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David Bailey: 'If girls have got great tits, they don't mind showing 'em'



David Bailey is wearing a multicoloured jacket and a red baseball cap emblazoned with the word “ICON” – he’s trying to outdo Elton John, he laughs, when we meet on the second floor of an upmarket fashion store in London’s Oxford Street. He has a show of his paintings there, which extends to the giant 24-hour video screens on the shop frontage, displaying the striking images in a kaleidoscopic loop, bursting with colour.
The celebrated photographer, of course, is better known for his era-defining black-and-white portraiture, but it’s worth remembering that the legend of Bailey – the glamorous girlfriends, the partying, the cheeky East Ender front, and the ever-present infectious laugh – slightly obscures what has been staring us in the face for years: David Bailey is one of the most significant visual artists of our time. Who else could lay down a deck of images more widely known and admired than Bailey’s shots of Mick Jagger, Jean Shrimpton, David Hockney, Lennon and McCartney, Michael Caine… the list goes on.
The formal brilliance of his photography, though, contrasts with the wild freedom of his canvases. Bailey paints in oils with a looseness and playfulness that allows his imagination to run riot with skeletons, crocodiles, nudes, surreal narratives… even Mickey Mouse makes an appearance.
Disney was his first artistic influence, he says, although the 82-year-old doesn’t quite frame it like that when he thinks back to his childhood as an unevacuated tot during the Second World War in East Ham, in and out of the coal cellar hiding from German bombs. One of them destroyed the Egyptian-façade and foyer of the Carlton Cinema in nearby Upton Park, where Bailey loved to watch Disney animations. “They bombed it flat,” he recalls. “I was pissed off with Hitler because I thought he’d killed Mickey Mouse and Minnie.”
I didn’t want to meet Picasso, I was too scared he might fart, and that would be my hero down the drain
Bailey has shot lots of artists over the years, from Francis Bacon to Andy Warhol to Damian Hirst, and counts many as friends, including the latter. Have they ever talked about his paintings? “No, I’m sure he hates my paintings,” he laughs. “The only artist that likes my paintings that I know is Julian Schnabel. He gets it.”
There seem to be some surprising influences, a hint of Jean-Michel Basquiat perhaps – whom he photographed in 1984 – and Keith Haring, but it’s not hard to see Picasso in them. Did he ever meet the artist? “No, I could have. I didn’t want to meet him, I was too scared he might fart, and that would be my hero down the drain.”
Bailey often turns to humour when he feels vulnerability or regret. Would he have liked to photograph him? “Yeah, I mean, at the time I was too nervous. I think French Vogue asked me a couple of times, would you like to go? I said, not really, maybe later, and by that time he was dead.” Picasso died in 1973.
Laughter was a useful survival skill for the young Bailey, growing up in a tough part of working-class London, especially as a teenager in the Fifties. “In the East End, you learn to laugh to get yourself out of trouble, make a joke so you don’t have to get punched… There was a gang called the Barking Boys, they were hooligans. The Krays made a business out of it, but the Barking Boys were just thugs; they beat you up if you looked at them. Three of them kicked the shit out of me once, because I danced with the wrong girl.”
Annie Nightingale: ‘I hadn’t experienced sexism. I was completely bewildered by it’
Bailey, of course, later crossed paths with the Kray twins, Ronald and Reggie, in the decade that followed, creating a defining image of the notorious gangsters. Does it feel strange now to look back on that session? “No, they were all right, in fact, I was quite friendly with Reg. They actually ‘did’ my father, but I didn’t know that at the time. It was nothing personal.”
Bailey’s father, Bert, a tailor’s cutter, was slashed in the face by the young Reg Kray, but Bailey was more cautious around his brother. “I avoided Ron, because I thought he was seriously dangerous. In fact [his widow], Kate Kray, did a book, Diamond Geezers, and asked me to photograph him because she said I was the only person who wasn’t afraid of Ron. Well, I was afraid of Ron. You had to be careful what you said around Ron, because you only had to say, ‘he’s a poof’, and you’d be f**king dead.”
By this time, of course, Bailey’s natural milieu was fashionable London in the Swinging Sixties. As a photographer for Vogue, fame had arrived quickly, and he had become identified with a scene that included film stars, pop stars and fashion models. “The Sixties were good for about 2,000 people living in London,” he says now. “It was kind of an elitist thing.” For Bailey, the early part of them had been spent with one of the faces of the decade, his girlfriend and model muse, Jean Shrimpton, whom he dated after the break-up of his first marriage.
High-fashion celebrity has not changed, according to Bailey. “Jean Shrimpton and Kate Moss are the same,” he says. “In a way, Jean’s more of a model than Kate, Kate just has to stand there and she’s all right, whereas Jean knew where the light was and things like that. But they were very similar, because they have that democratic beauty that not many people have. You can’t not like them. They’re both really genuine people.”
Shrimpton once said that Bailey “put his hand up some amazing skirts and got away with it”.“The real number of women I’ve slept with – it’s… a lot,” he later admitted, while suggesting that his behaviour was “diabolical”. Would it have been more difficult for him to be the type of photographer he was in the #MeToo era? “Well, I never said, oh, if you do a picture with me, you’d be on the cover of Vogue,” he says, “because if she was no good, [I] wouldn’t do the next cover of Vogue. I mean, I wouldn’t do [that sort of thing] anyway, but common sense tells you: it’s bad for business.”
“I’m not ashamed of anything,” he adds. “I never forced anyone to do anything. In fact, sometimes I had to lock my door when I was on trips. All my wives and girlfriends, I’m friends with all of them.”
The Gallaghers were so angry with each other. I tried to get them out of the studio as quickly as possible, so they didn’t kill each other
There are quite a few of them, Shrimpton was succeeded by the model Sue Murray, then by the great French movie star Catherine Deneuve, whom he had photographed for Playboy and would go on to marry, then by model Penelope Tree, then by his third wife, the Seventies supermodel Marie Helvin, who complained that she had been “used and abused” by Bailey after he published a book of nudes of her shot while they were together. “I let her approve all the pictures,” he says. “I’ve done lots of nudes with all the girls I’ve been with. The only one I never did nude was Jean, [and] I think if Jean had wonderful tits, she’d have done nudes as well. If girls have got great tits, they don’t mind showing ’em.”
And what of rock stars? Bailey has taken famous photographs of Dylan, the Stones and The Beatles, and latterly the Gallagher brothers, when they were in Oasis, in a shoot at which Noel recalled Bailey asking: “Which one of you is the supposed to be the genius?” Noel piped up, “me,” followed by Bailey’s: “You don’t look like a f**king genius”. “I made them look away from each other,” he tells me. “They were so angry with each other, they didn’t try to hide it. I tried to get them out of the studio as quickly as possible, so they didn’t kill each other.”
Stories flow from Bailey. He’s recently completed his autobiography, Look Again, which is released next month. As he introduces me to his wife of 34 years, model Catherine Dyer, and their middle child, Fenton, 32, who is taking photographs, they tease one another happily. I wonder if it was a challenge reliving his life for print. “Well, my life’s not been shit,” he says.
“It’s been charmed. I only really worked from 15 to when I went in the Air Force [to do two years’ National Service, aged 18]. Since then, I haven’t done a day’s work in my life. I’ve f**ked about painting or taking pictures or making commercials, making films. I’ve had a nice time, and I’ve been surrounded by the most beautiful women in the world. So, I’ve got no complaints; when I go to St Peter, I’ll say, thank you very much, I want to go back.”
David Bailey Unseen is at W1 Curates & Flannels, Oxford Street to 30 September; Look Again is published 29 October
David Bailey is wearing a multicoloured jacket and a red baseball cap emblazoned with the word “ICON” – he’s trying to outdo Elton John, he laughs, when we meet on the second floor of an upmarket fashion store in London’s Oxford Street. He has a show of his paintings there, which extends to the giant 24-hour video screens on the shop frontage, displaying the striking images in a kaleidoscopic loop, bursting with colour.
The celebrated photographer, of course, is better known for his era-defining black-and-white portraiture, but it’s worth remembering that the legend of Bailey – the glamorous girlfriends, the partying, the cheeky East Ender front, and the ever-present infectious laugh – slightly obscures what has been staring us in the face for years: David Bailey is one of the most significant visual artists of our time. Who else could lay down a deck of images more widely known and admired than Bailey’s shots of Mick Jagger, Jean Shrimpton, David Hockney, Lennon and McCartney, Michael Caine… the list goes on.
The formal brilliance of his photography, though, contrasts with the wild freedom of his canvases. Bailey paints in oils with a looseness and playfulness that allows his imagination to run riot with skeletons, crocodiles, nudes, surreal narratives… even Mickey Mouse makes an appearance.
Disney was his first artistic influence, he says, although the 82-year-old doesn’t quite frame it like that when he thinks back to his childhood as an unevacuated tot during the Second World War in East Ham, in and out of the coal cellar hiding from German bombs. One of them destroyed the Egyptian-façade and foyer of the Carlton Cinema in nearby Upton Park, where Bailey loved to watch Disney animations. “They bombed it flat,” he recalls. “I was pissed off with Hitler because I thought he’d killed Mickey Mouse and Minnie.”
I didn’t want to meet Picasso, I was too scared he might fart, and that would be my hero down the drain
Bailey has shot lots of artists over the years, from Francis Bacon to Andy Warhol to Damian Hirst, and counts many as friends, including the latter. Have they ever talked about his paintings? “No, I’m sure he hates my paintings,” he laughs. “The only artist that likes my paintings that I know is Julian Schnabel. He gets it.”
There seem to be some surprising influences, a hint of Jean-Michel Basquiat perhaps – whom he photographed in 1984 – and Keith Haring, but it’s not hard to see Picasso in them. Did he ever meet the artist? “No, I could have. I didn’t want to meet him, I was too scared he might fart, and that would be my hero down the drain.”
Bailey often turns to humour when he feels vulnerability or regret. Would he have liked to photograph him? “Yeah, I mean, at the time I was too nervous. I think French Vogue asked me a couple of times, would you like to go? I said, not really, maybe later, and by that time he was dead.” Picasso died in 1973.
Laughter was a useful survival skill for the young Bailey, growing up in a tough part of working-class London, especially as a teenager in the Fifties. “In the East End, you learn to laugh to get yourself out of trouble, make a joke so you don’t have to get punched… There was a gang called the Barking Boys, they were hooligans. The Krays made a business out of it, but the Barking Boys were just thugs; they beat you up if you looked at them. Three of them kicked the shit out of me once, because I danced with the wrong girl.”
Annie Nightingale: ‘I hadn’t experienced sexism. I was completely bewildered by it’
Bailey, of course, later crossed paths with the Kray twins, Ronald and Reggie, in the decade that followed, creating a defining image of the notorious gangsters. Does it feel strange now to look back on that session? “No, they were all right, in fact, I was quite friendly with Reg. They actually ‘did’ my father, but I didn’t know that at the time. It was nothing personal.”
Bailey’s father, Bert, a tailor’s cutter, was slashed in the face by the young Reg Kray, but Bailey was more cautious around his brother. “I avoided Ron, because I thought he was seriously dangerous. In fact [his widow], Kate Kray, did a book, Diamond Geezers, and asked me to photograph him because she said I was the only person who wasn’t afraid of Ron. Well, I was afraid of Ron. You had to be careful what you said around Ron, because you only had to say, ‘he’s a poof’, and you’d be f**king dead.”
By this time, of course, Bailey’s natural milieu was fashionable London in the Swinging Sixties. As a photographer for Vogue, fame had arrived quickly, and he had become identified with a scene that included film stars, pop stars and fashion models. “The Sixties were good for about 2,000 people living in London,” he says now. “It was kind of an elitist thing.” For Bailey, the early part of them had been spent with one of the faces of the decade, his girlfriend and model muse, Jean Shrimpton, whom he dated after the break-up of his first marriage.
High-fashion celebrity has not changed, according to Bailey. “Jean Shrimpton and Kate Moss are the same,” he says. “In a way, Jean’s more of a model than Kate, Kate just has to stand there and she’s all right, whereas Jean knew where the light was and things like that. But they were very similar, because they have that democratic beauty that not many people have. You can’t not like them. They’re both really genuine people.”
Shrimpton once said that Bailey “put his hand up some amazing skirts and got away with it”.“The real number of women I’ve slept with – it’s… a lot,” he later admitted, while suggesting that his behaviour was “diabolical”. Would it have been more difficult for him to be the type of photographer he was in the #MeToo era? “Well, I never said, oh, if you do a picture with me, you’d be on the cover of Vogue,” he says, “because if she was no good, [I] wouldn’t do the next cover of Vogue. I mean, I wouldn’t do [that sort of thing] anyway, but common sense tells you: it’s bad for business.”
“I’m not ashamed of anything,” he adds. “I never forced anyone to do anything. In fact, sometimes I had to lock my door when I was on trips. All my wives and girlfriends, I’m friends with all of them.”
The Gallaghers were so angry with each other. I tried to get them out of the studio as quickly as possible, so they didn’t kill each other
There are quite a few of them, Shrimpton was succeeded by the model Sue Murray, then by the great French movie star Catherine Deneuve, whom he had photographed for Playboy and would go on to marry, then by model Penelope Tree, then by his third wife, the Seventies supermodel Marie Helvin, who complained that she had been “used and abused” by Bailey after he published a book of nudes of her shot while they were together. “I let her approve all the pictures,” he says. “I’ve done lots of nudes with all the girls I’ve been with. The only one I never did nude was Jean, [and] I think if Jean had wonderful tits, she’d have done nudes as well. If girls have got great tits, they don’t mind showing ’em.”
And what of rock stars? Bailey has taken famous photographs of Dylan, the Stones and The Beatles, and latterly the Gallagher brothers, when they were in Oasis, in a shoot at which Noel recalled Bailey asking: “Which one of you is the supposed to be the genius?” Noel piped up, “me,” followed by Bailey’s: “You don’t look like a f**king genius”. “I made them look away from each other,” he tells me. “They were so angry with each other, they didn’t try to hide it. I tried to get them out of the studio as quickly as possible, so they didn’t kill each other.”
Stories flow from Bailey. He’s recently completed his autobiography, Look Again, which is released next month. As he introduces me to his wife of 34 years, model Catherine Dyer, and their middle child, Fenton, 32, who is taking photographs, they tease one another happily. I wonder if it was a challenge reliving his life for print. “Well, my life’s not been shit,” he says.
“It’s been charmed. I only really worked from 15 to when I went in the Air Force [to do two years’ National Service, aged 18]. Since then, I haven’t done a day’s work in my life. I’ve f**ked about painting or taking pictures or making commercials, making films. I’ve had a nice time, and I’ve been surrounded by the most beautiful women in the world. So, I’ve got no complaints; when I go to St Peter, I’ll say, thank you very much, I want to go back.”
David Bailey Unseen is at W1 Curates & Flannels, Oxford Street to 30 September; Look Again is published 29 October
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