Wednesday, March 7, 2018

David Bailey’s best photograph / An East End woman in 1960s London



David Bailey’s best photograph: an East End woman in 1960s London

‘Living in the East End then was a nightmare. People had a better time during the war’

Interview by Jenny Stevens
Thru 13 nov 2014


This was taken in the East End of London. It doesn’t matter exactly where. It was around 1961, but that doesn’t matter either. You’d never ask anyone when Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel ceiling. What’s exciting is the moment it captures.
There’s only one actual woman in the shot. Did I know her? Of course not. And I’ve no idea if she knew I was shooting her. The other woman is somebody else’s picture, a figment of some advertising agency’s imagination. As a photographer, you’ve always got somebody else’s work in your shot. Somebody designed every lamppost, cobblestone, shop window and road. And nature designed the trees.


I’d rather look like the woman with the scarf than the girl behind her, though. She’s real. She probably didn’t have too much to be happy about. Things were pretty hard back then. Everyone goes on about the swinging 60s. Well, it was great for a couple of thousand people living in London, but it wasn’t so good if you were a Welsh miner or a steelworker somewhere. Most of the people I was photographing back then weren’t wealthy. Many hadn’t made it yet. Michael CaineJean Shrimpton and David Hockney – they were all just beginning.
The shot’s a statement on the social climate at the time – and at any time really. I was living in the East End in the 60s, which was probably more of a nightmare than living there through the war. During the war, people seemed to have more of a good time – they’d drink, fuck and live like they might be dead by morning. Then came the 1950s, which were just dull and grey.

I didn’t notice I was in the shot until I blew the picture up. That’s dualism: you see something one way, the camera sees it differently, picking up things you didn’t catch. For me, a camera is like a paintbrush that I use to make images. That’s why photography lends itself to surrealism. And surrealism’s not what you hear people say it is on the news, like when somebody says: “There was water everywhere. It was so surreal.” That’s not surrealism – that’s stupidity.
I sort of remember the day. But there were lots of days like it. I’d spend maybe eight hours taking pictures round the East End. I wasn’t just mindlessly clicking away, though. I’d think about things: you have to. I’m not one of those photographers who doesn’t know what he’s doing, so takes hundreds of pictures in the hope there’s one good one. I do one click then move on. By the look of the picture, it was quite sunny – the reflection wouldn’t have been as strong otherwise. I prefer London in the rain, though. I just find it so beautiful.
I started shooting in the East End because it was where I was from. I lived there all through the blitz. When I was about three and a half, the flat next door was flattened, so we had to move from Leytonstone to East Ham. I was six and a half when the war ended and quite used to bombsites by then. I’ve never let myself be limited by my background, though. I lived with cannibals for a week and I lived with the Krays for two. That didn’t mean I became a gangster or ate people.
I still walk around the East End. It’s not just about taking pictures there. It’s part of my life. And I can’t think of any reason to stop doing what I do.

CV

Born: Leytonstone, London, 1938.
Studied: After national service in the RAF, worked as an assistant to fashion photographer John French
Influences: Picasso, Agnolo Bronzino, Henri Cartier-Bresson
Top tip: “My images are for you to look at. If you like them, you like them. If you don’t, there’s nothing I can do.”


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