A major exhibition of photographs by David Bailey will be shown at the 45th edition of Les Rencontres d’Arles, France’s largest photography festival (July 7 - September 21, 2014), followed by the Scottish National Gallery (Edinburgh).
Bailey’s Stardust, on tour from the National Portrait Gallery (London), chronicles a half-century of Bailey’s career that led to his emergence as one of UK’s foremost photographers.
Featuring 250 shots from the stage and screen, central to his rise as a leading British celebrity photographer of the 1960s, Bailey’s thematic self-curated exhibition includes key work from that era, such as the Rolling Stones, major artists’ portraits and models such as Jean Shrimpton (photographed in Manhattan for British Vogue) to projects in Africa and Australia to a portrait series of his fourth wife, model and muse Catherine Dyer.
Born in the London’s East End in Leytonstone in 1938, his father Herbert was a tailor’s cutter and his mother Gladys a machinist.
Without a conventional formal education and diagnosed as dyslexic, Bailey’s prospects did not appear immediately obvious. “If you came from the East End … there were only three things you could become – a boxer, a car thief or maybe a musician,” Bailey reportedly once said.
At fifteen he left school and become a Fleet Street copy boy at the Yorkshire Post. In 1956 he conscripted for the National Service, and served with the Royal Air Force in Singapore the following year. There, he bought a cheap copy of a Rolleiflex, exposed himself to a plethora of American publications available, like Life, and developed an early interest in Picasso, whose work implied to him that there were no rules where reality could be changed.
Demobbed in August 1958, yet determined to pursue a career in photography, he bought a Canon Rangefinder camera. Unable to secure a formal education at the London College of Printing (now called London College of Communication), he engaged in a range of studio jobs with several prominent London photographers, including David Ollins (where he earned the equivalent of £3.50), John French and John Cole’s Studio.
Within a year of leaving the National Service, Bailey had his first photographs published in the Sunday Pictorial newspaper, and the Daily Express in 1960.
His exponential international success was realised after being contracted as a fashion photographer for British Vogue by John Parsons, the magazine’s Art Director, who offered Bailey his first contract.
According to the British art historian, Martin Harrison, “Bailey’s agenda” was to “break down fashion’s stuffy conventions … he cleared the way for the British invasion of New York.”
Bailey and his East London contemporaries, Terence Donovan and Brian Duffy, were named “the Black Trinity” by Norman Parkinson and were known in the British Press as the “terrible three”. Their creativity and originality transformed 60s fashion and portraiture photography in Britain, synonymous with the Swinging Sixties and the booming cultural industry Britain.
Bailey’s aesthetic and technical use of the minimalist white background, harsh lighting, tonal compression, high contrast printing – also formerly used by Cecil Beaton, Richard Lester and Richard Avedon, and observed in films such as the Beatles’ debut film A Hard Day’s Night – was central to his photographic style and pivotal to his visual sensibility in being able to develop his notion of portraiture.
The “white out” minimalistic backdrop, in which Bailey situated his subjects, was revolutionary as it also enabled his subjects the collaborative opportunity to make their statement in art.
Bailey’s individualistic oeuvre was key in signifying his emergence as a serious contemporary portrait photographer with “signature style”. His outsider-insider status notably provided him, as participant and chronicler, with a unique access to celebrity culture, such as Andy Warhol with whom he later made a documentary in 1968 at the Hôtel Meurice, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger, Michael Caine, David Hockney and “style icons” Mary Quant and Molly Parkin.
At the height of Bailey’s productivity, he shot 841 pages of Vogue editorial in one year. He was considered to be the brightest and one of most powerful and talented energetic formidable forces in the magazine at that time.
Bailey’s life was glamorised in the film Blow Up (1966), directed by Michelangelo Antonioni. He was awarded the CBE in 2001.
In his book Stardust, Bailey is quoted in the introductory essay by British art historian Tim Marlow, “It’s all about looking ... you have to keep looking until you see.”
Bailey’s Stardust runs from July 7 to August 31, 2014, at the Église Sainte-Anne in Arles. Open 10h-19h30, entry €9.