Has there ever been a bad picture of Michael Caine? There must be – perhaps they’re all hidden under his bed – but the only ones you ever see, whether he’s 35 or 75, he is the epitome of cool – and no more so than in the giant Bailey photo that greets you in the ticket hall of the Portrait Gallery. Stardust celebrates more than 50 years of eclectic David Bailey photographs, from his early work in 1960s east London, through the crowd-pleasing celebrity and fashion shots, to documentary-style images of east Africa, India and Australia.
Bailey has photographed anyone who’s anyone and is perhaps most famous for the black and white shots of celebrities and artists which first greet you. U2, Kate Moss, Cecil Beaton, The Rolling Stones, Jack Nicholson, Jerry Hall, Paul McCartney, Jonny Depp, the list goes on. Like most portrait painters, Bailey largely presents a glamorised view of his subjects which make some of these photos feel like empty publicity shots. His trademark white background gets a bit repetitive at first, especially as it masks rather than enhances the personality of whichever celebrity is featured. But it’s in the more playful shots where you begin to appreciate Bailey’s skill; Ralph Fiennes shown against an entirely black background resting his head on a skull, or Marianne Faithful laying on the grass pictured at a twisted angle against a diagonal horizon, are particularly striking.
Another room deals with his fashion images, not just showcasing models like Marie Helvin, Jerry Hall and Jean Shrimpton, but also designers, editors and stylists. Bailey’s fascination with the personalities behind particular art forms is actually one of the most interesting elements of this exhibition, so there are photos of artists like Dali, Warhol, Bacon and Hockney, as well as other photographers like Cecil Beaton who appears repeatedly. These are people who are, to some extent, are usually obscured by their work but here become the art itself.
Bailey has also experimented with different techniques over the years, playing with colours, focus and exposure which give a nice variety to the many images on display here. And, surprisingly, some of the most effective are large camera-phone shots of clubs and theatres taken in 2013 which are bursting with colour and drama. These provide the perfect book-end to the fabulous images of people and decaying street life in the 1960s east end where Bailey grew up. Large-scale prints of people happily drinking in old-school boozers sit next to bomb-damaged shops in a time before regeneration. What’s interesting about this collection is the mix of the glamorous and the ordinary; for every celebrity shot there’s a corresponding collection of images from community life around the world, of people who couldn’t be further from the pages of Vogue.
This is Bailey’s Stardust because you leave knowing more about him and the life he’s led than you do about any of the people you see on the walls. Not only is every picture personally selected and arranged by Bailey, but all around you is a visual biography of where he’s been, who he knew and what he believed in. That in itself is quite a fascinating approach, indicating that far from being the anonymous man behind the lens recording the lives of others, Bailey has been at the heart of popular culture for more than 50 years, which, like that enormous picture of Michael Caine, is pretty cool.
Bailey’s Stardust is at the National Portrait Gallery until 1st June. Tickets start at £16 with concessions available.