Supermodel stardom and being shot by David Bailey are positively correlated. So surprisingly it’s hard to walk away from ‘Bailey’s Stardust’ at the National Portrait Gallery with images of celebrity swirling in your head. Sure, innumerable stars pepper the exhibition, but ‘stardust’ relates more to the unseen and unique that Bailey attempts to catch and project. This exhibition brings forth a hidden side to his work, and teaches the viewer more about people than merely how super a supermodel can look.
Over 250 images have been personally selected and arranged thematically by Bailey, in a process lasting two and a half years. Glossy photos light up the National Portrait Gallery’s walls with star-wattage, to a relaxed white noise of jazz. The retrospective is an organised explosion of 50 years of Bailey’s style – at once witty and refreshing, brutal and perceptive.
Bailey burst into photographic history with his ‘Box of Pin-Ups’ portraits in 1965. Complete with his signature style, they started a trend which has spanned his career – blank white, sharp lighting and no set dressing. These photos are the epitome of pop culture and impetus behind a lifelong relationship with fashion and celebrity. Bailey has produced more than 350 covers for Vogue; but for this exhibition, he chose inimitable personalities – the subjects that were most exciting to capture. His monochrome vision is most striking on ‘Carlos Acosta‘ (2011) – highlighting the passion in his dance rather than the technicalities of ballet’s movements, which static film cannot portray. ‘Alexander McQueen‘ (2002) pops out against a flat white backdrop in an utterly British leap of vibrant eccentricity and wild tradition. Eruptions of ostentatious fashion are rare – Bailey keeps things strong and simple. But ‘Abbey Lee Kershaw’ (2010) offers a refreshing bang of the self-conscious, wide-eyed pretension of fashion – staring out in satisfied confusion.
Criticising Bailey for focusing on the material shallowness of celebrity ignores vast swathes of his work. Bailey shot artists who defined the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, in a cycle of creative talent behind and in front of the camera. ‘Man Ray‘ (1968) is captured in a convergence of photographer on photographer – the focus on an empty black eye, the key to his fame. Warhol and Dali are photographed together in decadent glamour and a ‘Midnight in Paris‘ vibe. ‘Salvador Dali and David Bailey’ (1972) is a vintage selfie: as today we imitate the past; then they imitated the future. ‘Damien Hirst‘ (2004) is shot naked surrounded by animal carcasses and foil – uniquely modern and awkward, displaying the discomfort many have with modern art. ‘Bruce Weber‘ (2013) shoots with a lime green phone as the picture convulses with the supernatural colour of modern technology.
Roots in London’s East End gave Bailey a proximity and fondness for the true grit of the criminal underworld; in stark contrast to the bubble of stardust he later encapsulated. A city scarred by war and grimy with poverty is ruthlessly exposed in photographs from the early 1960s. ‘Bernie Davis’ (2002) is a double whammy with Bailey’s portrait of the murderous Kray brothers on a tattooed leg. ‘Look’ is a poignant portrait of discomfort and instinctive rebellion. The ‘Democracy’ (2001-5) series is more celebratory, but still visceral and raw: biological grit remains the only star of the show as photographic method was kept entirely consistent, allowing only for variation in the sitters.
Powerful humanitarian images are plucked from around the world. The Kukukuku tribe in the highlands of Papua New Guinea provide a contrast to peaceful monochrome, with huge headshots bursting with colour (1974). Time with the Kukukuku tribe and aboriginals in Australia inspired rare and neglected sculpture by Bailey – including ‘X-Man’ (2008). Decaying waxworks in Delhi demonstrate a creeping modernisation in India, and increasing disillusion with native traditions. Photographs of Ethiopian refugees in Sudan (1984) reduce the viewer to tears: children with worn eyes and desperate limbs stare blankly down the lens, invoking inescapable guilt.
A recurring obsession with mortality scatters images of skulls around the exhibition. Bailey considers skulls ‘ just portraits without skin and flesh. I like the idea that we all end up as a piece of art. To me, the ultimate sculpture is a skull.’ In ‘Ralph Fiennes (with skull)’ (1995), there is easy movement between the two heads – live and dead – isolated against a rare background of black, illuminating the two structures through chiaroscuro.
Bailey exposes the celebrity to the viewer, giving his famed subject nothing to hide behind. In doing so he extrapolates their idiosyncrasies, making each portrait achingly cool and painfully unique. His portraits are not of chart-topping singers or Oscar-winning actors, but of friends; and he does not set out to flatter. Bailey’s photos – whether of London’s neglected underbelly, the Rolling Stones or Kate Moss – are timeless in their dazzling glamour. This exhibition is a masterpiece in bringing to the fore rolls and rolls of neglected work. It provides an electric retrospective of the past fifty years in world history.
With thanks to the National Portrait Gallery for photographs. ‘Bailey’s Stardust’ is displayed at the National Portrait Gallery until 1 June 2014. For more information visit http://www.npg.org.uk/whatson/bailey/exhibition.php.