god save the king
interview by SVEN SCHUMANN
all images by DAVID BAILEY
David Bailey swears like a sailor, does not give a shit about offending anybody, and apparently has quite the temper if you step on his toes. Bailey is also one of the most important photographers and portraitists of the 20th and 21st centuries. He has shot magazine covers for over 50 years, revolutionized fashion photography in the ’60s, married some of the most beautiful women in the world (including Catherine Deneuve), photographed almost every icon of the 20th century, directed numerous commercials, and was the inspiration behind the main character in Antonioni’s Blow-Up.
But Bailey doesn’t like to dwell on the past, nor does he seem to be stopping anytime soon. He had a large, career-spanning show at the National Portrait Gallery last year. He still shoots for all the right magazines — at least the ones that he is not currently fighting with and that accept his conditions — and his last three Valentino campaigns show that people are still lining up to work with him. At 77, Bailey is still going strong. Thank god.
SVEN SCHUMANN — Why won’t you allow anyone on set when you are shooting?
DAVID BAILEY — I’m not a team player. I don’t want anyone around me, in terms of art directors and stylists, telling me the way it should be. If you want to do a team picture, then you need to go find somebody else. I don’t work as a team. I want my vision, and that’s it. I’m not interested in selling somebody else’s vision.
SVEN SCHUMANN — Do you ever make exceptions?
DAVID BAILEY — No. We just did a shoot with Kate Moss for Vogue, and she was the contributing fashion editor, but she knew very well she couldn’t come on the set when I’m shooting. They know that if they come on the set, they get kicked off. I don’t have hairdressers or make-up, either. They do it in the dressing room. And if they don’t like it, I adjust it myself. I’ve got my own make-up.
SVEN SCHUMANN — What other conditions do you impose on magazines?
DAVID BAILEY — They tell you what they want. And that’s it, really. Then they can go away and come back and get it. Photos have to be full page. They have to go by my layouts. I’m only open to change if their layout is better than mine.
SVEN SCHUMANN — How many options do they get?
DAVID BAILEY — One. Why would you give them a choice? If I don’t like the picture, they’re not going to get it. I mean, if you’re not tough in this business, you’re finished. They’ll walk all over you. All those talentless people. That’s why I distanced myself from fashion photography; it’s mostly window dressing. But most window dressing is better than photography because at least it’s 3D. [Laughs] I also don’t let anyone crop my images, of course.
SVEN SCHUMANN — Is that why you often leave the border of the negative on your photos?
DAVID BAILEY — Yeah, I always give the border. That’s the indication of what the picture is. It’s printed with the border. It’s so I can tell, too. That means they can’t copy it. If they take the line away, it begins to look like a catalog picture. They put type on it and it, might as well be a picture for Tesco. I want to have control over my images. I never understand those photographers who work together, you know, Malcolm and Mies, or whatever they’re called.
SVEN SCHUMANN — Mert and Marcus?
DAVID BAILEY — Whatever, there are lots of them! What they do is quite nice, but how can you work together? I’ve never seen a painting done with a team. It’s like two girls — one can fuck with her cunt, and one can fuck with her mouth, so they sit on each other’s shoulders. [Laughs] I don’t get it. They obviously can do it. I mean, they’re not the first. There are lots of people in history who have done it. Hill and Adamson did it, and one of them was a chemist. They were the first great English portrait photographers, really. Before Julia Margaret Cameron. Fantastic.
SVEN SCHUMANN — Bernd and Hilla Becher are another example.
DAVID BAILEY — Yes, but I think they’re awful! They’re awful, awful, awful. I think they’re the most boring pictures I’ve ever seen in my life. They take pictures of a concrete piece of architecture that only an architect could find interesting. The pictures are flat, and they’re very safe to buy. You can have a show instantly and put those in it, and people will think you’ve got great taste because it’s accepted as great taste.
SVEN SCHUMANN — Do you have good taste?
DAVID BAILEY — It’s not good or bad taste; it’s peculiar taste because peculiar is the way I see the world. Good taste doesn’t interest me. Bad taste doesn’t interest me, either. But I don’t want a boring concrete building on my wall.
SVEN SCHUMANN — What would you put on your wall?
DAVID BAILEY — If you give me a Gustave Le Gray seascape, maybe I would hang that on my wall, or a Roger Fenton war picture, but those pictures… They get even more boring when they put four of them together! It’s intellectual hype; it’s bullshit. It’s like Ansel Adams. They’re fucking calendar books. If you’re happy to get up there with a tele-camera and sit out there for a couple of weeks, wait for the clouds to get in the right place, you can press the shutter, and you’ve got the same fucking picture. You’d have to learn to print as well as him, but…
SVEN SCHUMANN — There are not many photos of you out there that are not self-portraits. Do you prefer to photograph yourself because you don’t trust other photographers to take a good portrait?
DAVID BAILEY — That’s usually it. I don’t want to be photographed by somebody else who spends fucking hours, and it’s not as good as Richard Young. I don’t understand why they’ve fucking gone to all this trouble to take this very ugly photo, standing on their heads to take the picture rather than just going, “Okay, click.” The pictures are nothing!
SVEN SCHUMANN — Do you have some kind of routine when you take someone’s portrait?
DAVID BAILEY — No, no. I just get them to tell me about themselves. I try to find out what their story is, like anyone who’s curious about that kind of thing. Everyone’s got a story.
SVEN SCHUMANN — Do you like talking about your story?
DAVID BAILEY — I’m not interested in my story. I don’t like talking about the past. I’m not nostalgic. I’m interested in my subjects, so I’m going to talk about them. They’re the interesting one that day, not me.
SVEN SCHUMANN — Do you approach a self-portrait differently than a portrait of somebody else?
DAVID BAILEY — No. It’s all the same. I take the same picture I’ve always taken. I try to find something that’s already there. I don’t look for something new. Most people bend over, climb a tree, or build fucking palm trees in the background. You don’t need all that. The person is the thing that counts. All the palm trees are going to do is distract from the person. Everything you want to photograph is already there. You just have to see it.
SVEN SCHUMANN — Has the mobile phone killed the art of the self-portrait?
DAVID BAILEY — I didn’t even know what a “selfie” was for the longest time. I was with Bruce Weber, and we were both being interviewed, and this journalist said to us, “Do you do selfies?” And I thought, “Well, this is a bit outrageous for New York. I expect it in England, but I don’t expect someone to ask me if I masturbate in America!” [Laughs] I thought it was masturbation! When she explained to me what it was, I realized I was right in the first place. It is masturbation. No one’s interested in that except your girlfriend, your mother, and the police. At least they’re not wasting film…
SVEN SCHUMANN — Who was the last photographer that took a photo of you that you thought was all right?
DAVID BAILEY — Bruce Weber. But he is one of my oldest mates, really.
SVEN SCHUMANN — Since you are very particular about whom you work with, how do you choose the people you agree to photograph?
DAVID BAILEY — If someone says they want to do a shoot with so-and-so and so-and-so, then I look them up, and if I like them, then that’ll be fine. I just don’t photograph stupid people. If I think someone’s too stupid to photograph, I won’t photograph them.
SVEN SCHUMANN — And you judge their stupidity, or lack thereof, based on their work?
DAVID BAILEY — By looking at their work, yeah. I don’t have to like his work. All I have to do is think he’s interesting or that he’s an artist. Then I’m interested. Understanding where he’s going or what he’s doing. That doesn’t mean to say I want one of his pictures. For example, I like Matisse. But if I was very rich, I probably wouldn’t buy one. He’s not my kind of artist, but I do think he’s an artist. It’s just my opinion. But nobody gives a shit about my opinion, except me. So I might as well have it. It’s not doing anything for anybody else!
SVEN SCHUMANN — Even with actors? Just because someone was in a great film doesn’t mean that they are not stupid or that they are an artist.
DAVID BAILEY — Usually it’s an indication that he might be interesting, though. If he’s playing Macbeth, he might be interesting. Who did I like photographing recently? Oh yes, Michael Fassbender! But I wouldn’t photograph, you know, the popular boy bands at the time. That wouldn’t be interesting at all.
SVEN SCHUMANN — I’m surprised anybody would even have the guts to suggest that to you.
DAVID BAILEY — I also stay away from television people, really. There are no television people in my books.
SVEN SCHUMANN — Are artists more interesting to photograph than actors?
DAVID BAILEY — Actors can be difficult because they might be playing a role while you photograph them, and you never know what you’ll get. But you can’t make rules. If you make rules, you’re finished. I spent my whole life breaking rules, so I’m not going to start making them now. I don’t think it’s worth making rules for yourself. Most people are limited by their ambitions. Every picture is different. For example, you need to adjust for gender. Most women care about their elbows or their necks, but most men couldn’t give a monkey’s unless they’re actors. If you’re photographing black skin, you need a different exposure than white skin. It depends what it is. You adjust to everything.
SVEN SCHUMANN — Apparently you once said that a man’s body is actually more beautiful than a woman’s.
DAVID BAILEY — No, I didn’t say that. I said I think a man’s body, to me, is more beautiful than a woman’s.
SVEN SCHUMANN — How come? You have a reputation for being quite fond of women.
DAVID BAILEY — There’s something about the form of a man that comes down like an inverted triangle. And the woman goes up like a triangle. Nothing wrong with a pyramid in pictures — it worked for the Renaissance — but I like the man’s shape. The only thing I don’t like about men is their dicks. That’s why the Romans and the Greeks put little garlands on all their dicks because the dick was unattractive.
SVEN SCHUMANN — So a naked woman is more attractive than a naked man?
DAVID BAILEY — For me, yes. But the man’s form is better. I wouldn’t say it’s sexier for me because that’s personal. The sexiest image I’ve ever seen is Bernini’s Ecstasy of Saint Teresa. She’s in Rome in a church, but I forget which church. She looks like she’s having an orgasm.
SVEN SCHUMANN — What makes a woman beautiful?
DAVID BAILEY — I don’t know. It’s magic. It’s like art or love. Nobody knows what it means, but everyone talks about it.
SVEN SCHUMANN — I’ve heard you can guess a woman’s age impressively accurately.
DAVID BAILEY — It’s a bit more difficult now, isn’t it? I can still sort of get it, but it depends on how much work she’s had done and if she lives in LA. If she lives in Miami, she’s burnt to a cinder anyway, so it doesn’t make any difference! [Laughs] It’s only difficult to get it precise between 25 and 35. Before that and after that is pretty easy. You see the wrinkles, the smile, all sorts of things. I’m usually within six months. Unless they’re lying. It was easier in the ’60s.
SVEN SCHUMANN — Was it easier to take an original photo in the ’60s?
DAVID BAILEY — There’s almost nothing that’s original. Whatever you can think of. You, me, Picasso, Michelangelo — if they’ve thought of it in their period, someone else has thought of it as well. Sometimes, I have an idea and I open a magazine, and someone in Japan has done the same thing. I’m not particularly talking about photography, but painting, or filmmaking, or any of the other things I like doing. I always expect that somebody else has done what I’m doing or what I’ve come up with, thinking it’s a unique idea. It’s the easiest thing for anyone else in the world to have — ideas. But the most difficult thing in the world is making ideas work.
SVEN SCHUMANN — Most people are very protective of their ideas, nonetheless.
DAVID BAILEY — They always steal your ideas anyway, so it doesn’t matter! When I used to direct commercials, my producers would say, “Don’t give the agencies all the ideas!” And I’d say that it doesn’t mean anything; ideas are easy; they’ve got to make the ideas work! And I know how to make it work.
SVEN SCHUMANN — How many commercials have you done in your career?
DAVID BAILEY — At least 1,500. I don’t count lots of them — lots of the early ones — I used to call them moving stills because they didn’t trust me, so they used to give me beauty and stuff like that, the shit. I didn’t realize I could do banks and cars, so they’d give me the shit. They dismissed me as a fashion photographer. They label you. They didn’t give me anything good until the ’80s.
SVEN SCHUMANN — At least they came around at some point.
DAVID BAILEY — You can only work for certain people. I used to work a lot for the advertising agency Chiat/Day. Jay Chiat, who had the best agency in the world, used to say, “For fuck’s sake, let Bailey get on with what he’s doing. Leave him alone.” There’s not many people like him. There are not many mavericks in advertising because it’s a word they don’t want to hear in advertising. All those corporate people want to see the commercial before you’ve made it. I couldn’t deal with those educated fools. They’re stupid. Especially CEOs of companies. Nobody says no to them. I tell them to go fuck themselves, and they don’t like it. That’s why I stopped doing commercials.
SVEN SCHUMANN — Did you start doing commercials so that you wouldn’t have to make compromises in your art?
DAVID BAILEY — Yeah, yeah, it had to do with money! Money. It was kind of the same with fashion photography. The only reason I did fashion photography was because it was the only photography I could see that had a minimal amount of freedom to do what you want, to be creative, and still get paid. But I never did much still advertising because I never understood it.
SVEN SCHUMANN — Why not?
DAVID BAILEY — I couldn’t do it. I used to get bored. They’d say, “Can you copy that?” “Yeah, but why don’t you get Helmut to do it? Why are you asking me to do something that Helmut already did?” [Laughs] We’d be the same price! That was the whole thing. Commercials are more interesting because they give you a script, and then I have to fill it in. If they wanted me to follow frame by frame by frame, I wouldn’t do it. The best compliment I ever really had in my life was from [the English photographer] Brian Duffy. He said to me once, “Bailey, you’re the only professional I know that’s a total amateur. People come to you and tell you what they want, and you go and do what you fucking want, just like an amateur.” And I said, “Thanks, that’s the best compliment I’ve ever had.”
SVEN SCHUMANN — Well, I would say he has a point. I mean, you used a transvestite for a commercial and didn’t tell anybody about it.
DAVID BAILEY — A few times, yeah. I got banned by an agency for 10 years for doing so! It was a fashion thing with Colin Millward, who is one of the most famous men in advertising; he had a company called CDP in the early ’60s.
SVEN SCHUMANN — And you didn’t even tell him?
DAVID BAILEY — In that case he knew! He fucking knew, the cunt! He was in on the joke with me. And when The Sunday Times got hold of the story and broke it, he denied it, and I had to wear it. And on top of that, they wouldn’t use me for 10 years at CDP!
SVEN SCHUMANN — Sounds like you got the bad end of the deal.
DAVID BAILEY — I didn’t care, fuck it. [Laughs]
SVEN SCHUMANN — Obviously not. You did it again.
DAVID BAILEY — Yes, I used some in Malaysia Airlines, transvestites that nobody noticed.
SVEN SCHUMANN — Why did you use transvestites in the first place?
DAVID BAILEY — They’re more beautiful than most of the fucking models coming through casting! [Laughs] It doesn’t make any difference. It’s what you see on the screen that counts! I don’t care what somebody is. If there’s a woman that’s more beautiful than Christy Turlington, and she turns out to be a man, I’ll use her as a model! Not for fun, not for peculiarity, just because it’s practical.
SVEN SCHUMANN — Advertising agencies generally like to play it safe.
DAVID BAILEY — But you find a way to do whatever you want. I’ve done whatever I want for most of the things in my life. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be true to myself! What the so-called great advertising agencies also don’t understand is that they don’t understand fashion. In advertising, you always have to have an aspirational idea. But in fashion, you don’t need an idea — you need a figure.
SVEN SCHUMANN — Like whom?
DAVID BAILEY — You need Steven Meisel or Bruce Weber, or Richard Avedon in those days. You need someone like that, who’s better than the idea, because what they do against a plain background is better than what any advertising agency’s going to come up with. The idea is nothing. An idea is just a paint-by-numbers kind of thing. Most of those fashion pictures are like filling in a coloring book because they’re all the same. They get the same girl, make her look like a tart, lay her on bright-colored couches with some bright-colored wallpaper, and then the next time they do it — same picture, different girl against a bright-colored sofa. Steven Meisel is probably the best fashion photographer since Avedon, but there will never be another Avedon because that situation doesn’t exist anymore. You don’t have that moment in fashion.
SVEN SCHUMANN — What made that moment so unique?
DAVID BAILEY — You don’t have the couture like it was; you don’t have Diana Vreeland. So that is a moment in fashion history that can’t be repeated. If anyone tries to do an Avedon, it’s not going to work. You need that moment. You need all that going on.
SVEN SCHUMANN — People still try all the time.
DAVID BAILEY — If you have to try, you’re not really very good, are you? Otherwise, you just do it. But the worst thing is when you copy yourself! That’s when you’ve fucking had it. There’s a difference between artists and photographers. First you’ve got to discuss whether a photographer is an artist or not because photography is not an art; painting is an art. But if the person doing it is an artist, then it turns into art, whatever you do.
SVEN SCHUMANN — But people have criticized you in the past by saying that you do the same pictures that you did 50 years ago.
DAVID BAILEY — Yes, people think I never change. But I’m changing all the time! It might be just one extra bit of grain, but I’m changing things all the time, just slightly every time I do something. I do it to explore. What happens if we change that developer, or what happens if we don’t do the lighting like that? All sorts of things. You can make little changes. You don’t want to fix it too much because it’s not broken. You don’t want to fix something that’s not broken.
[Table of contents]
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The Spring/Summer 2015 collectionsRead the article
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by Olivier Zahm and Alexis Dahan
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