The photographer of the Swinging London of the 1960s says today’s celebrity culture appals him
On a November evening, I walk into the charming living room of the Razhu Pru hotel, an old bungalow atop a hill in Nagaland’s capital, Kohima, to find a silver-haired gentleman puffing on a cigar next to a fireplace. He’s sitting in a loose-fitting shirt, green jacket and green pants that have been folded up to the calves to fully reveal a pair of Vermont-made black leather boots.
It is the last place I ever expected to run into David Bailey, among the world’s most famous photographers, best known for chronicling London’s “Swinging Sixties”, a cultural revolution of sorts that left an indelible mark on music, fashion and cinema, in particular. So, complete in my ignorance, I tell him that in Dimapur, Nagaland’s commercial hub from where I’ve just arrived, I overheard talk about a British journalist working in Kohima.
“I’m not a journalist,” he retorts sharply, then after a guffaw, “I don’t like journalists too much.” The talk meanders about me and the story I’m chasing; it is strangely acerbic, clever and funny, with a liberal dose of profanity. I turn in early, still unaware of the exact identity of the old man in the room across the corridor. And, although I made amends the next morning and then spend three nights in the same hotel, I must wait till he comes to Delhi for a proper interview over a frugal meal, writes Devjyot Ghoshal.
There are two things about Bailey that are difficult to ignore: the first is his age, and the demeanour of a man who has seen it and done it all. At 74, that’s a predictable assessment of someone who defined himself by photographing The Beatles, Mick Jagger, Andy Warhol and everybody who was anybody in 1960s London. After that came 18 covers for Vogue magazine alone, numerous commercials, a clutch of documentaries, at least 23 books and exhibitions.
Second, is his innate ability to engage with people – through humour, a cheeky jibe or just his presence – and maybe that’s a talent that propelled his meteoric rise from an unknown photographic assistant to a photographer for British Vogue by the time he was 25.
Yet, when I sit down with Bailey at the Emperor’s Lounge in New Delhi’s Taj Mahal Hotel, I begin with his childhood in London’s East End, where he lived through the Second World War. By the time that ended and he was in school, Bailey had other troubles. “Nobody knew it was dyslexia. They just thought I was an idiot. I was actually in the idiot class,” he says, with a smile. “That wasn’t great.” In school, a science teacher showed him how to process a roll of film — and that was Bailey’s initiation into the world of photography.
“I used to draw then because that’s all I could do. That’s what I did all the time, make terrible drawings. When I was about 12-13, I processed my first roll of film. It wasn’t till I about 16 or 17 that I realised photography was something more than just a recording instrument or something that you did as a chemical thing. It never occurred to me that it could be artistic.”
As he begins to tell me about his national service in the Royal Air Force and that he just couldn’t spell “with” last night, the food arrives. Although Bailey usually skips lunch, he’s now figuring out how to attack his large Chicken Tikka Sandwich with mint chutney, while I break into my Black Forest ham and red cabbage sauerkraut sandwich. There’s water to go with it; Bailey claims he hasn’t had a tipple in four decades.
That’s unusual, I wonder, because the fashion industry’s attraction to drink, drugs and debauchery was much stronger back then. Bailey, too, had a reputation for the women — a recent BBC production on his romance with model Jean Shrimpton has been awarded the Best European TV Drama in 2012 — but he tells me that it was men who opened the doors for him.
“When I came out of the air force, I sort of looked up who all the famous photographers were and wrote to all them,” says Bailey, after explaining how the air force gave him the money and the time to teach himself photography. “And only two replied. One was John French and the other was Antony Armstrong-Jones”. When Bailey went to meet Armstrong-Jones (better known, later, as the Earl of Snowdon), he sat there looking at a silver teapot and was questioned if he could do carpentry for room sets. That didn’t work out. Instead, French, the British fashion and portrait photographer, offered him a job. “He was gay and probably fancied me, but I wasn’t into guys.”
Within a year, he found his way into British Vogue. “I don’t know how I got through the hole. It still surprises me. There were models in those days that couldn’t shoot for Vogue because the editors didn’t like their accents,” he tells me with a straight face. “I think another gay guy, the art director of British Vogue was called John Parsons, and I think he fancied me. And, I think I was basically lucky to meet these two gay guys.”
Once “through the hole”, Bailey was unstoppable; photographing the “Swinging Sixties” defined him. “I was part of it. All those people I knew before I was famous, like Jean and Mick and Michael Caine,” he says solemnly, “I just approached it direct, without education. Education can be a killer. It’s not my original statement but remember, the only thing you can’t teach in art school is art.”
Yet, today’s celebrity-obsession is a different animal, so I ask Bailey what he thinks about it. “I think it’s ghastly, you mean the celebrity culture?” he says. “I photographed those people because they were talented, not because they were celebrities. Now, they photograph celebrities because they are celebrities. They’re talentless. They just wear high heels or gold chains or drive red cars.”
The India he first came to in the 1960s, en route to New Zealand along with his then girlfriend Sue Murray was very different too, though the colours and “the layers and layers and layers of things that go on” here have remained constant. “In India, there’s always something new to discover,” he says, somewhat predictably.
Unpredictably, though, Bailey’s introduction to Nagaland, where he spent three weeks through October and November to shoot for a book, was because of Rudyard Kipling. “I read Kim, that’s when I heard about the Naga hills,” he explains, “I didn’t know where they were. It was just a romantic vision of this Shangri-La. As it turns out, it’s got as much to do with Shangri-La as East Ham.”
But his encounters in India haven’t always been regular. Bailey claims to have punched film-maker Satyajit Ray to get the right look for a photograph. “He looked like an Egyptian mummy that had dried out in the sun,” he says. And when musician Ravi Shankar once came for a portrait, he wouldn’t stop playing. “We’d got a genius banging out a tune in the studio but what he didn’t know was that I was pressurised because I had another shoot to do. And how do you tell a genius to pack his sitar away?”
Unfortunately, Bailey’s assistants didn’t feel the same way about our lunch. Having been told to wrap up, I want to know about an exhibition that Bailey is putting together in 2014. It’s “not a retrospective,” he explains, but will “cover everything from ethnic to fashion to everything”. He doesn’t quite give me all the details, but says it is probably among the largest photographic exhibitions in recent years.
And what will Bailey do after that? “Try to stay alive,” he says and starts laughing. I pack up, and we shake hands. But he refuses to let go off my hand, and says something typically nasty about me. It’s quite hilarious.
That’s when I realise that despite the interview and the questions, it is the old man by the fireplace in Kohima that will continue to fascinate me, rather than “David Bailey – World Famous Photographer”. I can’t but help imagine what a character he would have been in his prime.
David Bailey, photographer