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David Bailey, 2009 self portrait
David Bailey, 2009 self portraitPhotography David Bailey

David Bailey on how the internet made everything mediocre

We visit the legendary photographer in his studio to talk about his just released book, NW1, and end up speaking about everything but – from Donald Trump, to the art world and Netflix

An interview with David Bailey is never quite what it says on the tin. But this is why it’s so delightful. In you’ll go with questions pegged to whatever project he’s just published, in this case, he’s re-released a section of his long sold out book, NW1, but it’s always Bailey’s way. And you’re best to just let him take you where he pleases. You’ll speak about Netflix, Donald Trump, and his time in Australia, of which he was very fond of. He’ll even attempt to insult you – “I check people out. I find out what they’re invested in”, he justifies – but the experience is always one of a kind. Bailey doesn’t regurgitate press propaganda. He doesn’t care if you like his photos or what you feel after seeing them. It’s his truth, and you’ll be hard pressed to not believe him.

Born in Leytonstone in 1938, a lot of Bailey’s earliest memories are tied to the war, given the east end was one of the areas hit hardest. It’s not surprising then that, when he was older and had moved to NW1, a derelict precursor to what we know of it today, he found himself admiring what he calls, a “beauty in destruction”, by photographing shuttered or dilapidated buildings. In 1982, he released his ode to the postcode, the book NW1. Featuring over 100 images, its original run has long since sold out but it has been reprinted in a small selection (including an unseen image) and is available now. It’s also on show at HENI Gallery until 31 January.

As I enter Bailey's studio nearby Chancery Lane I'm greeted warmly by his wife Catherine, his assistant Mark and his dog. Bailey is sat on a leather couch, he shakes my hand and says he doesn’t remember meeting me before. Eventually I join him on the sofa. "How old are you?" he asks, to which I tell him I'm 28. "You weren’t even born when I took these photos”, he responds before adding, “Why aren’t you married?” I tell him I’m too young. “28!” he responds, “I got married at 21. In those days if you slept with someone, you’d ruined their life you had to marry them! Especially in the East End.” I laugh at this, “And how many lives did you ruin?” This makes him smile, and in his self-assured way he answers, “It’s how many lives do I reckon I’ve made! I’ve made their lives better, it’s up to them whether they go and fucking use it.” It’s in this vein that the conversation continues for over an hour, some of which you can read below as I attempt to find out a bit more about his just-released book, NW1, but instead discovered more about his Netflix habits, what he’s doing for his upcoming birthday, and his thoughts on Donald Trump.

“I tend to tell the truth, so if you don’t want the truth, don’t ask me the question. My truth might be wrong, but it’s my truth” – David Bailey

So going back to before you shot these photos. You’re from Leyton.

David Bailey: I was born in North Leyton and when I was three we moved to East Ham because we got bombed out... you don’t remember anything before you were three.

What’s your first memory?

David Bailey: Having said that, I do remember a few things from Leyton. One thing is all the broken glass. The two bedroom flat, there was a toilet on each floor, I think. And I remember a magnolia tree, it was one of the most extraordinary trees I’d ever seen as a kid. I found a little lead soldier from that period. I ruined it – I put it on my mother’s iron to see what would happen and it just went! (laughs) It just turned into a silver blob and fell on the floor. Lots of ice, an ice sled. Like Citizen Kane. You wouldn’t know about Citizen Kane, would you...

When you started shooting these photos in NW1, what drew you to that area? Were you living there?

David Bailey: I lived there for about 30 years. I was one of the first people to spot Primrose Hill. I thought, ‘this is great!’ I used to live there with Jean (Shrimpton). We bought a house there aswell. I only looked at three, then got bored. Bought the third one I saw.

That’s a good method. Were you just drawn to that area because you were in it or were you noticing a change.

David Bailey: I used to shoot everywhere.

You’re known more for the faces that you’ve shot...

David Bailey: But that’s peoples’ lack of knowledge. It’s not my fault, it’s their fault. I do lots of other things. Sculptures, paintings, movies. I’ve done more movies than most movie directors. In terms of film, I’ve probably directed over a thousand commercials. I’m not doing what Alexandra Shulman (editor of British Vogue) did – “Bailey compared himself to Picasso”. I didn’t. I’m too intelligent to say something as stupid as that. A girl journalist has got to make a living, okay? You can put that in.

What are your thoughts on Picasso?

David Bailey: Picasso I’ve been in love with since I was 15. A modern painter wouldn’t come anywhere near him, or artist for that matter. Before that, I liked Caravaggio. Those two were my favourite.

Do you feel that you are drawn more to art and painting than you are to photography, influence wise?

David Bailey: (With) photography, my influences were Bill Grant. Photography is something else and I’m not particularly interested in photography, anyone can do photography... a bit like journalism. You don’t even need to know how to spell now, you’ve got spell check. Journalists used to call the photographers monkeys, but I think we were probably both monkeys. People who take pictures just take pictures. They don’t interest me. If an artist takes pictures then I’m interested, but most photographers are like Netflix. They just make that level and it’s very, very, very, very good rubbish.

Do you think we’ve become satisfied with accepting?

David Bailey: Of course you have, that’s your generation. You don’t really know anything, you only know stuff that’s been before. But like immediately before. It’s like layering on a cake when you’ve just had a little bit, you don’t really make a big difference.

“Imitation is the sincerest form…”

David Bailey: Hmm… I think it’s a bit of an insult.

Do you see your style being imitated?

David Bailey: It’s difficult because mine relies so much on my personality. I do a white background, it’s quite difficult to copy a white background... always white.

With these photos of the streets, you took a lot of them, like really a lot.

David Bailey: You’re quite attractive, I don’t remember you...

Well, you know what you said to me last time we met, you said, “you look old, are you tired?” I’d just returned from Australia… I think I was jetlagged.

David Bailey: Oh you’re Australian! I like Australia.

You went there and spent a bit of time there right? I feel like Australia gets sidelined on the international art scene.

David Bailey: Well, it’s such a long way. It was one of the best trips I ever did. (I spent) two months there. All that interests me was in the outback. I drove everywhere. Eight and a half thousand miles. Crazy, isn’t it. Vasts amounts of land. Drove from Darwin…

Did you see Ayers Rock?

David Bailey: I mean, it’s a fucking rock, innit… I liked Darwin, though. The Japanese sunk two ships more than were sunk in Pearl Harbour. I think it got overlooked. It’s like being in a plane crash with Mick Jagger. “Mick Jagger and friends killed in a plane crash”. You don’t want to be a friend of Mick Jagger...

“If an artist takes pictures then I’m interested, but most photographers are like Netflix. They just make that level and it’s very, very, very, very good rubbish” – David Bailey

Do you feel you have a similar approach to when you shoot places to when you shoot portraits, with storytelling.

David Bailey: I don’t know, it’s all the same really. I prefer shooting people. I don’t really like shooting landscapes of trees and things. I think with landscapes you need to have history of a place otherwise it seems a bit pointless. I might do a book on Essex next… We’ve got a new book coming out soon called Naga Hills. I’ve done Afghanistan, I’ve done Sudan, I’ve done everywhere, all the shitty places, all the good places, Must’ve been to India, 10, 15, 20 times maybe. So instead of doing places like Naga Hills, which physically nearly killed me, I think Essex… It’s all tribal anyway. I’ve done the tribes of Naga Hills, now it’s the tribes of Essex.

Even though NW1 is quite central, a lot of the images feel like they’re on the fringe of a city…

David Bailey: Do you know who Roger Fenton is? He was Queen Victoria’s photographer. He was one of the first war photographers in the Crimean War. He was actually a lawyer who took up photography for ten years. So why did we come up with Roger Fenton? What’s he got to do with this...

We’re talking about the area, NW1...

David Bailey: Oh yes, he lived there. He has a plaque there, I helped get it put there. I’ve got one in North Leyton. It was called North Leyton then, it was changed in the 60s to become posher, so it’s Walthamstow.

It’s very up and coming now.

David Bailey: I’m sure it is now – everywhere is, Stratford is. There are houses in Southend that look like they should be in Mayfair now. Big houses like LA really, or Florida.

Why do you think we want to be like that?

David Bailey: I don’t know. Why do people want to have a big bum like a Kardashian? I find it completely unappealing.

So when you went and shot these streets and these buildings, were you looking for certain things, was it planned?

David Bailey: No, no, it wasn’t like that. It isn’t like going for an occasional walk like you journalists think. You see a building and you think, I’ll keep an eye on that, check the light.

They’re all shot on a tripod with large format cameras. I don't want any people in those type of pictures if I can help it, because unless a person is making a sort of statement, like they are a ghost or something like, I prefer a white background because I don't want people saying, ‘oh what's that in the background?’ I want them to concentrate on whoever it is that's in the picture. If you put things in the background, people say, ‘I don't like palm trees or I don't like the background’... I've never heard anyone say, ‘I don't like a white background’, unless there's some dumb picture in a magazine.

With buildings, I only really like photographing the residue of what we've done, whether it's destruction or beauty. I wouldn't mind going to Aleppo, not to shoot the poor people who are being killed, but just to shoot the destruction 'cause the destruction is kind of beautiful in an awful sort of way. Well, it's like cancer cells being blown up under a microscope, they become something else. I don’t know how to explain it. It's kind of visual-masochism I suppose.

What were you seeing in those buildings when you were observing them?

David Bailey: Oh, you don't see them like that, it's just the overall look, kind of depends on so many different things.

Do you revisit them ever?

David Bailey: Most of them are gone now. Once I've done them, I'm not that interested anymore.

Do you find that with a lot of your work?

David Bailey: Yeah because it's done, isn't it? I'm not really nostalgic. I'm not an old fart who lives in the Chelsea Arts club who talks about the 60s and 70s (both laugh)

Do you think we're all stuck in a bit of nostalgia?

David Bailey: I think nostalgia is safe. Advertisers like it, fashion people adore it because it's safe, they've been there so they know what reaction they're gonna get. It's safe so it's popular. I hate it.

Would you rather look more into the future?

David Bailey: No, the moment, right now. There's no future cause we could all be dead in ten seconds. So there's only now and we know we're alive now. And, in a way, the universe doesn't exist if the human race isn't here 'cause we make it exist. I mean how would you know the universe was there unless it was for us? And we'll never understand how it all begun because we're too stupid. We're really, really dumb. It's taken a million years just to get this far... we're very slow.

Do you watch a lot of films?

David Bailey: Yeah. I like old films mostly... not for nostalgia but because they're better. I like House of Cards.

Do you have a Netflix account?

David Bailey: Yeah.

What's the last thing you watched on Netflix?

David Bailey: Power.

I'm surprised by that.

David Bailey: Why?

You went from House of Cards to a show about gangs and a night club owner.

David Bailey: I think House of Cards is more intelligent whereas the idea of Ghost (Power's lead character) shagging somebody from the FBI... it's too stupid for words. Power’s ridiculous. How can he shag someone from the FBI!? They'd know.

You’ve previously likened the mediocrity of Netflix to the fashion and art industries – do you think we live in an age of average?

David Bailey: Yeah, mediocracy. See, there has always probably been mediocracy but the mediocre has got a voice now which it didn't have before because of the internet and everything. Whereas it was elitist before. Everyone thinks they're an artist now. There's still people doing great things by the way.

Do you think they're of an older generation though?

David Bailey: No, not older, some young guys doing great things.

“I’d rather be called a cocksucking bastard than dull. There’s nothing duller than dull” – David Bailey

Both your sons are artists, how critical of you of their work? Are you dad-like soft or hard and honest?

David Bailey: Well if I don't like it, I don't say anything (laughs) ‘cause people take it personal. I tend to tell the truth, so if you don't want the truth, don't ask me the question. My truth might be wrong, but it's my truth.

But you stand behind your word.

David Bailey: Yeah, I think you have to in a way. Instead of being a flip-flop politician who says one thing at 10am and another thing at 10:30am, depending who he's talking to. They tell me Trump is stupid, well if he's stupid, where's the rest of them? 'Cause he's the most powerful man in the world.

I made quite a few commercials with Donald Trump. I did stuff for his airline, he was alright, better than most corporate people I had to deal with at that period.

Well, people like him because he's supposedly telling the truth.

David Bailey: He's straight. He looks you straight in the fucking eye which is unusual... normally when people don't know what they're doing, they just look away and drift somewhere else.

What do you think it is that makes an artist?

David Bailey: I don't think you can put it in words. You know when you meet someone and see what they're doing, you know there's something there.

How would you describe yourself, a photographer or a filmmaker?

David Bailey: I don't know. I just like doing things. I'm getting a bit old now. I'm going to be 80 sometime soon. Yeah it's your birthday soon isn't it. I'll be 79 yeah...

What are you going to do for your birthday?

David Bailey: Be a year older.

Will you celebrate?

David Bailey: No.

You wrote a small essay in NW1, do you like having to describe your work?

David Bailey: No. Because they speak for themselves. It's like explaining a poem, you lose it in a way if you try to explain it. People, if you don't tell people what something means, they see much more than you probably do.

What are you hoping that people are going to see through these photos?

David Bailey: I don't know, I don’t care. If they do, they do, if they don't they don’t. It won't change my life one way or the other. Not ever. That's why I like photography really – painting you take six months or five years on a painting and (what if) it's not really that good. You can spend three years making a movie or making a documentary that's not good, photography you get over it quicker.

Do you think that you're ever going to do a film about your life?

David Bailey: It's a bit late now, I better get a move on.

There was a film wasn't there? There was one -

David Bailey: Blow up.

Do you feel like they've been accurate?

David Bailey: They're films. Even documentaries are lies. Every one is a lie, the only truth is what you remember because everybody else's truth is completely different.

And what you remember is very different to what someone else does, it's all subjective.

David Bailey: Well, it takes a lot of looking before you start to see, most people don't see they just look. They don't observe.

Makes it very boring, very beige...

David Bailey: That's my word, beige. It's what I call boring people, beige.

I feel like it's one of the most offensive words you can say to someone.

David Bailey: The most offensive you can say to someone is dull.

I think daft is rude...

David Bailey: No, no. Daft is funny. Dull is awful. If you call someone dull... I'd rather be called a cocksucking bastard than dull. There's nothing duller than dull.

NW1 is published by HENI and available now