“The first half of the century belongs to Picasso and the second half belongs to photography”, says Bailey. And he might be right. David Bailey is one of the most influential and fundamental photographers of the second half of the 20th century. He was a dyslexic child who excelled in art but couldn’t write. Sometimes he’s a chauvinist, other times critical of his country and he likes to come over as a working class lad.
He was the photographer of “Swinging London” who revolutionised fashion photography forever. Together with Shrimpton, the star model of the 1960s and the photographer’s partner for four years, they took fashion photography out onto the streets and turned it into art; together they produced some of the best photographs in the history of fashion. Both knew what they wanted and their success was on the cards. Both become creator and representative of a new, more natural and less aesthetic photography, almost without funds and minimalist.
After that, Bailey became the United Kingdom’s most famous photographer and the husband of some of the most beautiful women on the planet, including actress Catherine Deneuve. Years after getting divorced, he would say: “it was like driving a Ferrari when I was prepared for a Ford”.
After the two most snobbish and elegant photographers of the British scene, Cecil Beaton and Norman Parkinson, appeared the so-called “Black Trinity” from the East End, who changed both style and form: David Bailey, Terence Donovan and Brian Duffy. Of the three, the only one who’s survived that time and all it represented is Bailey.
According to the critic Sandy Nairne, director of the National Portrait Gallery, which is holding an exhibition of an anthology of the photographer, he “makes” portraits instead of taking them. By this he means that he’s a creator who uses light to create an illusion, not a reality.
He was a young man at the time of the “angry young men”, the time of “Look Back in Anger”, with the skill and charm to ensure he was always accompanied in bed. The photographer would seduce any model who went in front of his lens. He wasn’t tall, he didn’t have class but he was an attractive young man with a boyish face.
What excited the girls the most was that his work broke the class boundaries and finished the excessively correct behaviour that had lasted a decade.
His early photographs of the people from his native East End of London exude emotion. Soon, however, he went on to celebrities and fashion and has more than 350 Vogue covers to his name. Perhaps his triumph at that time went deeper: there was always much more flesh than fashion. “I never considered myself a fashion photographer”, said Bailey in an interview at the turn of the millennium. “The reason that I did fashion was that I liked what was in the frocks.”
The Gagosian Gallery holds the record for a Bailey photograph, around 120,000 pounds sterling. Bailey is as much of a celebrity as Mick Jagger, who was best man at his wedding with Catherine Deneuve. He’s had four wives, including another model Penelope Tree and Catherine Drye, whom he’s still married to.
He’s also much more than those photographs we see on occasions that are nothing more than a load of sexy lace. He’s a photographer whose black and white images have influenced the century because he captures, with geometric precision, not only the explosion of sexuality and the collapse of a rigid class system but also the personalities that shaped a new era.
In the essential film “Blow-Up” by Michelangelo Antonioni he was the figure that inspired the film about a fashion photographer. And all the mysteries of the camera and of life appear in it. His contribution to photography is exactly what Vreeland said as soon as she met him: “He represents a break with the elegant past and makes the girls look sexy in the most direct and simple way”.
David Bailey is a cultural icon who’s been at the forefront of contemporary art for the last 50 years. A working class Londoner who befriended the stars, married his muses and still captures the spirit and elegance of his time with his refreshingly simple focus and his incredibly sharp eye. Hence the portrait of Queen Elisabeth for her 88th birthday, taken by David with a familiar, engaging approach that everyone loves.