Monday, 18 March 2013

David Bailey

Was just researching something on photographers when I came across this piece I wrote for The Guardian in February, 1999. A very entertaining conversation (for me, anyway)...

So this fat little bloke from the East End is directing a film. Who does he think he is?

There are two apocryphal stories about David Bailey that say a lot about the celebrated snapper. The first has him on a flight to Dublin, striking up a conversation with the woman next to him. Completely oblivious as to the identity of the man beside her, the lady reveals that her husband is a photographer.
"He's what you might call the David Bailey of Ireland," she explains, before enquiring as to the nature of her travel companion's line of work. "I'm what you might call the David Bailey of England," retorts the garrulous Cockney.
The second story has Bailey, in a restaurant, noticing the coy glances of a radiant beauty across the room. On finishing his meal, he strides over to introduce himself. "Don't you remember me, Bailey?" ventures the woman. "No." "I'm your first wife."
David Bailey is almost more famous for the string of glamorous women hanging off his arm - his first and second wives, Catherine Deneuve and Marie Helvin, Jean Shrimpton and Penelope Tree - as for the era-defining photography hanging on the walls of the National Portrait Gallery. He may be in his 60th year, but in spirit he's still the bright young Cockney who helped make London swing in the sixties, bringing a breath of fresh air to the hitherto crusty world of formal studio portraiture.
"I walk down the street and people say, 'Who do you think you are - David Bailey?' " he laughs, living up to the legacy of those now famous Olympus TV commercials. "What they don't know is that you've heard it three times that day already. Every taxi driver. Good for Olympus but not good for me..."
David Bailey's credentials are without question - "Arguably the finest English photographer since Cecil Beaton," pronounced American Photographer magazine - his reputation having been built in the sixties on his stark black and white portraits of the likes of Michael Caine, Lennon and McCartney and Marianne Faithfull, his fashion work, painting, and commercials (most famously the Volkswagen ad in which Paula Hamilton ditches her engagement ring and fur coat but stops short of chucking the car keys). Now he's directing The Intruder, a supernatural thriller he describes as having "a Hitchcock old-fashioned type of thriller thing about it. And it's a bit like Noel Coward's Blythe Spirit - one of my favourite movies."
It's surprising that he has only now turned his hand to film-making when, by his own estimate, he has directed "between 400-500 commercials, shorts and documentaries - including last year's Channel 4 documentary, Models Close-Up - with a handful of Emmys, Cleos and Golden Lions to show for it. "Probably in terms of film, I've shot more than most directors," he chirps.
It's not that film offers haven't been forthcoming. His name was connected, somewhere along the production line, to A Clockwork Orange, Being There and Out Of Africa. For the last, he even spent three pre-production months in Kenya. "People don't understand," he explains. "It's not a career move. I've just as much respect for Richard Avedon as I have for Stanley Kubrick. It's not that one's better than the other. They do different things. Photography's different to movie-making, not less. In fact, movie-making's probably less artistic than photography. In photographs and painting, you've got total control..."
Bailey has chosen to make his low-budget entree away from British prying eyes in Montreal - a cost-effective, film-friendly city that churns out 80-odd films a year. "It went down to 50 degrees below one night," he shudders, in his cosy production office, fugging up the windows with expensive cigar smoke. "Believe it or not, we had fake snow." Today, thankfully, the filming is indoors and, on a soundstage rigged as a spacious loft apartment somewhere in a non-specific North American city, Bailey is walking two of his leading ladies, Nastassja Kinski and Charlotte Gainsbourg through a scene in which their characters discuss the spectral vision that seems to be haunting their building.
There's something incongruous about Bailey directing these sophisticated Continental actresses with jovial effing and blinding, and his use of the C-word (occasionally switched to "James Hunt" when decorum dictates). But no one seems to care.
"Do you like my face?" asks Kinski, concerned about the light. "Nah, it's fine," Bailey replies, before diving into a monitor, as Kinski sits down on the edge of a bed against the fairly spartan interior.
"In all modesty, it's got a Bailey look about it," Bailey explains. "It's like my stills, it has that look that's slightly off-centre and not fashionable. I've never been fashionable in spite of what people think."
Being Bailey, the look naturally entails Gainsbourg rolling on a pair of stockings (several times) but it's briskly done and soon in the bag, in accordance with the director's reputation as something of a speed merchant. "Yeah, I'm fast," he laughs. "Sometimes two clicks, but I'd rather be quick. It either works or it doesn't, because what I do, it's about emotion. I don't like to see photography in photography and I don't like to see photography in movies. I like it to be fairly subtle. Great photography is when you don't see it."
There's something endearing about Bailey. Though he has avoided the ageing love-god image of the likes of Peter Stringfellow (he's been happily married for 13 years to wife number four, Catherine - the subject of his racy coffee-table book The Lady Is A Tramp), you sense that his fascination with women is unabated. Suspicious that his image might be tarnished by recent reports that his waistline is on an outward march ("They always write about my weight, which has nothing to do with anything"), he fears the "little fat feminists" who have it in for him.
"This fat little bloke from the East End managed to sleep with all the most beautiful girls in the world, hahahahaha. Must annoy the shit out of them." But then, "I like women," he stresses. "If I was gay, I'd probably have slept with a lot of men. Like Herb Ritts. I'd be doing pictures of boys rather than girls."
His Cockney background marked him out from an early age as something of a yobby upstart. Leaving his East Ham school at 15, he worked as a tailor's assistant and a Fleet Street messenger before doing two years' National Service in the Far East. He wanted to become the new Chet Baker, until someone nicked his trumpet. Unable to find a replacement, he bought a second-hand Canon instead ("cameras were so cheap then"). The rest, as they say, is history.
"I didn't really think about it as art. It just seemed a nice thing to do. I've never really been clear what art is," he muses. Demobbed back to Blighty in 1959, he got a job with photographer John French and fell into glossy magazine work. "I couldn't believe it when Vogue gave me a contract to photograph women and get paid for it."
By the end of the decade he had a two-tone Rolls Royce, a £100,000 salary (previously unthinkable for a smudge) and had become not only a fully-paid-up member of London's hippest clique, but also its underworld. In fact it was his portrait of his pals the Krays in an East End pub that spawned the Olympus catchphrase. When a fight broke out, he was accosted by a goon demanding: "Who the fuck do you think you are - David Bailey?" ("Then Ronnie hit him," adds Bailey.)
Ironically, his best-known portraits are of men - "You can be crueller with men. I find it harder to be cruel with women. That's not chavinistic" - though he loathes lad culture: "Most disgusting thing in the world? Four smelly blokes in a car talking about football."
But those sixties connections just won't go away. If you look at the cast of his film, the link with Kinski comes from their mutual friend Roman Polanski: "Polanski introduced me to Deneuve and I think I introduced him to Sharon [Tate]". And Charlotte Gainsbourg's mother is Jane Birkin, whose first real portrait was done by Bailey.
There is another link with Birkin, of course. She appeared in Antonioni's cult 1966 film Blow Up - the surreal story of a libidinous sixties snapper, based partly on the Bailey myth. Bailey still has mixed feelings about Blow-Up, having thought he had killed off the project when spurning producer Carlo Ponti's overtures. "I thought they wanted me to direct," he says. "Then they started talking about the way I dressed. I said, 'What's that got to do with it?' They were asking me if I was interested in being in it. Then I wouldn't talk to Antonioni because he thought I was trying to shag Monica Vitti. It wasn't me, it was Terence Stamp."
Stamp was offered the part, but pulled out two weeks before shooting to be replaced by the unknown David Hemmings. But though Bailey gamely admits that Hemmings captured the attitude, and that the film revealed some obscure real-life detail ("I never understood how they knew that I'd paid £8 for that propeller"), the film did him no favours.
He tells how an old lady, coming out of a cinema, told him, "I think you're disgusting." Bailey laughs, "Hahahahahaha." The sixties, he maintains, was a horrible, superficial decade. "It was great for 2,000 people living in London, a very elitist thing, a naive kind of attitude before the accountants took over. Now the accountants have taken over and the world is dull..."
With bean-counting at the core of modern film-making, it's unlikely that Bailey will pursue movies full-time. Though he has plans for a feature about Gulf war syndrome, the immediate future sees him planning a retrospective at the Barbican in April, followed by the first of a series of five books, Archival 1, documenting his career to date.
"There are less good photographers than anything else," he declares. "You'd be hard pushed to name 20 great photographers, but you could certainly name 200 great directors. More. Photography's kind of difficult because it's so easy. Anything that's that easy to do is really difficult to excel at."
Nonetheless, he has no intention of sitting back while technological advances complicate it - something that led to the disillusionment and ultimate suicide of his good friend Terence Donovan. "It proves that I've never been fashionable because I've managed to stay around. Most of the people I started with are gone. The only one left is Helmut Newton. All the others are either dead or selling antiques somewhere. That's what failed photographers do, isn't it? Set up antique shops in Wiltshire."
Bailey, however, has no such intentions: "I hate that Puttnam thing of moving over for the young," he chuckles. "Fuck the young, I'm not finished yet."

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