| David Bailey. |
Photograph by Suki Dhanda
David Bailey: Reg Kray said: ‘Ere, Da’. I wish I could have done it legit like you’
The photographer on drugs, religion, sport, beauty, the reality of the 1960s, politics, Instagram and the Krays…
Interview by Fiona Maddocks
Sunday 5 July 2015 09.30 BST
he veteran portraitist has chosen 250 works for his Bailey’s Stardust show at the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh later this month.
This show, packed with images of the Rolling Stones, Man Ray, Andy Warhol, Salvador Dali, Francis Bacon, Kate Moss, Damien Hirst and the tribespeople of Papua New Guinea and the Naga Hills [on the India-Burma border], has triumphed in London and internationally. Is the Edinburgh exhibition any different?
Yes, there’s another show within it called Moon Glow. Mostly mixed media, oil, collages. Some of it’s completely new. Some of it’s from as early as 1970. I don’t like the idea of a retrospective. I always feel I should try something new. Continuous change. That’s what the Buddhists say. I’d be rather a good Buddhist.
You’d like to wear the saffron robes?
I don’t want to dress like them. I want to think like them. I’m not religious. Not even spiritual. But I’m open to learning. If you want to be really camp you’d have to join the Catholic church. I love all that – pure theatre. The best art, the best smells. It’s operatic. We’re all part of something. Like William Blake said – the whole universe in a grain of sand. He’s one of the thinkers. But I like that Hindu thing, too – we’re all the dream of Krishna. That’s good, nice. I’ll listen to anybody.
That could be dangerous.
Yeah, very dangerous. I know what I think. But I could be wrong. I can always see the other side. That’s why I’m not political. I’m glad the Conservatives won the election. I’ve spent all my life reinventing the class system, then Ed Miliband comes along and screws all that division. He’s set the class war back years.
You like the Conservatives?
No, not particularly. That guy George Osborne is pretty clever about the economy, even if his hairstyle is awful.
How is it you’re always called Bailey? Do you insist on it?
No way. That was Jean Shrimpton. It stuck. In the East End I was Dave. Or Da’ – as in “day”. I suppose it’s a bit public school to be called by your surname. At Condé Nast they just credited us as Avedon, Horst, Bailey.
You’ve said about some women, “the camera loves her”. What do you mean?
I’ve said it often, but there are very few. They’re not necessarily the most beautiful women ever. Jean Shrimpton, Kate Moss, Dietrich, Garbo – they all had that quality. It’s a mystery. The idea of beauty has expanded. The Romans had a very particular idea. I think a lot about the seeds of beauty. As a kid there was a shop that sold packets of seeds. I was obsessed with the idea of these little black things growing into different kinds of beauty. Magic.
Instagram, Snapchat, we’re all photographers now…
Anyone can take a photograph. Like anyone can use a pencil and paper. But can anyone be Picasso? It’s the same with photography. A chimpanzee could take a good picture. It’s like when the Box Brownie was invented in 1900. Everyone said, that’s the end of photography. And the same when digital came along. It’s a kind of doodling. It might come to something, a happy accident. Good luck if it does.
You say you make photographs, you don’t take them …
It’s more how you feel than how you see. It’s the emotion. I spend an hour chatting and a few minutes taking the picture. I wish my ears could do the snapping. I’m thinking of inventing an ear camera. Even seemingly boring people have stories. That’s what keeps me fascinated. Landscapes are OK If you’ve got time to sit around and wait for a cloud to arrive. I can’t talk to the trees – unless I’m an Ink Spot. You know who they are?[starts crooning]: “Whispering grass, don’t tell the trees / ’Cause the trees – don’t need – to... know-ow …” Of course they fucking don’t. They’d probably feel incredibly bored. But I love trees. I think they’re here to stay.
Your East End past, your friendship with the Kray brothers … does that world still exist?
Yes and no. I’ve gone back and put it in my three volumes of East End books. You have to understand people ate tea leaves they were so poor. They’d do anything to feed their children. Women sold their bodies. It’s time and place. Easy to judge, easy to be pompous. The Krays were a bit like Tolstoy’s Cossacks. Fucking anarchists, but with their own morality. They didn’t do prostitutes or drugs. I quite liked Reg, even though when he was 19 he slashed my father’s face with a razor. Ron was a basket full of rattlesnakes. They were dotty guys. Reg took me aside once – everything always had to be secret with Reg – and he said “‘Ere, Da’. I wish I could have done it legit like you.” That was touching. There was me, a fucking dyslexic cockney with no qualifications, and I got out.
The Krays were a bit older. How did you meet? In the street? Playing football?
Playing football? Football? Are you fucking mad? Silly sods kicking balls around. I detest sport. The idea of competing… now that’s vulgar, even for an East End boy.
Were the 60s, the time that made you famous, all they were cracked up to be?
Yeah for about 2,000 people living in London. For everyone else, steelworkers or coal miners or the very poor, it was a shit time.
You’ve kept the hard-living image, but you gave up drink and drugs long ago?
Yes, 40 years ago. Drugs and prostitution should be legalised. The politicians know. But it’s not a vote winner. “Excuse me, madam, we’re going to legalise cannabis.” Ha. People only want to know what’s in their pay packet.
Do you agree that most of what you do comes from the past?
Yeah… but from my past. The Renaissance is bad shit! I’m still fascinated with Hitler and Churchill and Mickey Mouse and the war and living down in the coal cellar. Growing up in East Ham by the river, I had a sense of the foreign. It was like being in Twin Peaks. You know – the sound of the foghorn? My uncle – who was gay and lived with us; I just knew, no one told me – he was in the navy. He came back with a wind-up gramophone and records of Maori songs. I loved them. My dad was homophobic. My mum – it was her brother – was in denial. She was the one who pushed for a better life. It’s always the woman. Mum was the tough one. Even the gypsies were scared of her.
What was school like?
I was in the silly class. Kids with a limp or a twitch and people like me. I was at the top. Being at the bottom of the silly class – now that would have been bit of shit wouldn’t it? I left school on my 15th birthday. Out. End. The headmaster said, someone has to clean the roads.
Did you have a sense, deep down, that you were going to have some starring role in life?
No, no way.
Heaven or hell, I imagine. I was feeling pretty dicky yesterday. But I’ve had a fucking good time.