David Bailey exhibition - London

June 08, 2014  •  Leave a Comment

In late May we ventured into London by car on a Sunday to see the David Bailey 'Stardust' exhibition at the National Portrait gallery in London.  Bailey is in my view England's greatest living photographer and one of the true greats alongside Richard Avedon, Duffy, Cartier-Bresson and others who transformed photography and were crucial to its evolution.

Bailey emerged in the 1960's and within 18 months of setting up on his own was shooting for Vogue!!  Perhaps even more significantly he, Terence Donovan and Brian Duffy were the triumvirate who brought a completely new sense of movement and style into fashion photography.  Traditionally photographers had been aristocrats who photographed debutantes and other aristocrats using large format cameras in static poses.  Bailey, Donovan and Duffy dubbed the so called 'black trinity' were working class Londoner's who captured models in a much more candid style, often against a plain white background and in high contrast monochrome.  These images have become iconic and have influenced the style of fashion, celebrity and advertising photography for all time.

Bailey had one other significant person with whom he conquered the world of fashion photography: Jean Shrimpton who went on to become the greatest supermodel of all time.  Bailey discovered Shrimpton when he saw her working with another photographer and was instantly attracted to her.  Her appeal I feel is that while she is staggeringly beautiful, hers wasn't the unattainable ice-maiden beauty or vampishness so common amongst models today but was a 'girl next door' prettyness that made her the fantasy of so many red blooded males both then and now.  When I looked at her photographs in the gallery they were just mesmerising - the perfect coming together of a great photographer and an iconic muse. 

In 1962 Bailey and Shrimpton headed over to New York for what became the most famous fashion shoot in history.  He threw out the medium format camera he had been asked to use by Vogue and took out his Pentax Spotmatic S3 35mm camera and began to shoot candidly on the streets of New York city.  This wasn't at all how Vogue wanted things done but it broke new ground entirely and Vogue were forced to concede that he had created a landmark photo shoot.  Here's Shrimpton by Bailey in New York:


So having put Bailey in some context my impressions of the exhibition were that he is an even better photographer than I ever thought.  He really does manage to get inside his subject and to reveal the character within. 

Technically Bailey is an absolute master at studio lighting and the brilliance of his lighting set-ups took my breath away.  A fellow photographic chum who came too and I spent ages staring at the catchlights in the eyes to try and figure out how he had lit the images!  What particularly inspired me was the fact that I have a very small studio (12ftx10ft) at home and yet you could have shot 80% of Bailey's work in that space so I no longer feel that my studio is quite as limiting.

Personally I found the exhibition awe inspiring, informative and fascinating.  I have a much deeper appreciation for the man and his work and I would urge any of you to go and see his next exhibition because all of us can learn from a master of photography like David Bailey.

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