Portraiture is the core of David Bailey, and his excitement has always really been about people. People make him tick. He may not agree with what they say; often doesn’t. He is confrontational, challenging. But the contact is real, the engagement perfectly sincere. Bailey weighs people up like a novelist. A Bailey portrait is a map of a relationship, however brief. It’s a testimony to how well two people got on for a moment. It’s also quite overtly a creation. It doesn’t matter who you are when you come to be photographed by Bailey. You’re going to have to act out your part under his direction.

Part of his manner is a legacy from surrealism. At its simplest, that gives his portraits a lovely clear, legible wit. When his son Sascha posed in front of a shutter daubed with the single word ‘LOOK’ and a large arrow to the right, Bailey made sure that the boy’s eyes moved sharply the other way. When Marianne Faithfull posed for him in 1999, he put her in the bra and pants of endless thoughtless pictures of women – only together they had the brains and the courage to turn the laugh back on us; she looks confident, energetic, fully active – defying sexism and ageism in the same single picture.

Astonishment is a good start. If the sitter is not astonished, sometimes it’s good if the viewer can be. There’s that wonderful portrait of Mick Jagger after a performance: hair soaked in sweat, stage costume half off, eyes dark with fatigue, in a spartan dressing room lit by a single unshaded bulb. He looks more like a fighter than a musician; what Bailey wanted to show us was effort. He assumed we knew the excitement, the ‘glamour’. Sometimes a view of someone sweating alone in a dressing room is more astonishing than what happened on stage.

Anyone who has seen Bailey make a portrait knows that it’s a very physical business; he stalks around, prodding here and there, telling jokes, pulling clothing or limbs this way and that. What he’s doing is trying to allow character to come out. Any kind of interference is good; it can be sexual teasing or flirting, storytelling, gloriously provocative conversation – anything to nudge a person out of stage fright or smugness. If you have any personality at all, he will find it and it won’t take long. The plain background is a graphic device but it’s also a boxing ring. When you go to Bailey’s studio, you get into the ring with him and he’ll search out what you’ve got. He doesn’t waste film.

Bailey was more famous than his models. There is almost nobody he has photographed who was more famous than him

It has become conventional to associate David Bailey with the British photographers Brian Duffy and Terence Donovan. The connection was made explicit in a long, admiring article in the colour section of the Sunday Times: in a piece called The Modelmakers by Francis Wyndham in May 1964. Bailey certainly acknowledges that as a young man he was one part of what Norman Parkinson, seeing their leather jackets, had labelled the “black trinity”. It was flattering, yet true enough.

Empowered, energetic and to a greater or lesser extent socially radical (Duffy probably more than the other two), those three young photographers from modest backgrounds tore into the stilted world of British fashion photography and had themselves a ball in the early 1960s, buying Rolls-Royces and boasting about their earnings. “Before 1960,” Duffy said, “a fashion photographer was tall, middle class and a bit camp. But we three are different: short, fat and heterosexual. We were great mates but also great competitors… If you wanted it you could have it. We would not be told what to do.”

But it’s not enough just to say Bailey was one of a group of like-minded photographers. Bailey was more famous than his models. There is almost nobody he has photographed who was more famous than him. He has been famous since his early twenties. That’s common now, but had rarely happened before him. With great skill, he rode the wave of youth culture. He was famous before Mick Jagger; indeed, he quite specifically helped Jagger to some of his early renown.

The questions of celebrity and how we use it and what it does are never far away from Bailey’s portraits. For 50 years or more the very fact of being photographed by Bailey has conferred a certain status.

Bailey was a Londoner through and through, and his London was the new creative place to be. London presented a great melting pot in which new industries – particularly in the media: pop music, advertising, a number of different design specialities, theatre, journalism, television – fed voraciously on each other. It wasn’t so much an ‘art’ capital, as it was truly a ‘creative’ capital.

Bailey doesn’t need props, and rarely uses them. You don’t have to drag your guitar into the studio to prove you’re a musician

It’s from artists that Bailey gets his best responses. They collaborate with Bailey, rather than merely sit for him. Often, that’s made explicit and he’s in the pictures too – with Warhol, with Dalí, with many others, the portrait is a double one, and with complete equality. These people are his familiars, they populate his inner world.

Double portraits, by the way, have long been one of Bailey’s particular favourite formats. He gets more than two individuals by putting two together. Sometimes they are a real team: Lennon piled on top of McCartney, whose paired solid architecture is given such breezy top notes by the delicate pattern of little pale patches: cuffs, hands, and the spaces where their arms curl out of the mass. He put the sisters Catherine Deneuve and Françoise Dorléac on opposite backgrounds; one dark, one light. He developed double portraits of the same sitter, too, as the sculptural view of Terence Stamp twisting into the light. 

Bailey doesn’t need props, and rarely uses them. You don’t have to drag your guitar into the studio to prove you’re a musician. He learnt early, in the East End, that charm and humour could defuse any situation, and it’s easier to charm people if you get along with them.

He worked for a while in the late 1950s as assistant to John French, fashion photographer for the Daily Express. French had worked out that printing on newsprint vastly limited the tonal range available to him and that a blocky contrasty manner would suit his medium. Some of that became the bedrock of Bailey’s way, too.

It was simple, and Bailey, like the musician he once wanted to be, has always liked to have simplicity at the core. In speech, he will sum up a complicated situation or position in a phrase. In photographs, notably in portraits, he has always found that less is more. Still today, he can make a portrait so obviously ‘right’ that viewers mistake what they see in it for what they think they knew of the sitter before.

Lesser portraitists confirm their sitters; on his best form, Bailey makes them.

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