A CHARMED LIFE. The internationally renowned photographer David Bailey was born in 1938 in East London. His first published portrait was of Somerset Maugham for Today magazine in 1960, and he famously met the supermodel Jean Shrimpton while he was at Vogue. Since then Bailey has made many iconic images of legendary and diverse personalities, including Queen Elizabeth II, the Rolling Stones, Mother Teresa, the Kray twins, Damien Hirst, Desmond Tutu and Kate Moss.
Did you always want to be a photographer?
I painted before I was a photographer, and I sculpt sometimes. I made money from directing commercials, not from photography.
What is the difference between painting and photography?
It’s quicker to take a photograph! (laughs)
How do you feel about fashion today?
Fashion made me famous, and I still do some campaigns, but I am more interested in the model than the fashion. The designers Yves Saint Laurent and Givenchy were fantastic. I like John Galliano but he got himself into trouble. Now frocks are all the same, you can’t tell the difference. I put a bit of fashion into my new book Bailey’s PERU (Heni, 2018).
Which photographers do you like?
I like Tim Walker, a great photographer. I find David LaChapelle interesting, but it’s going to date. I like work that doesn’t date, like Helmut Newton. The greatest fashion photographers are probably Steven Meisel and Richard Avedon.
Your own story is closely linked to supermodels, starting with Jean Shrimpton?
Jean Shrimpton and Kate Moss, and my wife Catherine Dyer, and Marie Helvin. I was with Catherine Deneuve for seven years, we had a laugh and she had a good sense of humour. We lived in Paris but we were always travelling. I was always attracted by glamorous women. I lived in the world of beautiful women and you end up with who you work with. I learnt more from women than men.
What is the difference between Jean Shrimpton and Kate Moss?
Kate and Jean are the two best models in my life. One click and I have got them. Both are unique. Jean was posh and better at working a dress, while Kate is charming and funny. She has a magical personality and a sense of humour.
“I lived in the world of beautiful women and you end up with who you work with.”
My Lucky Life. Catherine Bailey. 1992. © David Bailey
Do you like doing portraits best?
No, I don’t like anything the best, I would be very limited. I don’t want a style, my style is minimal. I like everything. I just want to do things. Some photographers are so good it doesn’t matter what they do.
What kind of camera do you use?
I use plate cameras and only take about ten pictures. I just did a portrait of the actor Ralph Fiennes. Five clicks and it was done. Being visual as I am you have a special feel for people, you understand people very well. It’s common sense to me.
You are known to be dyslexic. How has dyslexia affected you?
Nobody knew what dyslexic was when I was a kid. They just thought you were stupid. My parents weren’t worried about me, but I knew I had to get out of the East End of London. I was in the Royal Air Force in Singapore in 1956 and I made the most of it.
Why do you care so much about your background?
I am doing a book on the East End at the moment. It is important. It forms you for the rest of your life. Because of the East End I grew up with Jews and the Irish. I have 30% Irish in my background. All my friends are Jewish and Irish. The Jews are the second most intelligent people in the world.
Who are the first?
The Chinese of course! (laughs)
How has life changed you?
My father didn’t understand what I did. I am proud of coming from the working class.
Could you have been a gangster?
I used to make suits for Teddy Boys when I was fourteen. I liked Reg Kray. The Krays slashed my father, he had to have 63 stitches. He had a snooker club in the East End. I didn’t know about it when I was friends with Reg, and in any case my father was dead by then.
How did your career take off?
I was working with John French and Tony Snowdon. I didn’t like Snowdon’s photography and I didn’t like John French, but you had to be practical and work with someone who would pay you. Then I went to Vogue. You had to have a contract to work with Vogue and they gave me one, which I should never have signed because it was a shit contract. I liked working with Tina Brown, who wasn’t just about fashion. She liked everything.
This was before Diana Vreeland?
I was at Vogue before Vreeland, and we thought we would all get fired when she came. Grace Coddington and Diana Vreeland were great. They were beautiful. I like different kinds of beauty. I did the first black cover for Vogue, with Donyale Luna in 1966, and that caused a lot of trouble.
“I love women. They are so complicated and I am so simple.”
What about the men who you were also photographing?
Are you still friends with Mick Jagger?
Mick was going out with Jean Shrimpton’s sister, that’s how I met him. It was before the Rolling Stones. We are still friends.
Were you into drugs and drink?
Drink, not drugs. I stopped when I was 32. I was doing so many live action commercials and you had to be at the studio at 6.30am.
Francis Wyndham, a top journalist at the Sunday Times who I knew, wrote a synopsis for Antonioni. Francis was one of the most interesting journalists I ever met, but I thought the film was a bit boring.
How was it to photograph the Queen?
I did the Queen in 2014. I respect her and she is one of the hardest working women I ever met. She’s a nice woman and let us choose the room we used at the Palace. She is the pinnacle of that kind of ‘famous without doing anything’ person. She is the Queen! It’s like photographing god.
What about politicians?
I photographed several Prime Ministers of England. I used to go to Japan a lot and went with the then British Prime Minister Jim Callaghan to China for two weeks, where he couldn’t tell the difference between jade and malachite.
What do you think of Theresa May?
A decent good person. I feel sorry for her. She cares and tries to do the best she can. Who else would want that job?
Who is the politician you liked the best?
Desmond Tutu. And I liked Mandela. I liked Margaret Thatcher. She would set the time aside for me, one hour, and then we would finish in less and have tea and chat. When I lived in France with Catherine Deneuve on weekends we used to stay with Pompidou. I liked him because he had a Porsche. The French are more mixed between the politicians and artists than the British, much more interclass culturally. I made TV commercials for Donald Trump, and he offered me a job to work for his beauty company.
Do you like Trump as President?
No, not really. He is a businessman. If we had a few doing Brexit it would be better.
What do you think of England today?
I was for Brexit. I thought Europe was a bit silly and we were right to get out. We’ll be broke for a bit, but we’ll get over it and carry on. Germany runs Europe. Nevertheless the German publisher Benedikt Taschen is one of my favourite people.
Who are your artist friends?
Julian Schnabel has been my friend for forty years. Damien Hirst is one of my best friends. He is rich but I don’t think of people like that, I either like them or I don’t like them. I like the working class best. Bacon and Freud were quite posh, so I had no relationship with them.
Do you have a favourite painter?
Caravaggio is my favourite.
They say you admire Picasso very much. Did you ever meet him?
Do you regret it?
No. He was my hero, and I’d have walked into his studio and he would have farted.
What about making movies?
I made a film with Andy Warhol – a documentary. Odd bloke. I went to bed with him.
What do you mean?
I didn’t sleep with him. He said he wouldn’t do the movie except in bed. John Huston was a fantastic director and I became friendly with him. His daughter Anjelica and I had a romantic story before she fell in love with Jack Nicholson.
What about actresses?
I made a movie with Jane Birkin once. She was the most professional person I ever worked with. I also worked with her daughter Charlotte Gainsbourg in Canada for three months.
Why do you now have many assistants?
I need them. We are always doing books. Nowadays I don’t do commercials any more. I made the Greenpeace commercials, probably the most famous ever made, and then people said, “O, he can do serious things!” I have done 45 proper books. Now I think, ‘Have I got the energy to do it?’ I will be 81 on January 2nd.
Bridge. Jean Shrimpton.1964. © David Bailey
Damien Hirst. 2004. © David Bailey
Road to Essex. Barking. © David Bailey
Kate Moss photographed by David Bailey for Vogue
Michael Caine. 1965. © David Bailey
Road to Essex. Barking. © David Bailey
“I have had a charmed life.”
What are your fears?
I don’t want to die. I want to continue working. Getting old is hard work. I started getting old at 76. You get tired.
How would you describe your life?
A charmed life. I am a very lucky guy from the East End. I have been married to my wife for 37 years. It’s a long time. And humour is a key part of my life. In the East End you need it! (laughs)
Are you a womaniser?
I was. I love women. You like women or you don’t like women. They are so complicated and I am so simple. I am friends with all my ex-wives and mistresses.
Who do you miss?
If they’re dead there’s nothing you can do. Lady Diana was very sweet and I liked Princess Margaret a lot. You didn’t know if she was the Queen or a friend. She could turn into a princess, you never knew, but she was a delight. I liked her more than I liked Snowdon.
Do you regret not to have photographed someone?
I would have liked to have done Hitchcock. I liked him. I was born two streets from Hitchcock.
What are the most iconic photographs of yours?
The 1960s pictures of pin ups. We are doing an exhibition at Gagosian in London that opens in February 2019. The ‘60s were special and we were young. It was the first time the working class had a voice, could say what we should do and be. They never had a voice before. We had hippies before America and it was London I was interested in.
Is there less talent today?
There are more talented and more dumb people too.
How come you became a vegetarian?
Because my dad killed my pet chicken. I woke up one morning and saw it hanging over the sink. I don’t eat meat forever. I eat eggs, but I live on fruit. I had pineapple for breakfast. I don’t get hungry. If people around me didn’t eat, I wouldn’t eat.
Is it true you are very interested in birds?
Especially parrots. I like them. I used to breed them.
You have met so many extraordinarily talented people including musicians and theatre people?
Yes. Duke Ellington, André Previn, U2, Live Aid in 1980, Pavarotti… and the playwright Harold Pinter, just before he died. He was really angry he was dying. Sometimes you meet someone and spend the rest of your life with them. The writer Somerset Maugham made a big impression on me even though I only met him for two hours. I photographed him in 1960. He was so nice, and he knew women.
Did you also meet famous tycoons?
I spent a week on Onassis’ yacht with Liz Taylor and Richard Burton. Liz Taylor was sweet. She was always drunk so I didn’t photograph her. They were fighting all the time. He was telling her she was stupid, and he was cruel.
Did you learn something from all these amazing people?
No, I am impressed by everyone. I have had a charmed life. I told you.
You have travelled a lot in your life. Where was most interesting?
I worked with Mother Teresa for two weeks in Calcutta. She was tough and wanted $100 from me every day. I did a booklet for her hospice and we talked about birth control and she said all her nuns get pregnant. A camera makes travel worthwhile. I made trips to Afghanistan, and I was arrested as a spy in Sudan. I went to New Guinea before it was touristic. I went to the Naga Hills in the north of Burma four years ago. That was dangerous, but I don’t like places with a couple of hundred German or French tourists with their cameras, so there are not many countries left. I like the Italians but you wouldn’t want to do a book on Italy, it’s been done. I prefer Milan to Rome because of the creativity.
What is your legacy?
My books are for art or pleasure. I am not interested in legacy.
London, December 2018
Portrait of David Bailey, Singapore, 1956.
All images are by kind permission of David Bailey/Camera Eye Ltd.
Gagosian Exhibition, London from 13th Feb to 30th March 2019.
2019 sees the launch of David Bailey Taschen Sumo book.