You are on page 1of 6



Salvador Dali and David Bailey, 1972

David Bailey is laughing.

Its his trademark: more
than a giggle but less than
a guffaw, an infectious
wheeze that punctuates
his Cockney-accented,
joke-filled chatter.
I was photographing
the Queen of Jordan.
Whats her name? he
shouts across his London
studio to his assistant,
Princess Rania, she
reminds him.






Jack Nicholson

Im beginning to feel a bit tired now and then.

But Im not getting old; Im wearing out.
Theres a difference, you know. Ill never be an old fart.
Rania, yeah, thats it. Beautiful woman.
It was about 10 years ago and I was photographing her for Vanity Fair. I was in the palace and there was a break so I began wandering around the place. A man, a little guy,
came up to me and said, Well, you have a busy
day, dont you? Then he held out his hand

and said, I am the king.

Before he can get to the punch line, Bailey
breaks into a hearty, mischievous laugh. His
brown eyes sparkle, and hes nearly doubled
over on the studio couch. He cant help
himself; he knows whats coming.
As he stuck out his hand to shake mine, I

laughed and said to him, No ones ever said

that to me before! The king laughed, too!

The story is classic Bailey. Its funny,
whimsical, and self-deprecating. Incidentally, no one calls him David Bailey or,
God forbid, Mr. Bailey.
Im just Bailey, he says as he welcomes
me into his studio, a former London mews
house (stables) built in 1780. He laughs as he
says, But youcan call me whatever you want.
Like many of the artists, musicians, and
actors Bailey has photographed over the
past six decades (his earlest works captured
1960s Swinging London), the 76-year-old
has become world-famous. He was the
inspiration for the movie Blow Up, Queen
Elizabeth honored him with a CBE, and hes
often cited as the best photographer in the
world. His recent one-man curated show at
Londons National Portrait Gallery, Baileys
Stardust, drew rave reviews and huge crowds.
Flipping through Baileys lifetime of work
is like journeying through a photographic
Whos Who of the late 20th and early 21st
centuries. There are instantly recognizable portraits of everybody who wasand
isanybody, from Jean Shrimpton and
Mick Jagger to Mother Theresa and Jack
Nicholson. Its thrilling, if a bit exhausting,
to sample this massive portfolio of brilliant photography, and its no wonder
that Bailey confesses, Im beginning to
feel a bit tired now and then. But Im not
getting old; Im wearing out. He laughs
and adds, Theres a difference, you know.
Ill never be an old fart.
While he used to photograph every day, he
now captures a few portraits a week. Theres
not enough time in a day to do everything
I want to do, he says. He sculpts, makes
short films, and paints.
When I ask him what its like for a photographer to be described as an artist, as
he often is, he stops me and says, Am I an

Damon Albarn, 2007



artist? Thats a difficult one, isnt it? Im not

sure what art means anyway. Its a bit like
love. Who knows what it is? He pauses for
a moment then adds, Its all in the past,
anyway. Its the moment that counts. Its
the only thing weve got in life.
No ones made a glittering a career of
capturing these moments quite like
Bailey has. So its somewhat surprising
when he says, Im not interested in glamour. Im interested in people and whatever
you see in the photograph. Whatever-youwant-to-call-it is already in that person. I
cant put it there, but I can find it and bring
it out. Its the moment, and nothing captures a moment like a camera.
He brings no preconceived ideas to a portrait session. Never. I never know what I
want. Never! If I did know, I might as well
have someone else shoot the picture. He
confesses having a short temper with art
directors whove asked him to shoot in a
certain style or achieve a certain look. I
tell them to do it themselves. Why are you
coming to me?

He also insists on a private set and has

no patience for subjects who show up with
a gaggle of hangers-on. I dont want anyone to interfere with me, he says. He admits he cancelled an assignment to pho-

tograph pop icon Lady Gaga. There were

so many rumors about her storming out of
photo sessions and being silly. I couldnt
be bothered. The fewer people a subject
brings along, he explains, the more inter-

If something becomes old-fashioned, it was
no good to start with. Think about it. Michelangelo is not old-fashioned.

Actors are hard to photograph

because they never want to reveal who they
are. You dot know if youre getting a
character from a Chekhov play or a Polanski
film. It depends what mood theyre in.

Rockers are the nicest people to

photograph. They have no inhibitions.

I love people for giving me their time. Its a

privilege; I make the most of it.

It always amazes me when people

ask you to do something
and then tell you how to do it.

I like laughing. Thats the

story of my life, really.
Its been a bit of a laugh.
Mick Jagger, 1973



esting he or she usually is. Johnny Depp

came alone; he was great.


I dont take pictures. I make pictures,
says Bailey. A five-year-old can take a
picture, but theres an art to making a
picture. A typical session consists of an
hour of talk and 10 minutes of photographing. Thats one reason I prefer using a
large-format plate camera, he explains. I
can talk to the person while Im working
instead of having to bend down and have
my eye glued to the camera.

When asked if he has any special techniques to get a response from people, he
bristles: I dont do tricks. I just talk.
Although he left school at age 15 hes well
read and will leaven his conversation with
a quote from anyone from Aristotle to Alan
Bennett. I usually find I have something
to talk about with almost everyone I photograph, he explains.
Hes famously said that he has to fall
in love with my subjects to fully capture
them. He explains, You have to give them all
your attention for as long as it takes, whether
its 10 minutes or three.

Although hes decades removed from his

East End beautiful-young-man days, Bailey
still oozes charm. As we talk in his whitewashed London studio, surrounded by the
flotsam and jetsam of his artistic life and
listening to Ella Fitzgeralds Someone
To Watch Over Me in the background, he
turns the tables on me.
Touching me lightly on the arm, he asks,
How old are you? Then, Where have you
been based as a journalist? Do you like the
Brits? Hes at once inquisitive, charming,
and disarmingly funny. You look a lot like
Gore Vidal. Right there; that part of your

Catherine Bailey



Jean Shrimpton

I dont take pictures. I make pictures.

A five-year-old can take a picture,
but theres an art to making a picture.

face, he tells me. Then, after breaking into

an impish cackle, he adds, Sorry, mate.
He confesses hes a people watcher. The
minute someone comes in that door, Im
already photographing them. I note their
personality, their mood, I watch the way
they move, what side of their face they prefer, everything.
Because his process demands time and
access, he frequently turns down projects.
I wont do a job if they only offer me a
few minutes, he explains. For years hed
been asked to photograph Queen Elizabeth
but always declined the offer. They would
never give me more than five minutes, he
says. You cant get to know anyone in just
five minutes.
When he was again asked to shoot a portrait of the Queen in honor of her 88th
birthday in 2014 and to promote the GREAT
Britain trade and tourism campaign, he
demanded a half-day session with her,
three changes of clothes, and no crown. If
she wore a crown my picture would look
like one of those silly pictures that everyone takes of her, he says. He got everything
he asked for except the clothes. She brought
only two changesa cocktail dress and day
clothes. No crown.
In the portrait, which has been highly praised by the press and already acquired by the National Portrait Gallery, the
queen wears a simple white dress, strands
of pearls, and an uncharacteristically
large smile.
Bailey picks up a print of the portrait in
his studio and says, Ive always been a
huge fan of hers. Shes a strong woman and
I like strong women. And do you see the
mischievous glint in her eyes?
What did he say to her to get that expression?
He laughs gently and says, Cant tell you,
mate. Anything you say to the Queen has to
remain off the record. I kid him and ask,
Cant you make something up?
Anything I made up wouldnt be as good
as what we talked about! he says, just before breaking into a cackle that broadens
into a full-throated belly laugh. Once again,
Bailey is laughing.
Robert Kiener is a writer based in Vermont.



You might also like