David Bailey has spent his career taking pictures of the famous and glamorous, from Jean Shrimpton and The Beatles to Kate Moss and David Beckham. But in 1999 the photographer turned his lens on the dispossessed and down-and-out instead, capturing the homeless people of King’s Cross on a commission from The Big Issue. Now those black and white pictures have been compiled with his sepia street photography from the same area, for a new book and exhibition called ‘King’s X’. A famously combative interviewee, he told us more about the project from his mews studio a stone’s throw from Gray’s Inn Road.
Do you still live in King’s Cross?
‘No. I live in Tufnell Park now. I lived in King’s Cross for about 15 years, near the station on York Way. I had the best flat in King’s Cross. It’s still the best flat in King’s Cross!’
Why did you move there?
‘Well, I moved to Primrose Hill in 1960. Everyone said, “Why are you living there? It’s an awful place.” And the house I bought was £18,000, and it sold the other day for six-and-a-half million. Unfortunately it wasn’t mine! So always follow the artists, if you want a new district.’
How did King’s Cross change while you were living in the area?
‘It changed completely, from what you see in the book to these dreadful buildings they’ve built – which might be functional, but look like something built in Russia in the ’60s. (The landscaping’s great, by the way, but I think some of the buildings could have been a bit more adventurous.) And it’s lost that character it had, the same as the East End. That’s not a bad thing for living, but it loses a certain atmosphere. I think, in a way, you have to sacrifice the bad buildings for a nicer environment to live in. But you lose the community thing: that goes.’
Was there a community in King’s Cross when you lived there?
‘Sort of, yeah. It was all working class. A lot of prostitutes, pimps, quite a lot of muggings… so for practical reasons it’s obviously better. But you lose some kind of sense of a place, because it becomes “Alphaville”. You know: [Jean-Luc] Godard.’
Is there a social message to the pictures of homeless people that appear in the book?
‘Oh, that’s a record of somewhere. I don’t create anything, I just take what’s there. It’s not like an advertising pitch: I’m just recording the situation as I see it. And I might be wrong! I probably am.’
Can you tell me about the smiling man on the cover?
‘He changed my attitude. He was happy. And I thought: that’s good. Why do people always [photograph] people who are homeless looking like they’re about to commit suicide? Maybe I’ll try and find the happy side of them. You have to readjust your thinking. When you see that old lady, you think: How does she have a bath? How does she deal with toilets? She’s probably got a dodgy bladder anyway. And you try and understand the way they live.’
Is it different, photographing the famous and the homeless?
‘Not really, no. I treat Beckham the same way as I treat the homeless. You have to go in cold to every photographic situation. You don’t go in and say, “Oh, I’m not going to photograph Ron and Reg [Kray] because they’re villains.” You go and photograph them. You don’t make moral judgement ever.’
I also want to ask about the street photography. When you’re walking around taking pictures of an area, do the history and context play a part, or is it just about the image?
‘No, no, everything affects you. Barking’s more interesting than Dagenham, because the whole of Dagenham revolved around the car factory. Whereas Barking had Barking Creek, it had the river: it had a whole different context.’
And how does that context of a place manifest itself in photographs?
‘I don’t know. If I knew that, I would fucking make a fortune in Japan bottling it. I don’t invent that. I’m not manipulating the situation – I didn’t move those tyres around to make the shot look better. It’s all there.’
David Bailey’s exhibition ‘King’s X’ is at Heni Gallery until October 29.