his one photographic style’. But of course the reality of his career and work is a bit more complicated than that.
Yes, over half of the 250+ works on display are indeed in his signature style: celebrity portrait, mono, plain white background, starting with his ‘Box of Pin-ups’ and going right up to the present day. There’s also a surprising amount of other styles he worked in: there’s colour work; there’s the 1960s fashion shoots that first brought him to fame; there’s some more personal, family shots; there’s images from humanitarian trips to India and Africa; there’s candid images from the old East End; there’s nighttime city shots taken on smartphones.
The untypical works
Some of his un-Bailey-like photos really impressed me, giving a glimpse of the kind of photographer he might have become on a different career path – the early East End picture essay material in particular had a real warmth to it, that doesn’t come across so much in the celebrity work. The poster they give you as part of the programme (above) is just a great shot, not typical Bailey at all but full of visual sparkle – the lines, the shapes, the text, the face, the jacket just being pulled down off the shoulders, the cheeky eyes.
But I have to say: some of it was entirely unimpressive. The inclusion of the smartphone shots is troubling: Bailey has famously said many times that the camera doesn’t matter, it’s just a tool – if this is so, why dedicate a room to (adequate but not gallery-worthy) phone shots, except to say “aren’t these good – for a smartphone“? Although to be fair I did appreciate the humour of juxtaposing the 2013 phone pics with a 1972 double-selfie with Andy Warhol…
The signature Bailey style
For most of the visit I was drawn back to the classic Bailey portraits. Some I’d seen before and still work fantastically well – Jack Nicholson, Lennon and McCartney, Jean Shrimpton, Kate Moss, Mick Jagger, the Krays of course – and others were entirely new to me, despite their age. The mid-60s portraits of David Hockney and Brian Epstein, for example, showed he could be experimental with posing and editing when he wanted to be. Looking at many of the portraits you initially get the sense that he has the knack of getting under the skin of his sitters to bring out aspects of their character… but the more of his celebrity portraits you see in one place, the more you get a feeling that it’s actually quite a surface thing – he’s isolating and heightening what we already know about the sitter, almost like a subtle form of caricature. He rarely seems to give any hints to the hidden essence of a person, or secret undercurrents of their character. He prides himself on getting to know the sitter quickly and rattling off the pics, click-click-click.
The work where he has more of a personal connection is quite different – the Shrimpton pics and particularly the room dedicated to his wife Catherine show how much more depth you can mine in a subject when you really know them. By comparison the celebrity shots are like one-night stands.
I noted in various bits of publicity around the show that one of his hobbies is ornithology – there’s an obvious parallel with his work, particularly his celebrity portraits. He’s quickly identifying aspects of quite fleeting subjects, collecting them, ticking them off. He’s a professional people-watcher.
On a technical note – and this is relevant as Bailey himself produced new prints expressly for this show – some of the images are so underexposed as to look faintly ridiculous: Don McCullin, Brian Duffy and Damon Albarn look as if they’re wearing blackface makeup – not a good look. A perplexing creative decision indeed, and very distracting.
So, on the evidence of this exhibition, one can see why he gained the reputation that he did: he is exceptionally good at simple, black-and-white celebrity portraits, as long as you accept that these are what they are; they’re not deep, insightful, thought-provoking pieces of art (Bailey himself has several times described his job as ‘taking sophisticated passport pictures’).
A more discerning curator may have chosen a smaller selection of his untypical work. Having said all of that: I did buy a book  in the gift shop, the poster above is now on my office wall, and I’m trying to get hold of a print of a Morecambe and Wise shot of his that I love. If this isn’t damning with faint praise, he’s very good at what he does!
1. Bailey, D. (2014) Bailey exposed. London: National Portait Publications