Who Do You Think You Are?

A lot of the 1960s work of David Bailey stops me in my tracks, every time I see it. The wonderful collection of images from his 1964 book ‘A Box of Pin Ups’ featuring, among othersMichael Caine, Jean Shrimpton, Hockney, Snowden, Lennon and McCartney and the Kray twins etc. is perhaps the work I love most.

Whatever he went on to do, and he did plenty –from directing hundreds of TV commercials and documentaries, photographing away back stage at Live Aid and famously advertising the Olympus Trip camera with George Cole, complete with the immortal tag line ‘who do you think you are?’ – his legacy and standing in photographic history is assured.

David Royston Bailey was born in January 1938 in Whipps Cross Hospital to father Herbert, a tailor’s cutter and mum Gladys a machinist. From the age of three, the Baileys lived in a small council flat in East Ham, London. Despite a relatively poor background, he attended Clark’s College a fee-paying school based in Ilford. Once there, Bailey struggled with the basic schoolwork, only really enjoying art, suffering as he did with un-recognised Dyslexia and Dyspraxia, a co ordination disorder.

Instead he developed a keen interest in natural history, with bird watching becoming a passion,which in turn led him to photographing birds with his mothers Box Brownie camera. A curious kid, he learnt to develop his own film by the age of 12, and became a vegetarian and-started a life long passion for the artist Picasso, all around the same time.

Leaving school at 15, he found work on Fleet Street as a ‘copy boy’ before taking a succession of other menial jobs in the run up to his National Service from 1956. He had aspirations to be the next Chet Baker but the RAF, with whom he served out in Singapore, confiscated his trumpet. Needing a creative outlet, he instead bought himself a Rolliflex camera.

 ‘I tried to get out of it (National Service) by making out I was gay. But I think everybody tried that. They said, ‘What’s your favourite sport?’ And I said, ‘Ping-pong.’ But it didn’t work because every fucker tried it. I feel sorry for the ones that were gay, because nobody believed anybody.

Once demobbed, he tried and failed to gain a place at the London College of Printing due to the poor standard of his academic work, so instead he became studio ‘gofer’ and then assistant, first with fashion photographer David Ollins and then with the well known portraitist of the time, John French.

A fast learner, he begun working for the Daily Express, famously photographing theclothing brand Jaeger in the very late late 50s. By Feb 1961, he was being contracted to take cover images for British Vogue.

His work couldn’t fail to be noticed and the rise of his own personal profile put him at the centre of London, as it swung like it had never swung before.  He partied hard with the celebs, musicians, actors and high society of the day, but he also worked hard, along with fellow working class East End boys and fellow photographers, Brian Duffy and Terence Donavan. Together they made up what the older Norman Parkinson named ‘The Black Trinity.

Duffy – ‘Before 1960, a fashion photographer was tall, thin and camp… but we were different: short, fat and heterosexual!

Bailey The Sixties was great for the hundred or so of the ponces in London like me who were taking pictures or making movies or being Mick Jagger… but ask a coal miner from South Yorkshire what he thought of the Sixties and he’ll tell you just how cool it really was.

Then came the release of a ‘Box of Pin -Ups’ in 1964. It sold very well upon publication and is today is very collectable with first editions going for over £20,000 at auction recently. In 1965, Bailey was made an offer he simply could not refuse. He was invited to be the wedding photographer for Reggie Kray who was marrying Frances Shea.

One job, you wouldn’t want to run out of film at.

He was also the inspiration for the photographer played by David Hemmings, in Antonioni’s 1966 film ‘Blow Up.’ The film captured a slice of a London, at the sharp end of the frothy 1960s, which then slowly morphs into a mystery thriller. He was not impressed however with the casting of Hemmings – ‘I don’t know why they didn’t use Terence Stamp. He was less of a sissy than Hemmings and at least he was from the East End like me.

Bailey – everyone calls him Bailey – was now shooting sometimes 800 spreads a year for Vogue and he was red-hot.

Model and later girlfriend Penelope Tree – ‘he was incredibly attractive, with a dangerous vibe. He was the electricity, the brightest, most powerful, most talented, most energetic force at the magazine.

A model then. and later creative director at American Vogue, Grace Coddington  – ‘Bailey was unbelievably good-looking. He was everything that you wanted him to be, like the Beatles but accessible, and when he went on the market everyone went in. We were all killing ourselves to be his model, although he hooked up with Jean Shrimpton pretty quickly.

Ah The Shrimp. His work and personal relationship with model Jean Shrimpton made them the ‘Posh and Becks’ of their day. They were simply THE glamour couple.

Bailey – ‘She was magic and the camera loved her too. In a way she was the cheapest model in the world – you only needed to shoot half a roll of film and then you had it. She had the knack of having her hand in the right place, she knew where the light was, she was just a natural.’

His love life has been as well documented as his photos over the years, and includes long term relationships with Jean Shrimpton and Penelope Tree and marriages to Rosemary Bramble (1960) Catherine Deneuve (1965) Marie Helvin (1975) and Catherine Dyer (1986) with whom he has three children and to whom he remains married, today.

He has said proudly he remained on very good terms with all of his exes.

David Bailey continues to work and photograph from his studio complex in Clerkenwell. His work ethic and work rate are legendary and he is still in high demand for his portraiture work. His techniques in getting the exact picture he wants are notorious. Chatting up, and dancing and arguing with the ‘client’ are just some ways he employs. In the past, these ways have been described as ‘boorish and bullying’ by some and it is far to say he doesn’t suffer fools gladly.

Creative to the end, he also paints and sculpts and still subscribes to a bird watching magazineRetrospectives of his works have been shown in galleries worldwide. Apart from the ‘Box of Pin-Ups’ other books, I would recommend, providing you can get a reasonably priced copy would include ‘NW1′ and ‘Black and White Memories.’

I have
met him just the once. I was walking through Soho many years ago and he was sitting outside a café having lunch.  I told him I loved his work and he smiled graciously.  A tiny, insignificant meeting for him, but a massive one to a fan-boy like me.

Last word goes to the man himself – ‘for portraits, simplicity is key – no props, just the closest of close-ups. The intensity comes from concentrating on them, nothing else … I fall in love with people when I photograph them for that 15 minutes or half-hour, and they become the whole centre of the universe. On a superficial level. They get up and leave after that.

The Mumper of SE5



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