'I’d probably get on with Kim Jong-Un as well.'
One of the greatest photographers of the 20th century, British icon David Bailey has influenced every corner of culture from his high powered celebrity portraits to defining an entire era. We sit down with the temperamental legend to discuss love, life and Kim Jong-Un.
Almost 79 years old now, the legendary photographer has certainly lived a full life, riding shotgun with some of history’s most influential figures, from John Lennon to Andy Warhol. His images are iconic, and his personality looms large, perhaps larger even than his work. Full of incredible anecdotes and provocative statements, Bailey is a master at poking and prodding, maybe this has been the key to getting his subjects to open up throughout his career.
There is one thing we do know, David Bailey doesn’t take things all that seriously. This may be as a result of surviving daily bombings from Hitler as a young boy or perhaps seeing most of his close celebrity friends pass away. Whatever the reason, he doesn’t give a shit.
Bjorn Andersen | David Bailey, 1970
I want to start by asking you what you think of Donald Trump.
I met him when he was paying people a lot of money to be in his commercials back in the 80s. I found him reasonable.
The script for the commercial was terrible so I said, let’s just get them talking and then shoot them and edit it. The only thing we disagreed on was when he said, “Why aren’t you showing an aeroplane in the commercial?” I said, “You’ve got Norman Mailer in your commercial and the others haven’t, but they’ve got the same aeroplane as you so what’s the point in wasting 5 seconds on an aeroplane that everybody else has got.”
But I know what you’re asking, and who knows? Maybe he’s a breath of. . . maybe not fresh air but a breath of air anyway which I think all politics need. I’m a great fan of Boris Johnson and I don’t mind Farage because at least he cares about Britain. Whether you agree with everything Trump says is another question, but I don’t agree with everything that anybody says so why not give him a chance and see what happens. I’d rather have lunch with him than Hillary. He’d be more interesting.
You voted ‘Remain’ in the United Kingdom referendum in 1975 but you backed the leave campaign in June. Why?
I wanted to join back in the 70s because I thought it was a trade deal and trade stops wars in a way. Then when I found out they were making rules that we had no say in, I didn’t think that was very democratic. It was very Orwellian and extreme socialism so I didn’t think that was a good idea at all so I’m glad we came out. But I’m not a Tory. ‘The left’ think I’m ‘right’ and ‘the right’ thinks I’m wrong.
Do you think it’s going to be a messy exit from the EU?
No. I think it will be alright. We’ve already got Australia and New Zealand and America saying they’ll make deals with us. The world is about making deals now anyway. I think the English are a bit lazy. The productivity in this country is not great compared with Germany and even France. We work long hours but we don’t produce as much as the French so maybe there’s a way of making the English work less hours but be more productive.
Some people say it’s impossible to live in London as an artist these days.
Oh forget the artists, that’s their choice. It’s difficult to live anyway. If artists want to do art that’s up to them to make sacrifices.
Was there a vast difference living as an artist in London during the 60s and 70s?
I don’t think so. It’s a free choice to be an artist and if you make it the perks are great. You’re gambling with your life in a way. I think if you want to be an artist you have to take all the shit along with the good things.
"Most artists only have about eight years of being popular before they vanish."
David Bailey on being an artist
Andy Warhol, 1965
Right, but it’s still a struggle.
Well, if it was easy to do you’d just press a button and do it. That’s what’s happened with the digital age. With these kids now I never see any originality because it all seems to be rehashed from what they get off the computer. Nobody seems to have his or her own vision anymore. People in this country don’t even know who Damien Hirst is.
Well lets discuss Damien Hirst. I think his work says a lot about modern art. I mean how many artists put a shark in a tank filled with formaldehyde and then sell it for millions upon millions. How do you think Andy Warhol would respond to the commodification of art today?
I think he’d like it. The first thing I knew about Andy is that he wasn’t embarrassed. He said to me once, “do you know anyone who wants a portrait?” I said, “How much?” And he said, “£10,000”. I thought that was a bit stiff and he said, “I’d do it for three.” I thought that was great because he wasn’t embarrassed about money. He wasn’t someone who said, I’ll never do an ad for Rolex because I’m an artist. He had the right attitude. They should get as much money as they can because most artists only have about eight years of being popular before they vanish.
Not 15 minutes?
No that’s more Marshall McLuhan than Andy Warhol. Lots of Andy’s quotes and thinking came from Marshall McLuhan. He influenced me a lot as well.
Are there any other academics or intellectuals you’re influenced by?
I don’t care too much about academics because there’s usually no art involved. I’m more influenced by people like Bob Dylan, David Bowie or Woody Allen, or in a mad way Fellini and Visconti. They were two extremes, one was full of bad taste and one suffocated you with good taste.
The Kray Twins, 1965
Has anyone emerged in the last few years that you’ve thought is interesting?
Not many. Tim walker. I think he’s interesting. I like David LaChapelle. I like Jürgen Teller.
Do you meet these people? Do they ask you for advice?
God no (laughing) I would be the worst person to get advice from. Just fucking do it, the more you do it the better you get. But I’m so old that when I’m talking about young photographers like Juergen Teller, he’s not young anymore I guess. He’s sort of interesting. I like people who alter things. Change is good, that’s why I’m not against Trump, or Brexit. I think people get so emotional about these things because their lives are not very emotional. It’s like that silly left politician, what’s his name? Coban?
What do you think of him?
I think he’s surrounded by women. Every time I see him he’s surrounded by a tribe of women like his angels, and they all look like they have about ten cats each. So it’s a strange situation that one. He’s kind of like a cult figure.
I’ve never seen him surrounded by women.
He’s always surrounded by women!
Well, women have been an important part of your career.
Well I just did what an average buck in the forest would do. I’m like Bambi’s father. I just did what I was supposed to do. There were a lot of them and I was on top of most of them.
Cara Delevingne with Pharell Williams, 2012 © David Bailey
You’re brutally honest about everything aren’t you?
I hate political correctness. It’s awful. You can’t say what you think. You have to say what the lowest denominator thinks, you have to come down to their level. How can you express yourself if you have to worry about what you’re saying?
You called me a dickhead when I walked in earlier. Is that all part of how you create a jokey and comfortable environment for people?
Yeah, I can speak to anyone. I can speak to Boris Johnson and I can speak to the milkman. I get on equally well with both of them. Everybody is important because we’re all linked. It’s sad; we’re so interconnected as a human race and war seems to almost advance civilization. The fact that we’re so aggressive is a part of our success I suppose. In a way we’re the cancer of the world. I’m mad about animals, and there’s no way we’re doing good by them. We’re just like ants or termites. I was looking at a city the other day and I thought, “Shit, it’s a termite hill.”
Curiosity is the driving force of humanity. But I wouldn’t want to go to Mars; I haven’t been to some parts of Scotland. I did spend two and half months in the outback in Australia, because I was curious. Everyone told me there was nothing there, but it’s fantastic nothing. I’ve never seen so much nothing. It’s the best nothing in the world.
"Me and John Lennon were smoking a joint on the roof of the Ad Lib which was the best club in London. He said, “I’ve really made it now Bailey. Here I am smoking a joint with you."
On his friendship with Beatle John Lennon
Is it true that you tried to photograph Gaddafi?
Yeah I asked Graydon Carter (Vanity Fair) because I’m not Jewish. We talked about it but in the end the Americans were a bit iffy about it and they are the only ones with the money and power to get it together.
I also wanted to photograph Castro. I think Tina Brown and I talked about it for 25 years but we just couldn’t get him. I went out to Cuba and had lunch with Che Guevara’s son who had lots of photographs of Castro. They weren’t that good and had mould growing up around them. He was going to get them cleaned and I said, “for Christ sake don’t get them cleaned, print them with the mould. The whole history of Cuba is in this mould.” I don’t know what happened to them, I didn’t see them again. We did finally get permission but I’d have to sit down there and wait for probably six weeks, and then he might say no. There was no way I was going to sit there and wait for six weeks.
Is there anyone you wouldn’t shoot? How about Kim Jong-Un?
I’d love to shoot him. It would be fascinating. I’d probably get on with Kim Jong-Un as well. You’ve got to be pragmatic. If you want to photograph someone you can’t go in and say, I don’t agree with everything you do. My method of foreign policy would be take them to lunch and buy them a Rolls Royce. Change it from within rather than sending in soldiers.
Is it just about adding another name to the list for you?
No, it’s nothing about names. In fact I’m doing a big new book and if someone’s really famous but it’s not a good enough photograph then it’s not going in. It’s all subjective anyway, art. I never know what art is really, it’s one of those abstract things that people talk about and don’t really know what it is. A bit like existentialism. I notice they use the word existential all the time on the news and I’m sure they don’t know what they’re talking about.
Speaking of giant figures past and present, you said that you got on better with John Lennon than Paul McCartney and that you saw more of yourself in him because he was more of an asshole.
Yeah I like assholes. The other one who I thought was all right was the Hara Krishna one, George [Harrison]. The trouble is when I talk about people like John Lennon people think I’m name-dropping, but I can’t help that I’ve bumped into all these people. Alex Schulman wrote something the other day and said “bailey compared himself to Picasso.” Everyone who knows me knows I’m quite intelligent and that I wouldn’t be so stupid as to compare myself to Picasso.
You’ve said you never wanted to meet Picasso because you were too scared that you’d walk in and he’d fart.
Yeah it’s awful isn’t it? He’s my hero, someone I’d adored since I was 15. I wrote a story about him, and the other three most important people to me, Three Gays and a Jew. Charlie Papier who was an East End Jew who turned me onto Picasso and everything. Jews are clever aren’t they? Not as clever as the Chinese but close runners up. I would say that Jews are nearly as clever as the Chinese. Then there was John French, a photographer I worked with. And then there was John Parsons who was the art director of Vogue.
So anyway, me and John Lennon were smoking a joint on the roof of the Ad Lib which was the best club in London. He said, “I’ve really made it now Bailey. Here I am smoking a joint with you on the top of the Ad Lib club.” I wasn’t good friends with him like I was with Mick [Jagger] but I liked him a lot. There was more of a barrier in those days between London and Liverpool. They never seemed to be as cool as people from London. London produced the coolest people in my opinion. You had to come to London to make it. They used to say the Beatles made the 60s. No they didn’t, London made the Beatles. There would have been no Beatles without London. The Beatles sang, “I want to hold your hand, I want to hold your hand, I really want to hold your hand.” You think that beats Bob Dylan?
Do you like The Beatles?
Not much no. I prefer The Who or even Pink Floyd. The Stones are my favorite because they’ve been constant and they came from the music that I liked in the first place. I used to get on well with Brian Jones. I still see Ronnie all the time and occasionally Mick but I never see Keith.
I remember Joe Strummer saying to me, “Bailey I’m 54 and I’m still doing this. Do you think I’m too old?” I said, “No it’s racial because if you was black and 90 then people wouldn’t even mention it.” If you’re white people don’t like it. They’re jealous. Jealous of Mick and Keith, those guys who have had a great life and are still out there having a good time.
Have you had a good time?
I’ve had a great time. Fantastic. Better than the East End down in the coal cellar during the blitz, I can tell you that. I’ve got no complaints. I’m not getting old, I’m wearing out. There’s a big difference. I see people much younger than me getting old. My wife is the best thing that happened to me and I’d probably be dead now if I’d never met her. I wouldn’t have taken care of myself. She gives me vitamins and makes me go to the doctor, which I’d never thought of doing before.
I really like the photograph you did of Francis Bacon.
Oh Franky the pig, yeah. He tried to pick me up when I was about 21 in the establishment club. He kept buying me scotch and sodas. I said, “Who’s this guy who keeps buying me drinks?” and someone said, “he’s a famous painter.”
Francis Bacon, 1983
You seemed to capture a trauma in his face.
It’s what I do. It’s a personality thing, understanding the way they move and the way they put their knee with their hand on their chin like you’re doing now. It’s all the little things you notice. Even the way someone dresses, everything. You have to be perceptive.
Does that give you control? If you understand someone does that mean you can control the setting?
It’s more about empathy than control. Most of the people I do are used to being photographed. We did the Mayor of London the other day and he doesn’t give away anything. Usually I can throw people but he’s clever at not giving anything away with his expressions.
Did the Krays ever come to the your studio?
Yes, I was quite good friends with Reg. I saw them do somebody really badly one time. But they were moral, they were like Tolstoy’s Cossacks, they had their rules with drugs and prostitution. I mean people think they were bad people, drug dealers and all, but the real drug dealers are the pharmaceuticals companies, charging money to people who can’t afford to buy the drugs and they need it to live. In a way drug dealers on the street are more honest than the pharmaceuticals companies.
You don’t call yourself a fashion photographer do you?
Well I stopped doing it in the 80s.
But you did one recently for Valentino?
Well that’s the only one I’ve done since. I liked the project and the people I was shooting, it became more about the portraits than just the fashion.
"I don't really care [about my legacy], when your dead you're dead."
Taken from his latest book NW1:
17 360 St Pancras Station from Euston Road 1981
117 442 Manley Street 1982
177 440 Buck Street 1982
Don’t you think they make such a fuss about the 60s?
Oh the 60s were great and it just wasn’t about fashion that was the least of it, it was about music, and people like me having a voice. Ten years earlier and I wouldn’t have been anything.
So, if you had emerged today do you think you would have been received the same?
Oh yeah, now its all changed. People are not prejudiced now against your accent or your sex. Like being gay in those days was much harder.
Do you ever think of your legacy?
I don’t really care, when you’re dead you’re dead.
NW1 is David Bailey’s latest exhibition on until the 31st January 2017 at the HENI gallery. NW1 is his latest book out on HENI publishing.