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David Bailey: “How are you going to cross the road?”

July 2, 2014

Mr. Bailey, would you swear in front of the Queen?

No, if you’re going to accept the Queen you have to accept the tradition. You know, I’ve got nothing against monarchy. I think there are too many hangers-on, but that’s also a cliché thing to say. I doubt she’d be too shocked. She’s been around; she’s not stupid.

You recently took the official photo for her 88th birthday.

Yes and I think she looks incredible for 88. I had never photographed her before.

Why not?

I wouldn’t photograph anybody if they only give you five minutes. I don’t care who it is. I don’t care if God phoned me up and said, “I want a picture, I’ve only got five minutes.” I’d say, “Well, work some of your magic and make it longer!” Even though I’m actually quicker than most and I usually get bored before they get bored.

What kind of people are the most difficult to photograph?

Lots of politicians are so full of themselves. Sports people too a bit. But actors are the most difficult because you never know who you’re photographing. They could be Hamlet or Lassie. But the fewer people they come with, the more interesting they usually are. Johnny Depp came with nobody so I knew it was going to be all right. Jack Nicholson never came with anybody, but Jack’s different because I’ve known him for so long.

You once said Jack Nicholson is the smartest actor because he knows something nobody else does. What is it that he knows?

I don’t fucking know. If I knew, I’d be as smart as him. (Laughs)

One of the things that fascinated me when I met him was his grin and the sparkle in his eye when he talked about women.

Yeah, with Viagra. He’s the first person that told me about Viagra.

When was that?

Oh, years ago. Before everyone knew about it! (Laughs)

When you know someone very well like you do Jack Nicholson is it easier to take a great portrait of them?

It depends. It’s one of those abstract things. We had a difficult bloke this week, what was he called? Van Morris or somebody… He was so grumpy. But I loved him being grumpy because I could use his grumpiness. I got a great grumpy picture out of him. If I see another picture of a rock ‘n’ roller against some graffiti… It drives you mad, the same old picture! Can’t they ever think of something different to do? So I don’t mind people that are difficult. I quite like that. It amuses me because there is always a way around it. I mean, no one could be more difficult than Van whatever he’s called, Van Morrison.

It seems pointless to have your picture taken if you’re not going to cooperate though.

Well he left really happy, Van Morrison. But it is kind of pointless to come here if you’re not going to help me. They might not like the picture, but one day they will. One day that’s what they’re going to look like – whether they look like that or not. Medici said to Michelangelo, “That sculpture doesn’t look like me.” Michelangelo said, “Listen, you’ll be dead in 20 years, but this will be around for 2,000 years. So, that’s what you look like!” You could say that a bit with photography.

Does it often happen that people aren’t happy with their portrait, but then years later change their mind?

Yeah. 10 years later usually. We had one recently, I won’t mention his name, I shot him 30 years ago and he said, “I hate the picture.” But his wife bought one for him as a birthday present recently. (Laughs) 30 years later and come get the picture.

Are celebrities more difficult nowadays than they were 30 or 40 years ago?

Well, I avoid celebrities. I’m not really interested in people that come with PR. That’s probably why I can’t work in America, because I don’t take all that bullshit. I don’t know how people like Bruce Weber manage, because it would drive me mad. All these silly people who don’t know anything that come with celebrities and try to tell you what to do. It’s madness! They brought it on themselves, the magazines. They should have been stricter. They should have said, “No, we’re not showing you. We’re doing the interview and that’s that.” But instead they pander to them and in the end they end up owning you. Those magazines are owned by the celebrities, really.

You don’t strike me as the type to pander to anyone.

I never really read what people write about me, but the comments people made when doing this exhibition recently at the National Portrait Gallery are so stupid. “Oh, Bailey panders to these people.” I don’t pander to anybody. I just do the picture I do. I don’t care who it is. And I won’t do pictures if people want approval. It has always seemed stupid to me that they ask you to do something and then want to sort of tell you how to do it. What madness!

What about magazines?

In fact, the magazines only get one image. If they don’t like it, then either I say to them, “I have another one,” or else, “Forget it, don’t publish it.”

Does that limit the number of magazines you work with today?

I don’t work for American Vogue anymore, for example. I’m great mates with Anna, I’ve known her for years, but it’s not a question of friendship. It’s just that I don’t do what she wants and she doesn’t do what I want.

Is it impossible for you to collaborate with people that are not exactly on your wavelength?

They’re not even allowed to come on the set when I shoot, not the art director or the stylist or anyone. I’ve always been a bit like that. I remember British Vogue blackmailed photographers in the early days to get them to do what they wanted. They would say, “Well if you don’t sign a contract, you can’t work for us.” And since there was nobody else to work for in England at that moment, you didn’t really have an option. So I’m not very fond of the business people at Condé Nast. I’ve got nothing against the editors and the people that work there, but I think that the business people are less than… modern. (Laughs) I don’t know where they’re coming from! It’s like leftover from a bygone age.

It’s surprising that so much politics are involved in an industry that’s supposed to be so creative.

Well Vogue will destroy itself if it goes on like that because everything that’s run by accountants eventually vanishes up its own ass. The only reason I did fashion in the first place was because I thought, “If I’m going to do photography my way, the only way to be creative and get paid is to do fashion.” So I stopped doing it in the ’80s when I started directing more and more commercials.

How do you pick the people that you take portraits of?

I’m only interested in what I’m interested in. The rest just sort of happened that way. I mean, I knew Mick before he was anybody really, when he was still at the London School of Economics. So that’s another accident in my life, that Mick happened to be a good mate.

You seem to have had all kinds of accidents happen to you. Didn’t Freddie Mercury stick his tongue down your throat during the 1985 Live Aid concert?

Yeah he did. Him and Terry Richardson’s father, they’re the only two men who’ve managed to get their tongues in my mouth! (Laughs)

How many have tried?

Oh, lots. Once I was just in the club and I said, “Who is this old fuck who keeps buying me scotch and sodas?” And they said, “Oh, that’s Francis Bacon.” (Laughs) I didn’t know who Francis Bacon was! But I always took it as a compliment. These silly people that say, “Oh, I was sexually assaulted because somebody grabbed my ass in a gay club.” What are you doing in a gay club?

It’s like going to the pool and complaining that you got wet.

True, if you don’t get your ass grabbed, there’s probably something wrong with you. Take it as an enjoyment! If you don’t like it, don’t go to gay clubs! Fucking idiots. I mean, when I was at school I had teachers try to kiss me all the time, so don’t tell me. It’s all bullshit. If you can’t handle that, then how are you going to get through the rest of life? How are you going to cross the road?

Have you always had a bit of a temper?

Well, that’s a funny story… During the war we got bombed and our flat was so destroyed that we had to move to the countryside. One time two boys said to me, “Would you like a blackberry?” and I said, “Yeah.” So they gave me a blackberry. And they said, “Do you want another one?” I said, “Yeah, it was nice.” And they gave me another one and said, “Did you like that?” I said, “Yes.” And they said, “Well, we peed on those.” So when they had gone I set fire to their fucking field. (Laughs)

How old were you?

About five. Five and a half maybe.

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Short Profile

Name: David Royston Bailey
DOB: 2 January 1938
Place of Birth: London, England, UK
Occupation: Photographer

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