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David BaileyCamilla Mathis

David Bailey on selfie-wanking and avoiding art school

The legendary photographer on selfies as a form of masturbation, why you shouldn’t bother with art school, and why you should never limit your dreams

It’s hailing as we arrive at David Bailey’s central London studio on a freezing Wednesday morning. Sheets of ice pelt down on us as we hunch in his doorway, waiting to be let in, doubled down against the elemental assault. Inside, Bailey sits at a trestle table in an otherwise sparsely furnished studio, immediately recognisable under a vaulted ceiling. Behind him is an expanse of blue. One of his bronze sculptural pieces is tucked away by a door; a Picasso poster (a major influence on the young Bailey) is tacked to the wall. We open his fridge, looking for milk – inside are rolls and rolls of photographic film, a deft reminder that he has rejected digital photography, preferring instead to shoot on film. “Digital photography makes you give up,” he later explains. “You get an image, all the sycophants look at the screen and say ‘it’s wonderful’. But it’s not, because you don’t know where it could have gone. There might have been some more magic out there.”

Bailey, we’ll learn, is anything but lazy. The legendary photographer is 78 years old, but he’s still working as hard as ever. After finishing the interview, he mentions that he’s just confirmed to shoot the new Valentino campaign. “My fifth,” he says, with a suggestion of pride in his voice. I find myself surprised by this – you’d assume, after all these years, that he would be blase about the campaign, but I’m wrong. Bailey cares.

Interviewing Bailey isn’t always easy. He’ll take the piss out of you, relentlessly, in a volley of rapid barbs punctuated by staccato bursts of laughter that can throw you off your game. He laughs often, and raucously. When we arrive, he eyes my paint-flecked denim jacket and snorts, “Did it come like that?” Later, he tells me I should take my nose piercing out “before it goes black and you end up having to act in a horror film”. I tell him I can’t act.

We’re here today to ask him about his forthcoming talk at The Photography Show this March in Birmingham, although our discussion is wide-ranging. Around us, his team – his studio manager has been with him for 12 years – bustle around, setting up the studio. Bailey doesn’t need a watchful PR handler monitoring what he says. He’s thoughtful in his responses, often embracing silence for an unusual amount of time before answering. Sometimes he feigns incomprehension, making you ask your question again, calibrating it properly.

After the interview’s wrapped up, we cluster around, chatting. He autographs a book for one of our girlfriends; asks us about our lives; critiques our outfits (“You’re all dressed like a bunch of fucking tramps!”). We take our leave and I steal one last glance at him as I descend his studio stairs, still seated at his trestle table in an otherwise empty room. He’s looking into space – at nothing really – but his expression is watchful. It feels weird to be watching Bailey without him knowing. For when it comes down to it, Bailey is a watcher himself, a man who’s made his life’s work the business of observing other people and then capturing their essence on film.

Below is our transcript of our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity.

Hi David, thanks for talking to us. You’ve talked in the past about not feeling successful. Do you feel successful now?

David Bailey: I don’t, no. I don’t feel so-called ‘successful’. I’m not sure about that word, ‘success’. If you think it’s adequate at three o’clock in the morning, then it’s OK.

What’s the difference between taking a photo and making a photo?

David Bailey: There’s all these silly myths about photography. They say that anyone can take a picture, which is absolutely right, they can – but so can anyone paint. It doesn’t say how good or bad the painting is. We’ve come to a period now where everybody’s a bloody artist. That’s all right. That’s good. More competition. Makes you try harder.

In one of your Reebok UBU commercials, there’s this voiceover about how you need to insist on yourself and never imitate. How do you stay true to yourself over a long and varied career?

David Bailey: You’ve done your research, haven’t you! That quote is actually from Ralph Waldo Emerson, but I have a sneaky feeling he ripped it off from Shakespeare or something…

‘To thine own self be true’?

David Bailey: That’s it. I think you have to ignore most people’s rules. People make a wall around themselves with their own silly little… They build their own boxes, in a way. And then they never get out of it. I mean, how they bang the nails in from the inside, I don’t know. But they seem to manage! People are often limited by their ambition. Of course, their ambitions aren’t enough. It’s like limiting your dreams. You shouldn’t limit your ambitions, either. I don’t mean ambition in being like Donald Trump, although he’s no worse than Bush or Nixon. You have to be pretty sure you’re getting it right, and then be true to yourself. If you’re true to yourself, it doesn’t matter in the end. Unless you’re a serial killer, in which case you should find another job. It’s quite easy to be true to yourself – don’t compromise, and don’t tell lies. I never tell lies, even if it’s a bit hurtful to myself.

Do you think if you were starting out today you’d still go into fashion photography?

David Bailey: I never went into fashion photography, and I haven’t done it since the 80s, by the way. I think I’ve done two shoots since the 80s, apart from advertising. Fashion was the only way you could really make money and be creative in photography in those days. Because people weren’t going to buy a print off the wall. That’s one of the reasons I did commercials, because I was able to make a storyboard and make some money off it. There’s nothing wrong with fashion. I wouldn’t be working for Vogue, because there are other outlets now. Vogue doesn’t have the monopoly any more, whereas Vogue would blackmail you into taking the contract and they took 60 per cent of your advertising and you couldn’t shoot for anyone else. It was an unfair deal. And they still stick by it. I won’t forgive them.

You’ve talked about not being eaten up by 60s excess because you kept a sense of remove from the people you were photographing. How did you keep that sense of distance?

David Bailey: It’s the same now. The excess didn’t end in the 1960s. It lingers on. Drugs are the same as alcohol. I prefer a joint to a drink. It’s simple, if you walk down the street and you see a group of drunks, you cross the road. If I saw a load of guys smoking a joint, I’d probably smoke a joint with them. That’s the difference between the two drugs. The government doesn’t want people smoking, because it makes people less aggressive, and they don’t want people to be less aggressive. They don't want an army, like the Americans did in Vietnam.

To go back to the drugs question, how do you get deep into something and photograph it without also getting lost in it? How do you keep a sense of remove?

David Bailey: I think in a way, the camera is a protection. Like those war photographers who get killed because they forget they’re in a war and they just think they’re taking pictures. You learn to see everyone’s point of view. That’s why I wouldn’t be a very good judge or politician, because I can always see the other person’s point of view and think, ‘Why are they like that, is it their fault or the fault of society?’ People always go, ‘Oh, well, the Krays,’ but in those days the police were no better than the Krays.

Do you think that makes you more humane as a person? Being able to see everyone’s perspective as a photographer?

David Bailey: No, it’s annoying, I would rather take sides! (laughs) But you can always see… what I’m scared of is that 1984 sort of happened. And the Common Market, to me, seems to make it worse in a way. I don’t want a form of socialism that could then be a form of communism. I want individuals, I don’t want political correctness. I want everyone to be free to say what they think. It doesn’t matter how offensive it is, you just have to live with it. We do much more offensive things than we say, so maybe if people started talking about it instead of doing it things might get better. I doubt it.

You’ve said that Picasso was a big influence on you growing up.

David Bailey: Visually, Picasso was definitely the most important person in my life. When I discovered him I realised there were no rules. If he could do it, anybody else could do it. I didn’t go to art school, I didn’t even know what art school was, but the teachers who taught drawing always said, ‘Oh, you can’t put a line around things,’ and I thought, ‘Well, Picasso does, stained glass windows do, so I don’t see your point.’ Obviously, they were wrong. (laughs)

Who would now have that same influence on you growing up?

David Bailey: It’s difficult when you’ve collected so much knowledge. You can’t have favourites. You have favourites when you’re six! How old am I now… 78. That was depressing! On my birthday I thought I was 76. I lost two years….two years is a lot, at my age.

Do you think now is a good time to be an artist?

David Bailey: Well, I’m not sure what an artist is. Switching a light on and off, is that art? I think you need a new word now for art, anyway. I’m not sure what art is. In a way, in the future, everyone will be an artist. Because anyone can do photography or Photoshop, and they can! Anyone can do it with paint, too. You can make paintings on a computer. So everyone will become a sort of artist. Whether it’s a pseudo-artist or not, it doesn’t really matter. It’s a bit like how, in the 1920s, everyone was a poet.

Your sculptural work is quite influenced by African art and ideas of shamanism. Are you interested in magic?

David Bailey: I think being a photographer is a bit like being an alchemist, especially the dark room bit. Taking pictures is like being a shaman, because you’re kind of persuading yourself into situations you want. It’s not so much persuading the person into the situation, it’s persuading yourself into the situation. You want to take the picture and find some kind of reality in the person, rather than just taking another picture. If I see another picture with someone holding their hand over their face, I’ll go mad.

You’ve photographed some incredibly beautiful people in your career. Do you think it’s possible for someone to be beautiful, if they’re not also interesting?

David Bailey: I think in life, if you’re beautiful, you do have a bit of an advantage. If I want to employ two girls, and they are both equally qualified, and one looks like a bag lady and the other looks like Audrey Hepburn, it might go to Audrey Hepburn! (laughs) So in a way, that fucks up socialism, because we are not all equal, because beauty gives someone an advantage.

You can follow David Bailey on Twitter and Instagram. David Bailey will be speaking at The Photography Show on March 19. We have 2x of tickets for Dazed readers to win. Head on over to our Instagram to find out more