David Bailey: the fashion photo legend

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The fashion photographer who defined the swinging 60s is still going strong.

Regarded as one of England’s finest fashion photographers. David Bailey was born in 1938, and has shot some of the most iconic portraits of the last five decades. His early work helped both define and capture the atmosphere of fashionable 1960s London, when he made stars of a new generation of models, including Jean Shrimpton and Penelope Tree. Drawing inspiration from Modernism and Pop Art, Bailey injected a sense of movement and immediacy into his work by using a very direct, cropped perspective. Although best known for his portraiture, his interests are varied, extending beyond photography to commercials, film, painting and sculpture. Now living and working in London Bailey has had a colourful and creative career.

He was contracted as a fashion photographer for British Vogue magazine in 1960 and along with Terence Donovan and Brian Duffy, he captured and helped create the ‘Swinging London’ of the 1960s. He more recently appeared in a 2012 BBC documentary that told the story of his 1962 New York photoshoot with Jean Shrimpton.

He was born in Leytonstone, East London, to Herbert Bailey, a tailor’s cutter, and his wife, Gladys, a machinist.

“In the winter,” he recalled, the family “would take bread-and-jam sandwiches and go to the cinema every night because in those days it was cheaper to go to the cinema than to put on the gas fire. I’ll bet I saw seven or eight movies a week.”

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Bailey developed a love of natural history, and this led him into photography. Suffering from undiagnosed dyslexia, he experienced problems at school. He attended a private school, Clark’s College in Ilford, where he says they taught him less than the more basic council school. As well as dyslexia he also has the motor skill disorder developmental coordination disorder

“We were posh East End, if that’s possible,” he recalls, “but I had cardboard in my shoes and was at the social bottom of this cheap private school; some of the parents had tobacconist’s shops, which was a bit posher.”

He left school on his fifteenth birthday, to become a copy boy at the Fleet Street offices of the Yorkshire Post. He raced through a series of dead end jobs, before his call up for National Service in 1956, serving with the Royal Air Force in Singapore in 1957. The appropriation of his trumpet forced him to consider other creative outlets, and he bought a Rolleiflex camera. He was demobbed in August 1958, and determined to pursue a career in photography, he bought a Canon rangefinder camera. Unable to obtain a place at the London College of Printing because of his school record, he became a studio assistant earning £3.50 a week. He was delighted to be called to an interview one day with photographer John French.

After that initial meeting in 1959, Bailey became a photographic assistant at the John French studio, and in May 1960, he was a photographer for John Cole’s Studio Five before being contracted as a fashion photographer for British Vogue magazine later that year.

Along with fellow photographers Terence Donovan and Brian Duffy, Bailey captured and helped create the ‘Swinging London’ of the 1960s: a culture of fashion and celebrity chic. The three photographers socialised with actors, musicians and royalty, and found themselves elevated to celebrity status. Together, they were the first real celebrity photographers, named by Norman Parkinson “the Black Trinity.”

Bailey’s ascent at Vogue was meteoric. Within months he was shooting covers and, at the height of his productivity, he shot 800 pages of Vogue editorial in one year. Penelope Tree, a former girlfriend, described him as “the king lion on the Savannah: incredibly attractive, with a dangerous vibe. He was the electricity, the brightest, most powerful, most talented, most energetic force at the magazine”.

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American Vogue’s creative director Grace Coddington, then a model herself, said “It was the Sixties, it was a raving time, and Bailey was unbelievably good-looking. He was everything that you wanted him to be – like the Beatles but accessible – and when he went on the market everyone went in. We were all killing ourselves to be his model, although he hooked up with Jean Shrimpton pretty quickly”.

Of model Jean Shrimpton, Bailey said: “She was magic and the camera loved her too. In a way she was the cheapest model in the world – you only needed to shoot half a roll of film and then you had it. She had the knack of having her hand in the right place, she knew where the light was, she was just a natural.”

Since 1966, Bailey has also directed several television commercials and documentaries. As well as fashion photography, Bailey photographed album sleeve art for musicians including The Rolling Stones and Marianne Faithfull.




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