“Portrait of an Icon” – an interview with David Bailey by Mark Dapin

David Bailey is an irascible, opinionated, absent-minded wind-up merchant. He’s also one of the most influential photographers of all time, particularly for chronicling swinging ’60s London.

Photographer David Bailey, 76, is testing film in his London studio. He is dressed in a dollop of colourful clothes, which he wears loosely and carelessly, like a painter. His patchy white hair is similarly unstyled. He’s a little bloke with laughing eyes, which harden suddenly when he thinks he hears something that offends him – but the words aren’t in the air, they’re in his head, echoes from another era.
It’s the first time I’ve met a noun: when I was growing up in England in the 1970s, if a boy picked up a camera and took a photograph, he was, inevitably, “a proper little David Bailey”.
Bailey behaves a bit like a noun, too – as if his meaning was fixed long ago, and he will, always and inevitably, be used only in a certain way by people who put together sentences.
Bailey has just released a hefty compendium of a lifetime of portrait photography, Bailey’s Stardust, to accompany an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London, which will move to the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra in 2015.
Bailey grew up in the East End of London, and has often said East Enders ended up either as boozers, musicians or gangsters. It’s not true, of course. They became everything, from writers and merchant bankers to artists and politicians. My Jewish grandfather was an East Ender, and he was a cabinetmaker. But the legend of the East End, like the legend of David Bailey, has a life and logic of its own.
One of Bailey’s most recognisable images features Reggie and Ronnie Kray, the archetypal East End gangsters, looking haunting and haunted, stylish and murderous. The Krays represent one facet of violent, creative, fashionable Britain in the 1960s, the decade Bailey captured so famously and brilliantly, the memory of which has tended to overshadow much of his subsequent work. It’s as if Bailey’s time will always be the moment of Michael Caine and Mick Jagger, Marianne Faithfull and Terence Stamp, when every star was shining brightly and London had the ear of the world.
But Bailey has also photographed Australia, and is mildly interested to find I live there.
“What’s your name?” he asks. “Bruce?”
He introduces me to an assistant as “Bruce”.
The assistant is called Mark.
Bailey holds his hulking Polaroid camera close to a young man’s face and peels off a head shot, like a proper little David Bailey. He can’t get proper Polaroid film these days, but a new company has started to remake it.
“How much a click does it work out?” he asks. “About three quid a click? F…ing hell.”
He turns his attention back to me.
“What’s your name?” he asks again.
Mark. But he can call me Bruce.
“I prefer Mark,” he says.
Bailey says he has driven eight and a half thousand miles in Australia. He came over in 1983, with the idea of documenting the entire country, but abandoned the project after two months’ touring the eastern states. Few of his Australian pictures were published, and most of those chosen for Stardust are on show for the first time. They feature Aboriginal street drinkers in Townsville and Cairns.
Just as the subjects of Bailey’s ’60s portraits look like themselves, only cooler, sharper, tougher and sexier, his Aboriginal people seem impossibly black. They were drunk, says Bailey, and threatening at first. They didn’t know why he wanted their pictures. He calmed them down with his practised photographer’s manner, told one man he was the handsomest he had ever seen.
Bailey never made it to Western Australia, but followed the highway all the way up the east coast. “I kept driving and driving,” he says. “First of all it was a motorway, then it turned into a kind of A road, then a B road. Then, way past Cooktown, it was a dirt track with a wooden gate at the end. If I do this show there, I might go up there and finish that, on the west side. It would be good there, wouldn’t it, then? Except the rains. When do the rains come? How old are you? About 50?”
Uh, yeah, 50. “I loved Darwin,” says Bailey. “It was so funny, like driving back into the past. Is this recording?” he asks, tapping my recorder. “So what are you? A journalist?”
I’m not sure whether he is joking, distracted, forgetful, or just having trouble fixing the facts about me in his head.
Bailey’s father was a tailor, who also ran a club. He wore a razor cut on his face, which recent tradition attributes to the Krays. Bailey says he hardly knew his dad, but remembers the vanished East End of his parents and my grandfather, when Jewish people packed the streets of Whitechapel.
“All my Jew mates think I’m Jewish,” he says, “because I know a lot of Yiddish. My dad worked for a Russian Jew for 35 years. Poliakov, he was called. All his mates were Jewish. Most tailors were Jewish. My mum was a machinist. I think her old man was probably a Jew. In the East End, it’s so mixed up anyway. My dad ate all that shit that you fucking lot like, all that rollmops and f…ing pickled herrings. I couldn’t stand to look at it, let alone eat it.”
Today, Bailey has a home in Dartmoor, Devon, and a London flat in newly gentrified King’s Cross. He says he left Primrose Hill after 35 years because it had grown “too poncey” and now fears King’s Cross is going the same way.
“If I’m not careful, I’m going to end up in Dagenham,” he says. “Are you writing a thing for somebody? An article for somebody?” Yes. “Are you married? Are you gay? You know, the first time I went to Australia, I thought, ‘This lot are too butch to be straight.’ ”
When Bailey was young, the painter Francis Bacon tried to pick him up. “Him and Dali, actually,” says Bailey. “But Dali wasn’t gay, he just took a liking to me. I met them in the same year, ’62, one in New York and one here.” He says he didn’t like Dali’s paintings, but he enjoyed Dali.
Bailey is a painter, too, and a sculptor. There are a couple of his sculptures in the exhibition, including Dead Andy, a dourly witty memento mori of Andy Warhol. “This show is not a retrospective,” he says, apropos of some thought of his own. “It’s just some portraits over different periods. How can it be a retrospective? There’s nothing in it: no landscapes, no paintings, no anything. But dimwitted journalists call it a retrospective all the time.”
Bailey has worked in journalism, for newspapers, magazines and fashion glossies, but doesn’t much like journalists. In part, this seems to stem from floggings he has received for youthful statements he made about women – he has married four, including the actress Catherine Deneuve, and, apparently, had sex with many others – but I suspect that disliking journalists has also just become a habit he enjoys.
He still shoots edgy, artistic fashion about once a year, and continues to take on advertising work. What does he enjoy doing the most? “F…ing,” he says.
Okay, um, which of his portraits is special to Bailey? “I don’t do specials,” he says. “They’re all special, or else they wouldn’t be in the show. I don’t do favourites. I don’t have favourite colours. I’m not at nursery school.”
Bailey knew and photographed the Rolling Stones, John Lennon and Yoko Ono. He took the picture of Mick Jagger with his head in a bag on the cover of the Stones’ album Goats Head Soup. But I’m struck by a more recent portrait of an ageing Marianne Faithfull, overweight and wrinkled, laughing in her underwear.
“I don’t like that one. I’ve stopped people using it, because she gets too upset. I mean, it’s a great picture, but if she doesn’t like it, what’s the point? They all put Kate Moss next to her in that picture. Cheap journalists.”
Something I’ve said has annoyed him, or reminded him of something someone else once said, or made him feel judged.
“I don’t really care what you think about photography,” he says, “because you’re not an expert. As you’re a writer, literally, you don’t know too much visually like I do, so whatever you think doesn’t interest me that much. What kind of credibility have you got?”
Clearly, none.
“It’s like me telling you, ‘I don’t think you’re as good as Dostoyevsky, but you might get better. You might even get to Émile Zola’s level, but you’ll never get beyond there.’ ”
I’d be happy to be Graham Greene. “Well,” says Bailey, “he’s my favourite modern writer.”
I don’t care who his favourite writer is, because he’s a photographer. “And I don’t care that you don’t care,” says Bailey. “I’m not interviewing you, though. I’m going to say what I think. You’re the one who’s going to say, ‘This is this and that’s that and it’s all bullshit.’ But you don’t know anyway, like most journalists.
“Journalists, on the whole, are not very nice people. They twist everything to suit themselves. They’re criticising you on a level they shouldn’t be criticising you on, because they’re not on that level themselves. Because they’d be f…ing writing War and Peace, and not f…ing about doing an interview with me. Right?”
Having reached the peak of his invective, Bailey climbs down a little. He says I seem like a nice bloke, but he’s never read anything I’ve written. He asks an assistant for a decaffeinated coffee and says to me, “Come on.”
Tell me … “Tell you what? I’m not going to do your f…ing job for you. Ask me what you want to know. Journalists used to call their photographers ‘the monkeys’. And I guess most of them were monkeys.”
I suspect it’s many, many years since a journalist called Bailey a monkey, and Bailey’s argument isn’t with me or anybody in the room, or perhaps even anybody living. I feel as if I’ve walked into a grudge match and been mistaken for the opponent.
“Have you got webbed feet?” he asks. (I wonder if he believes Jews have webbed feet.) “I’m just trying to conjure them up in my mind,” says Bailey, “to make you more interesting.”
It’s difficult to take offence, partly because he’s small and old, but partly because he’s genuinely funny – and if I’m going to be the butt of a joke, it might as well be a good one.
“There’s a dancer in the show,” says Bailey, “and he’s got webbed hands. I’d definitely photograph you if you had webbed hands.”
There is a wall of pictures of Bailey’s wife, the model Catherine Dyer, in the show. She is shown naked, apparently masturbating, pregnant and giving birth (but not all in the same photograph). “I could do a book on most of my wives, really: Catherine [Deneuve], for sure; Rosemary [Bramble], for sure; Marie [Helvin] for sure. Well, I did a book on Marie.”
He’d do a series of “Bailey’s Wives” books? “Yeah, wouldn’t the journalists love that?” he says. “That would really give them something interesting to write about.”
But Catherine Deneuve is now 70 years old, and fashion model and writer Helvin has auctioned her vintage clothes. It might be that even “the journalists” wouldn’t be so interested any more.
Bailey asks an assistant if the Polaroid came back, and looks critically at the print. “It hasn’t got the magic of the old Polaroid, has it?” he notes. Although the film is available again, “nobody’s remade the cameras, so we have to buy old, broken cameras”.
“Different cameras have different attitudes,” he says. “The cameras make you take on their attitude. But you really have to be somebody who’s been brought up with proper film photography, not just digital, because there’s no attitude to those cameras. There’s nothing wrong with them. If I go to Afghanistan or Delhi or somewhere a bit dodgy, we take digital, because you don’t want to be f…ing about loading film when you’re jumping in and out of helicopters. But if I’m somewhere you don’t get X-rayed all the time, I try to shoot on film. I quite like the attitude of the old Polaroid.”
“So your mother was a Jew?” he asks, suddenly. “Are you circumcised?” He repeats the question insistently, three times, until I reply. “Well, I’m circumcised,” he says. “I don’t have a foreskin, either.”
At this point, his wife arrives to pick him up. “Good timing,” says Bailey.
And it is. I’ve learnt enough about the photographer David Bailey – I can put some adjectives to the noun – and he knows more than enough about me.