IMAGES ©DAVID BAILEY

ICONO
GRAPHER

Salvador Dali and David Bailey, 1972

David Bailey is laughing.
It’s 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.
What’s her name?” he
shouts across his London
studio to his assistant,
Hannah.
“Princess Rania,” she
reminds him.

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SIX DECADES INTO HIS GLAMOROUS CAREER,
DAVID BAILEY IS STILL AMUSED

BY ROBERT KIENER

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Jack Nicholson

“I’m beginning to feel a bit tired now and then.
But I’m not getting old; I’m wearing out.
There’s a difference, you know. I’ll never be an old fart.”
“Rania, yeah, that’s 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, don’t 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 he’s nearly doubled
over on the studio couch. He can’t help
himself; he knows what’s coming.
“As he stuck out his hand to shake mine, I

laughed and said to him, ‘No one’s ever said
that to me before!’ The king laughed, too!”

STAR-STUDDED,
DOWN TO EARTH
The story is classic Bailey. It’s funny,
whimsical, and self-deprecating. Incidentally, no one calls him “David Bailey” or,
God forbid, “Mr. Bailey.”
“I’m 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 he’s
often cited as “the best photographer in the
world.” His recent one-man curated show at
London’s National Portrait Gallery, “Bailey’s
Stardust,” drew rave reviews and huge crowds.
Flipping through Bailey’s lifetime of work
is like journeying through a photographic
Who’s Who of the late 20th and early 21st
centuries. There are instantly recognizable portraits of everybody who was—and
is—anybody, from Jean Shrimpton and
Mick Jagger to Mother Theresa and Jack
Nicholson. It’s thrilling, if a bit exhausting,
to sample this massive portfolio of brilliant photography, and it’s no wonder
that Bailey confesses, “I’m beginning to
feel a bit tired now and then. But I’m not
getting old; I’m wearing out.” He laughs
and adds, “There’s a difference, you know.
I’ll never be an old fart.”
While he used to photograph every day, he
now captures a few portraits a week. “There’s
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 it’s 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

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artist? That’s a difficult one, isn’t it? I’m not
sure what art means anyway. It’s a bit like
love. Who knows what it is?” He pauses for
a moment then adds, “It’s all in the past,
anyway. It’s the moment that counts. It’s
the only thing we’ve got in life.”
No one’s made a glittering a career of
capturing these “moments” quite like
Bailey has. So it’s somewhat surprising
when he says, “I’m not interested in glamour. I’m interested in people and whatever
you see in the photograph. Whatever-youwant-to-call-it is already in that person. I
can’t put it there, but I can find it and bring
it out. It’s 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 who’ve 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 don’t 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 couldn’t
be bothered.” The fewer people a subject
brings along, he explains, the more inter-

BON MOTS
ACCORDING TO DAVID BAILEY
“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 do’t know if you’re getting a
character from a Chekhov play or a Polanski
film. It depends what mood they’re in.”

“Rockers are the nicest people to
photograph. They have no inhibitions.”

“I love people for giving me their time. It’s 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. That’s the
story of my life, really.
It’s been a bit of a laugh.”
Mick Jagger, 1973

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esting he or she usually is. “Johnny Depp
came alone; he was great.”

MORE TALK, LESS SHOOTING
“I don’t take pictures. I make pictures,”
says Bailey. “A five-year-old can take a
picture, but there’s an art to making a
picture.” A typical session consists of an
hour of talk and 10 minutes of photographing. “That’s one reason I prefer using a
large-format plate camera,” he explains. “I
can talk to the person while I’m 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 don’t do tricks. I just talk.”
Although he left school at age 15 he’s 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.
He’s 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
it’s 10 minutes or three.”

Although he’s 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 Fitzgerald’s “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?” He’s at once inquisitive, charming,
and disarmingly funny. “You look a lot like
Gore Vidal. Right there; that part of your

Catherine Bailey

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Jean Shrimpton

“I don’t take pictures. I make pictures.
A five-year-old can take a picture,
but there’s an art to making a picture.”

face,” he tells me. Then, after breaking into
an impish cackle, he adds, “Sorry, mate.”
He confesses he’s a people watcher. “The
minute someone comes in that door, I’m
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 won’t do a job if they only offer me a
few minutes,” he explains. For years he’d
been asked to photograph Queen Elizabeth
but always declined the offer. “They would
never give me more than five minutes,” he
says. “You can’t 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 changes—a 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, “I’ve always been a
huge fan of hers. She’s 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, “Can’t tell you,
mate. Anything you say to the Queen has to
remain off the record.” I kid him and ask,
“Can’t you make something up?”
“Anything I made up wouldn’t 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. •

visualartists.co/artist/davidbailey
Robert Kiener is a writer based in Vermont.

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