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No one ‘got’ the Sixties better than David Bailey

5 December 2020

9:00 AM

5 December 2020

9:00 AM

Look Again: The Autobiography David Bailey, with James Fox

Macmillan, pp.384, 20

What caught my eye towards the end of Look Again was this conversation between David Bailey and the shoe designer Manolo Blahnik. They are talking about a brief golden age, a perfect moment in their lives:

Blahnik: So sometimes I just have to sit down and say: ‘God, did all this happen?’ All the excitement, it doesn’t exist any more, maybe because I’m old.
Bailey: It’s not because you’re old. It doesn’t exist.

This is the autobiography of David Bailey, as told to James Fox (‘my collaborator’). It starts with Bailey as a child in the East End, and ends with Bailey returning there as an old man. But the real subject is that golden moment, the compressed excitement of a very short period in cultural history, involving a small number of people, mostly in London and New York. This was the moment that Bailey captured, the moment that lives in the mind’s eye as a series of images. Something seemed to be changing very suddenly, and lots of people loved it.

Is this right, or is this just the way we remember it? Of course we remember it partly through Bailey’s images — of the Beatles, the Stones, the Krays; of Michael Caine and Jean Shrimpton and Andy Warhol. Something happened. Something was changing — maybe. In any case, people thought the world was opening up, that now everybody could have more sex and fun; you could see this, as well as other things, in the eyes of the people in Bailey’s pictures.

So either something was happening, at that precise historical moment, or something was confected, and either way David Bailey was at the heart of it. That’s why this book is so very readable and entertaining. Bailey was important. He is a key figure. He comes across as laconic, rude, bolshy and self-centred — the perfect narrator.

‘Almost my first visual image,’ he tells us, ‘was of sides of houses gone, the inside outside.’ This was during the Blitz. The destruction of order and privacy; very pertinent. The family moved from Leytonstone to East Ham. ‘I think about death every day, all the time,’ Bailey says. His father, Bert, was a tailor’s cutter. ‘They used to fight all the time, my parents. I don’t really know who was the worst, because she was probably a bitch, my Mum, looking back.’ She was called Gladys — ‘Glad’. ‘She had big tits, I think.’ He says Reggie Kray sliced Bert’s face open with a broken beer glass.

Bailey imagined he’d be ‘a car thief or a hairdresser’. He was dyslexic at school: ‘I was told I was stupid every day of my life.’ But he wasn’t; he was sharp, resourceful and charismatic. He had an incredible eye for images. After National Service in Singapore he wrote to lots of photographers asking for an assistant’s job. He got one with John French of the Express., who saw potential, and helped him. Later, John Parsons, the art director of Vogue (‘he was a junkie but he was Chelsea posh’), offered him a contract as an actual photographer: £25 a picture. It was 1960. Parsons, says Bailey, ‘got the Sixties. It was an attitude’.

We are approaching the golden moment. In 1962, Bailey went to New York to photograph his girlfriend, the model Jean Shrimpton. ‘Everything about her was perfect… I suppose it’s a kind of visual intelligence.’ More facts: Bailey had married an East End girl called Rosemary; it took him three months to seduce Shrimpton — her father ‘an awful man, threatened to shoot me’. Anyway, the New York pictures: Shrimpton looked beautiful, vulnerable, definitely like a real person, wearing expensive clothes but slightly scruffy, as if she was stressed. ‘Suddenly she was someone you could touch, or maybe even take to bed,’ says Bailey.

And then ‘everything started to look different’. Bailey created images of people who seemed to be looking at you, and you could see right into them, could see they were a bit fragile and damaged. Like those houses in the Blitz. The Beatles looking smart, handsome, hungry for something, but scared; the Krays looking aggressive and wary at the same time; Warhol looking zoned out. John Lennon said to Bailey: ‘Here I am on the roof of the Ad Lib smoking a joint with David Bailey.’ Lennon asked Bailey how much he worked. Bailey said: ‘Eight days a week.’ He writes ‘I don’t know if the song comes from that.’

‘By 1964,’ says Bailey, ‘the Sixties only had a couple of years to run before it became pastiche and tourism and a kind of parody.’ When was the golden moment? Was it the summer of 1965, when Antonioni was making Blow-Up, which was based on Bailey, but before the film was released? Possibly.

Then came the 1970s, when nothing seemed new any more. As he got older, Bailey made brilliant ads, became rich, had affairs and marriages with more women, including Catherine Deneuve, Marie Helvin, Penelope Tree, Anjelica Huston and lots of others. His secret, I think, is that he comes across as utterly self-possessed and mysterious. In the end this book is about the way things are, and the way the mind pictures them, and the difference between the two. It’s extremely enjoyable.

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