Exclusive Interview with David Bailey

January Feature

I first worked with Bailey as an art director in the late eighties. I was young, inexperienced and nervous. He was full of fast one liners, confidence and wisdom, his characteristic laugh filling his London mews studio. Now I’m the editor of this magazine, and a little older but he’s still working in the same studio. His wit, creativity and wisdom are just as vital today as they were then, and the laugh is just as infectious and punctuates the end of pretty much every statement he makes. Bailey enjoys himself, and maybe that’s the best thing to learn from his approach to photographic survival. By Professional Photographer Editor Grant Scott 

How has the industry changed over the last 30 years?
It hasn’t changed much for me!

What about film to digital?
Oh, I love digital. I think it’s great - it makes my film pictures feel more exclusive.

Could you have taken your early pictures with a digital camera?
Yeah, it’s not the camera that takes the picture; it’s the person.

So the art directors haven’t changed, the fashion directors haven’t changed, the business hasn’t changed?
Not for me, no. I can only speak for myself. I’m sure it’s changed like mad, but we make most of our money from the art market now, so I really don’t have to depend on any of those people anymore.

But that’s a big change in itself.
Yeah, I saw it coming 30 years ago. I thought: ‘Photography’s finished. It’s going to end and it’s going to go on the walls.’ It was obvious that the market was flooded. Too many magazines, too many everything. Anything serious was going to go on museum walls, so 30 years ago I started to go in that direction and it’s paid off.

Is it with large digital prints that it’s paying off?
No, we’ve done some digital inkjet prints, and I think that’s the future. I think they are more archival than chemical prints. But we still print chemically, I still do some myself. But most of our big stuff is outsourced. We do the scans and they do the prints.

So you saw the photography moving onto gallery walls years ago, but today that’s a major part of the photography market.
It’s totally my market, I love Condé Nast because they’ve been good to me over the years, but I could exist now just doing art or whatever shit you want to call it.

So that is a major change, then.
But that’s why I did fashion in the first place: because it was the only form of photography you could do and get paid for that was slightly creative. There was no point me working for an agency with some poncey art director telling me what to do. You may as well have got a technician to do that. That’s why I never understand advertising stills. I never did much advertising work in stills; I’d do commercials but never stills. I never understood stills advertising. They’d say: “Can you do it?” and I’d say: “Course I can.” With commercials, they gave you a script, and you could interpret it, which made more sense to me.

“If you make your mark early on, you’re fucking lumbered with it. I bet fucking Michelangelo said: ‘Not another fucking ceiling’.” Bailey

What do you think of the quality of editorial photography now?
I don’t know, really. I don’t look at much, to be honest. I only get magazines if they get sent to me and have my stuff in them.

Are you aware of the amount of photographers making films with DSLRs?
I can see it, but there were perfectly good little broadcast-quality camcorders, so I don’t know why they had to be suddenly woken up because they can do it on a different camera. I’ve always wondered why people didn’t make more films when it became so easy to make them. I made my first film in 1966, called The Assassination of GG Passion, which was 45 minutes long and was loosely based on The Blood of a Poet by Cocteau. I was very pretentious when I was 25, obviously.

Photographers are getting excited about the lenses they can use on these DSLRs for film.
That’s all bollocks. If you’ve got a good zoom, you’ve got all the lenses anyway! It’s true, I only use two lenses: on 35mm I use a 50 or 35, or if I could, a 40, but the only one of those I’ve got is an old Nikon lens; on 120 I just use the normal or something a bit longer. Cameras have never been a big part of it for you. No, no, I have favourite cameras: the twin lens Rollei 2.8, the Olympus OM1 and the Leica M7. Those are cameras I like to use, but at the end of the day, it doesn’t make any difference. We just did a big thing for Nokia on their phones and the pictures were good.

So you’re still open to new things.
Yeah, I just think that a lot of people were digitally led. They started using digital because they could. It was just a cheaper way of doing things

. …rather than a creative way of doing things.
Yeah, but I don’t think it is a cheaper way of doing things, because you spend so much time looking at the screen. I still like film or transparency because you’ve got somewhere to start from; if you start with digital, there seems to be nowhere to go.

Are you still working on film a lot?
Yeah, it’s all film. I just did two books on India on digital but they’re kind of street pictures, and with street pictures it doesn’t matter what it’s on.

So are you working with the same clients you’ve always worked with?
Clients! No I have collectors now [big laugh]. Which is much more chic! [big laugh].

So how do you deal with these collectors?
Sometimes [art dealer] Larry Gagosian might sell something, sometimes Tim Jeffries [at Hamiltons] might sell something, but I sell most of the things myself. I don’t really sell them, I’m always embarrassed. I always say: “You don’t want that, you want this.” Then they don’t buy anything! I’m not very good at the selling from my point of view, because I’m a bit too honest, I guess. I guess my biggest collector is Damien [Hirst] and then I’ve got a couple of hedge fund guys who collect photography, but I could pretty much exist on what I do now.

Have you ever got fed up with taking pictures?
It’s not really taking pictures, it’s making images, isn’t it? I don’t care how you do it, it’s just doing it. I never really care if it’s a painting, a bronze, a photograph or a cardboard box. They’re all interesting.

But photography has always been the backbone to your work.
Well, it’s the quickest. If they invented Polaroid paint, I’d paint more. I can’t wait for it to dry [big laugh].

So you haven’t run out of ideas and you just created a book with Damien Hirst.
They’re like art books those, they’re like art projects. The Damien book was about the banality of photography. Whereas the next one to come out is an old-fashioned photography book of all the people I think had a creative eye, in fact it’s called Eye. Damien did the cover of an eye, surprisingly enough. Surprised me he did an eye and not an arsehole [big laugh].

Do people ‘get’ Bailey?
No one knows what I fucking do. They think I do black and white photos of John Lennon [huge laugh].

“It’s no good saying you’re going to bite someone’s nose off if you’re not prepared to do it.” Bailey

Even today?
Even today. I’m not comparing myself with anybody from history, but everybody has that problem. If you make your mark early on, you’re fucking lumbered with it. I bet fucking Michelangelo said: “Not another fucking ceiling” [big laugh]. In terms of history, it will just be a body of work. I’m probably doing just as good work now as then. The difference is that I managed to get iconic pictures of those people, The Beatles, The Stones or whoever.

What are you doing at the moment?
Finishing the two books on India. I can’t make up my mind if it’s going to be two books or one, because the paper I want is so fucking thick, it’s going to look like a telephone book.

It’s still about control for you, trying to get your personal vision through.
Well, yeah, it’s everything!

No compromise?
Once you’ve compromised, you’re finished. It’s hard, but I’ve stuck to that. Don’t think I haven’t had terrible times with Condé Nast over the years. I refused to work with American Condé Nast, which probably cost me $100,000 a year recently because I didn’t like their layouts. You have to stick to it, though. It’s no good saying you’re going to bite someone’s nose of if you’re not prepared to do it.

If you’re not looking at much other work…

Oh, I see things, I see things I like. It just doesn’t seem to change much. They’re all fucking dead now, the ones I grew up with. There’s just Robert Frank and Eggleston left really. I look at the new ones, but it takes time for them to get a look of their own. But there are some great photographers out there, really great. I think more in the art market. The art market is so dodgy because the good ones are really good and there are so many third-rate copies, so-called conceptual copies.

Everyone’s trying to do an Andreas Gursky…
Yeah, which is silly.

The hardest part is to find your own vision with a camera.
Well, you will if you keep doing it. Some people just copy – most photographers just copy. I see so many copies. And because people getting the picture are so young, they don’t realise it’s a copy of Helmut Newton. They think: ‘Oh, he’s good’ because they think he did it. He didn’t, he just copied it. If you’re going to copy, you have to make it better; it can’t be less good. It’s difficult to copy my work because it’s about the personalities and not about the photography.

But just about every photographer has tried to emulate your black and white portraits at some stage.
Yeah, and it always looks weak. They think it’s about photography and it’s not. It’s about using the person, making them give you something. To be quite honest, and I try to avoid it, but when photographers come here to photograph me, they don’t talk to me. I watch other photographers and they don’t talk to the people they’re photographing. They just take pictures – anyone can do that. A five-year-old can do that. And they say: “Smile!” I say: “Hang on, you’re supposed to get me to smile. I’m not a fucking actor.”

Taking a portrait should be a two-way thing.
Yeah, Avedon could do it and Bruce Weber can do it. There are lots of people who can do it. I don’t know if there are young ones doing it.

I don’t see many.
Which is good. It proves that photography is an art and not just a skill. Because if it was just a skill and not art, everyone would make the same piece of furniture.

I like the idea of the books and it’s good to hear you on such good form.
There are a lot more books in the pipeline. I’ll probably do a book on sixties fashion. I’m doing a book on the East End of London that I’ve been working on for 50 years nearly, and there’s going to be a book called Parade with all the new stuff in it – flowers and skulls and things. On average, two a year.

Is that tied in with the selling of prints?
No, no, they sell. They all sell out. We don’t print many, only between 5,000 and 8,000.

They’ve become collector’s items in themselves.
A Box of Pin Ups, my first book from ’63, just sold for £25,000, and an English Goodbye Baby and Amen in good nick from 10 years later goes for up to £1,200.

Do you recognise something of yourself in the way Damien Hirst deals with the art world in the way you’ve handled the photography world?
Damien’s a much better businessman than me [big laugh]. He’s a fucking genius businessman [huge laugh].

That seems like a good place to end, so thanks for the time.
Okay, kid, take care.

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