Art review: Bailey’s Stardust | Retina

DAVID Bailey is a chronicler of our times. He began his career as the Sixties dawned and fixed the image of that colourful decade. Since then he has recorded the fashionable world of which he has very much been part.

Johnny Depp, 1995. Picture: David Bailey

Bailey’s Stardust

Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh

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Rating: *****

Mick Jagger, 1964. Picture: David Bailey


Various venues, Edinburgh

Ratign: ****

Everybody is here, from the Rolling Stones and Andy Warhol to Vivienne Westwood, Kate Moss and Desmond Tutu. But this is not just an anthology from the fashion and gossip magazines. Bailey photographs real people and while he began as a fashion photographer, he does not regard himself as one. “I’ve never been interested in fashion.” he says. “The reason I did fashion was that I liked what was in the frocks.” Even in fashion, his models are people first. In 1962, the cover of the first Sunday Times colour supplement, heralding a brighter era after the Cuban missile crisis lifted the threat of imminent doom, was a collage of a dozen pictures of Jean Shrimpton. He made hers the face of the decade.

Picture: Retina

Bailey was born in the East End of London just before the war. Although his schooling was undistinguished, a certificate from the Royal Drawing Society when he was just 12 suggests art was already an interest. High up on a wall, too, is his first photograph, a picture of his family on the beach at Margate, taken around 1948. His horizons opened with National Service and a self-portrait taken in 1958 in his RAF barrack room in Singapore. He is lying on a bed and above him, instead of a pin-up, is a reproduction of a painting by Picasso, a choice that reflects his dawning ambition and, inspired by a picture by Cartier Bresson, he determined to become a photographer. He took his self-portrait with a cheap copy of a Rolleiflex bought in Singapore. Demobbed, he was briefly an assistant to fashion photographer John Finch, but by 1960 was on his own. Everything here is portraiture except the very earliest pictures, which are of the streets of his native East End still ruined from the Blitz.

The Sunday Times cover was his breakthrough. Contracts with Vogue, first in Britain, then in America, followed both for him and Shrimpton. He soon got fed up with fashion, however, and in 1965 produced David Bailey’s Box of Pin-Ups, 36 black and white portraits on stiff card, priced three guineas, with his own face, photographed by Mick Jagger, as frontispiece. Here are the Rolling Stones, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Michael Caine, Vidal Sassoon, Cecil Beaton, Rudolf Nureyev, Jean Shrimpton, Terence Stamp and many others. The Kray brothers are there too. They were a dubious part of part of his East End background, but their presence reflects Bailey’s perception of how society was becoming much more fluid. The pictures themselves are mostly taken against a white ground.

The artist has curated this show himself and so in a way it is a 50-year update on his Box of Pin-Ups. At one end of the biggest room is a group of people he calls “the ultimate ones… at the peak of what they do”. Sandra Rhodes, Vivienne Westwood, Kate Moss, Alexander McQueen going crazy in a kilt and various others. Many are in colour, but some of his most enduring images appear under the heading Black and White Icons. Black and white against a white ground, often under-exposed to give a deep, dark tone to the face and cropped close to give greater immediacy, here are Jack Nicholson showing all his teeth, Bob Dylan in shadowy close-up, Grace Jones looking like Cleopatra, Peter Sellers, Catherine Deneuve (Bailey’s second wife) with David Bowie, both pale and ghostly, and Joseph Beuys taken with a very shallow depth of field so only his eyes are exactly in focus.

Bailey’s portraits of his fellow photographers make an equally impressive group; Brassai against a shadowy row of houses, Cartier-Bresson hiding behind his camera and Jacques Lartigue with bright little rings of light in his eyes as though they were actually cameras. Most startling is a big portrait of Man Ray showing just one eye and his nose. Bailey’s Nudes also make a rather startling group of pictures. People with no clothes on, all taken in the same way and in the same format, naked, not nude in fact.

Iggy Pop, by Hamish Brown. Picture: Retina

There are more personal pictures of Bailey’s wife Catherine Dyer in the show, too, as his muse, sexy, half-dressed and shadowy, or posing as Michelangelo’s Dawn, but also as a mother with their children. These often very beautiful images are small and hung together, many of them high up as though he isn’t sure he really wants you to see them.

Quite different from everything else in the show are three groups of photographs taken on sometimes perilous expeditions. One was to Sudan to photograph starving refugees from the Ethiopian famine; another was to Nagaland, a remote and dangerous state on India’s border with Burma. Bailey also went to Australia to photograph the aboriginal people, but most impressive of all are his pictures of the people of Papua New Guinea. Proud and dignified, their costumes outshine the wildest extravagances of any of Bailey’s fashion icons.

Altogether there is much to admire here, though I am not sure that includes his paintings and sculptures. There are various pieces of sculpture dotted around and a whole room devoted to his paintings. Diverse and energetic, some are amusing, but they are not consistent enough to suggest we lost a major painter in order to have a great photographer. It might have been more interesting to see some of his films, the one he made with Andy Warhol, for instance, or even some of his TV commercials. A Cadbury’s Flake ad was initially banned as too suggestive, for instance, and his influence was probably enormous.

A dozen other photographers are also showing, in several venues, in Retina, the Scottish photography festival now in its second year. Among them, at Gayfield Creative Spaces, Kenneth Sortland Myklebust’s 1000 Bodies is a bit like Bailey’s Nudes, but his pictures are more impressive for their number than their impact. Tim Flach takes striking animal pictures, a tiger shaking off water like a dog, for instance. Hamish Brown’s moody portrait of Terence Stamp could hold its own alongside Bailey. Lee Howell’s stagey pictures at Urbane Art seem so highly manipulated they go beyond photography. In contrast, at Out of the Blue, Bartek Furdal has gone for straight documentation of his home village in Poland. There is also work there by a small group of recent graduates from Edinburgh College. The outstanding figure, however, is Douglas Corrance. He started as a junior on the Highland News in Inverness when Bailey started in London. His portrait of the original Madame Doubtfire with her cat (her name was hijacked by Anne Fine) could stand alongside Bailey’s best. So, too, could his picture of the Ravenscraig steelworks, though clearly at the other end of the socio-political scale. No celebrities here, just a man and his dogs silhouetted against chimneys and towering columns of smoke. Taken the day before the steelworks closed forever in 1992, the picture is an elegy on the death of industrial Scotland.

• Bailey’s Stardust until 18 October; Retina until 30 July