David Bailey interview
Michael Hodges talks to the iconic photographer about his new show, 'Bailey's East End'
The most famous photographer in the world comes cackling to the door of his Bloomsbury studio, a fuzz of grey hair at one end and perhaps Britain’s finest pair of vintage brogues at the other. ‘I’ve already had eight cups of coffee this morning,’ the animated 74-year-old tells me. That’s a lot of coffee, but if it sounds like an addiction, it’s his only one.
David Bailey gave up anything that interfered with his fiercely productive schedule of photography, painting and sculpture long ago. ‘I went from a 100 cigarettes a day and at least a bottle of Scotch to nothing,’ he says. ‘It was affecting my work. I had a horrible two weeks, but then, fine. I’m quite good at that. He's quite good at a lot of things. But he is lodged forever in the national consciousness as the boy from the East End whose stark black-and-white portraiture created the look of the swinging ’60s – an era of egalitarian creativity soundtracked by The Beatles and Stones but caught for ever in the lens of Bailey – a genuine working-class genius. If some of that decade’s movements seem fake half a century later – the rhythm-and-blues-playing Stones were from Kent rather than the Mississippi Delta – Bailey remains the real dyed-in-the-wool deal.
He was born in Leytonstone in 1938, into a rag-trade family: his mother and aunt were machinists and cutters, his father a tailor. ‘That’s where I got my visual awareness from,’ he says. He holds his forefinger and thumb an inch apart. ‘He could cut a suit from a piece of material and have this much left. That’s all he’d waste.’ Blown out of their home by the Luftwaffe, the family moved to East Ham, and Bailey’s childhood and teens were spent in a postwar landscape of bombsites and gangs. ‘I was ten when I got my first serious beating,’ he recalls. ‘It was rough.’ So rough that Bailey’s father carried the scar of a razor slash on his face: ‘He could have danced with the wrong girl,’ he reflects. ‘I got beaten up for dancing with the wrong girl. They hit you more in the face than in the body and a lot of them used to wear knuckle-dusters. There were two big gangs, the Barking Boys and the Canning Town Boys. The Barking Boys did me when I was older. Left me in the smashed window of a furniture store.’ Bailey remembers hearing blackbirds and seeing a man coming to help him. ‘The next thing I know he’s trying kiss me and I thought: Fucking hell!’ It wasn’t the only occasion when Bailey’s youthful beauty would invite unwanted attention. ‘A teacher used to kiss me when I was 12. He’d say, “This is our secret, isn’t it?” There are always gays who are trying to get into your pants. If I’d fancied them I would have slept with them because I’m not moral like that – I just don’t fancy blokes.’
But Bailey did idolise one bloke, which led him, in a roundabout way, to photography: ‘When I was 12, a science teacher had shown me how to develop film, but by 16 I was playing the trumpet and I got really interested in photography because I wanted to take a picture of myself looking like Chet Baker.’ Following national service in the RAF, Bailey secured an assistant’s job with London fashion photographer John French. Seldom can a man have found his niche so successfully – Bailey’s unerring eye and his stark use of monochrome caught the mood of the period and by the time he was 24 he was on assignment for Vogue in New York and on his way to worldwide fame. But Bailey always went back to east London when he could, a habit which has supplied the material for ‘Bailey’s East End’, a solo show at the Royal Docks, Newham, which will feature work shot over three periods – the 1960s, the 1980s and the present day – in Bailey’s long career.
Today we are looking at the some of the oldest work that will be shown, much of it material that Bailey himself has only recently discovered. In the early ’60s, unused options on contact sheets were put away and it is only now, 50 years later, that Bailey and his assistants are printing and blowing them up. The result is both a beguiling glimpse of an east London that has, in the main, vanished, and a record of a young talent utterly confident in its own formidable power. ‘Some of the pictures are dynamite,’ says Bailey. ‘Never, ever been seen before.’ One black-and-white shot of a pub frontage is almost constructivist: clashing lines of fonts from the words acid-etched into the glass and the flipped message of an advertising hoarding reflected in the window.
The jumbled images seem to reference the photographer’s own severe dyslexia and, as if to back this up, there he is on the right of the shot – Bailey, caught in the glass at the moment he presses the shutter. ‘It’s such a perfect picture,’ he says, ‘and I didn’t know it existed, because we didn’t go through [contact sheets] in the 1960s. This picture was never blown up then, so I didn’t even know I was in it – you can’t see it on the shitty contacts anyway. It’s the softness I like as well, and the grain. When I printed it off I thought: Shit, it’s the wrong way round! Because of the poster behind me on that bombed building.’ He calls the shot ‘existentialist’, explaining existentialism as ‘where you get a situation – or an accident almost – and you say, “Ooh, I quite like that accident,” and you adapt it to work for you.’ I say I’m not entirely sure that is what existentialism means. ‘I think you’ll find,’ Bailey responds, ‘that the definition of existential is “The fortuitous nature of the universe in which we create our own fates”.’ Bailey has a typically combative approach to philosophy. Recently the French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy came to the studio. ‘He stood by the camera and said, “What are you doing?”,’ he says. ‘I’m not having him standing next to me. I mean he wouldn’t want me to stand over him while he’s philosophising, would he? Finally about 4pm he got pissed off. And he said, “I am going to vanish.” And I said, “Listen mate, you vanished up your own arsehole about ten years ago as far as I’m concerned'. We move from philosophy to a picture of Brick Lane, bleak and empty, before the Bangladeshis arrived but after most of the Jewish population had left. Bailey laughs. ‘It’s 1961-ish but it looks like fucking Czechoslovakia in 1938, doesn’t it?’
By the middle of the decade, the ’60s had actually begun to look like the ’60s and Bailey was fashionable, brilliant and cockney – the perfect choice when the Sunday Times Magazine commissioned a photo essay on the mesmerically violent East End gangsters Ronnie and Reggie Kray, in 1966. Despite the Krays’ reputation for cruelty, Bailey, who photographed them several times including the portrait that became one of the defining icons of twentieth-century British culture and now hangs in the National Portrait Gallery, liked them. ‘They’d fucking nail you to the floor, crucify you,’ he says, ‘but you’ve got to understand that everything is time and place. People say, “How could you like Reg?” And I knew what he was, but I did like him. He didn’t do anything to me. Ron I avoided, cos a slip of the tongue and you could be fucking dead. I was driving along with him one day and someone cut his car up and gave him the finger. Ron went like that with his jacket [Bailey does getting-gun-out-of-jacket motion] and said, “Shall we get him?” And I’m going [Bailey pulls terrified face], “Best leave it, Ron, or we’ll be fucking late.” Once we were in the pub and a scouser said to me, “What the fuck are you doing down here?” I said, “Well, actually I was born a mile down the road so I think I’ve probably got slightly more right to be here than you.” Then [the Krays] came and got him. I remember Ron running across the room holding [the scouser’s] trousers and neck and ramming the side of his head into the piano whilst yelling at the pianist, “Play my favourite song, Elsie. You know, that one about ‘When I leave the fucking world behind’.” Reg used to say, “Oh, you’re all right now, Dave, you’re on the firm!” And I would think: No! I used to see quite a lot of Reg. In fact he sent me a card every Christmas – and poems. He even sent me a film script he’d written.’
I wonder what this Bailey now, the one poking my leg as he sinks into the sofa, thinks of that Bailey then – the photographer patrolling an East End culture on the edge of demise while simultaneously engineering the arrival of a brand new world of fashion, art and music. ‘I’d say he’s on to something, without really knowing it,’ Bailey decides. ‘But that’s like all things in life, isn’t it? You can be fucking lucky! But I’m more intelligent now.’ You really feel this David Bailey is more intelligent? ‘Of course, otherwise you’re a bit of a moron, aren’t you? Especially with my fucking inadequate education. It’s not academic – it’s intelligence. Rather than knowing more, I think I’ve got more open-minded. But I have always had the ability to see things as they are,’ he declares. ‘That’s why I get people immediately. That’s why I talk to people for an hour before I take their picture. And I can get you superficially as well, sum you up: where you got your shirt, why you use that phone, why you get your hair cut like that, how much your cufflinks cost. I get everyone worked out. I mean, I know everything about you. It’s the same with women,’ he adds. ‘I even know how much their knickers cost.'
Bailey’s directness is not limited to women’s underwear. He has equally strong opinions on, for instance, The Beatles: ‘A load of crap. They were probably great in Germany and then Brian Epstein gave them this fucking boyband image.’ Versace: ‘The most intelligent dress designer I’ve ever met. I think.’ Germaine Greer: ‘I did a book once and she thought it was about bondage. She’s got a funny old mind.’ And, finally, everyone else in Britain: ‘A bunch of wimps. They’re all so fucking spoilt.’ Bailey is similarly truculent when discussing how he is treated in his home country. ‘They think I’m difficult here. In France they don’t think I’m difficult. At 35 they were calling me “maestro” in fucking Italy.’ He hasn’t had a solo show in London since one at the Barbican in 1982, the year the Kray twins were allowed out of prison for the funeral of their mother Violet. ‘I only got it because Annie Leibovitz dropped out. Fuck ’em. You have to have an unpronounceable name and do pictures that are so boring that they call them art photography.’ I sense the anger is a little contrived: Bailey is being shown a signal honour and he is happy and excited to be working with Newham Council and the local Create arts festival – not many artists get the opportunity to come full circle in such a satisfying way. Finally, we look at a portrait of Jean Shrimpton, the model whom the photographer made the face of the ’60s, and whose face made Bailey the photographer of the ’60s. Pouty yet angular and framed in the inside doorway of a terraced house, she seems both at ease in her surroundings and utterly alien to them. The picture was taken in Bailey’s childhood East Ham home. ‘Look at all the fucking locks on the door,’ he laughs. ‘All those locks and there’s nothing to nick. But I love this picture. I love it. I never thought… This was just us fucking around: it wasn’t anything serious. It’s that quality of the last moment of the 1950s really. Soon this moment won’t exist any more.’ And looking at the shot, emphatically grounded in the old East End and yet simultaneously worldly and brimming with possibility, I realise it is actually a portrait of Bailey himself.