David Bailey: The Self Curated Retrospective Of A Swinging 60s Icon

This landmark exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, London is the largest exhibition of David Bailey’s portraits.  With over 300 exhibits all selected by the photographer himself, Bailey’s Stardust is one of the Gallery’s larger-scale photography exhibitions and occupies most of the ground floor.

David Bailey is synonymous with the ‘swinging 60s. During that time he was a Vogue fashion photographer but also directed several television commercials and documentaries as well as photographing album sleeve art for The Rolling Stones and others.  He socialised with actors, musicians and models and became the first real celebrity photographer (along with Terence Donovan and Brian Duffy).  His tell tale style a full portrait head set against a white background.  The photographer in Antonioni’s Blow Up is loosely based on Bailey.

As the exhibition is self-curated, Bailey sets out to prove there is so much more to him than the familiar 1960s fashion photographer.  The show is organised thematically with rooms dedicated to Artists, The Rolling Stones+, Black and white icons, fashion icons and beauty, Catherine Bailey, box of pin ups and sections devoted to his travel photography to places like Papua New Guinea and the Sudan.  Stylistically he also shows that as well as white backgrounds, he also uses darker settings and in the large coloured portraits a simple grey background.  The room of artists is more inventive with an unusual portrait of John Piper standing in snow and leaning against a snow filled tree as well as a portrait of Henri Cartier-Bresson in profile with half of his face obscured by a camera.   Portraits of Francis Bacon, Brassai and Bill Brandt are shot against a darker background while there is a large profile shot of Man Ray concentrating on his nose and eye.

He is inventive with The Rolling Stones as his subjects: a 1968 colour shot has them posing with objects such as a garden fork, a dagger and a lightbulb.  Often the shots are expressionless with Peter Sellers one of the few to display a personality along with Jack Nicholson.  The Black and White Icons room is certainly that with portraits of Seal, Queen, Bob Geldof, Meryl Streep, Johnny Depp and many more plus a stunning shot of Mia Farrow from 1968 with her head almost floating against a swathe of black fabric.

Where Bailey uses colour it is heightened exaggerated colour as in his portraits of Grayson Perry, Molly Parkin and Zandra Rhodes and in some of his travel photography.   The largest room in the exhibition houses the definitive Bailey shots in the Box of Pin-ups section where they are displayed in 6 shots per frame.  Subjects here include Mick Jaggger, the Kray twins, Brian Epstein, Michael Caine, Jean Shrimpton, Terence Stamp and Lennon and McCartney.  The room also has sections called Democracy showing full standing nudes, Skulls,  Andy and Dali, Naga Hills (India) and a fascinating section on the East End with black and white shots of buildings from 1961-2 and colour portrait shots from 1968. There is also a cabinet of publications and mementos from his early life.

However, despite the scale and variety within the show it is the photographs from the 1960s that still stand out and carve his place in history.

Words/Photo Sara Faith © Artlyst 2014

Bailey’s Stardust 6 February – 1 June 2014 National Portrait Gallery London

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