We visit the legendary photographer in his studio to talk about his just released book, NW1, and end up speaking about everything but – from Donald Trump, to the art world and Netflix
An interview with David Bailey is never quite what it says on the tin. But this is why it’s so delightful. In you’ll go with questions pegged to whatever project he’s just published, in this case, he’s re-released a section of his long sold out book, NW1, but it’s always Bailey’s way. And you’re best to just let him take you where he pleases. You’ll speak about Netflix, Donald Trump, and his time in Australia, of which he was very fond of. He’ll even attempt to insult you – “I check people out. I find out what they’re invested in”, he justifies – but the experience is always one of a kind. Bailey doesn’t regurgitate press propaganda. He doesn’t care if you like his photos or what you feel after seeing them. It’s his truth, and you’ll be hard pressed to not believe him.
Born in Leytonstone in 1938, a lot of Bailey’s earliest memories are tied to the war, given the east end was one of the areas hit hardest. It’s not surprising then that, when he was older and had moved to NW1, a derelict precursor to what we know of it today, he found himself admiring what he calls, a “beauty in destruction”, by photographing shuttered or dilapidated buildings. In 1982, he released his ode to the postcode, the book NW1. Featuring over 100 images, its original run has long since sold out but it has been reprinted in a small selection (including an unseen image) and is available now. It’s also on show at HENI Gallery until 31 January.
As I enter Bailey’s studio nearby Chancery Lane I’m greeted warmly by his wife Catherine, his assistant Mark and his dog. Bailey is sat on a leather couch, he shakes my hand and says he doesn’t remember meeting me before. Eventually I join him on the sofa. “How old are you?” he asks, to which I tell him I’m 28. “You weren’t even born when I took these photos”, he responds before adding, “Why aren’t you married?” I tell him I’m too young. “28!” he responds, “I got married at 21. In those days if you slept with someone, you’d ruined their life you had to marry them! Especially in the East End.” I laugh at this, “And how many lives did you ruin?” This makes him smile, and in his self-assured way he answers, “It’s how many lives do I reckon I’ve made! I’ve made their lives better, it’s up to them whether they go and fucking use it.” It’s in this vein that the conversation continues for over an hour, some of which you can read below as I attempt to find out a bit more about his just-released book, NW1, but instead discovered more about his Netflix habits, what he’s doing for his upcoming birthday, and his thoughts on Donald Trump.
“I tend to tell the truth, so if you don’t want the truth, don’t ask me the question. My truth might be wrong, but it’s my truth” – David Bailey
So going back to before you shot these photos. You’re from Leyton.
David Bailey: I was born in North Leyton and when I was three we moved to East Ham because we got bombed out… you don’t remember anything before you were three.
What’s your first memory?
David Bailey: Having said that, I do remember a few things from Leyton. One thing is all the broken glass. The two bedroom flat, there was a toilet on each floor, I think. And I remember a magnolia tree, it was one of the most extraordinary trees I’d ever seen as a kid. I found a little lead soldier from that period. I ruined it – I put it on my mother’s iron to see what would happen and it just went! (laughs) It just turned into a silver blob and fell on the floor. Lots of ice, an ice sled. Like Citizen Kane. You wouldn’t know about Citizen Kane, would you…
When you started shooting these photos in NW1, what drew you to that area? Were you living there?
David Bailey: I lived there for about 30 years. I was one of the first people to spot Primrose Hill. I thought, ‘this is great!’ I used to live there with Jean (Shrimpton). We bought a house there aswell. I only looked at three, then got bored. Bought the third one I saw.
That’s a good method. Were you just drawn to that area because you were in it or were you noticing a change.
David Bailey: I used to shoot everywhere.
You’re known more for the faces that you’ve shot…
David Bailey: But that’s peoples’ lack of knowledge. It’s not my fault, it’s their fault. I do lots of other things. Sculptures, paintings, movies. I’ve done more movies than most movie directors. In terms of film, I’ve probably directed over a thousand commercials. I’m not doing what Alexandra Shulman (editor of British Vogue) did – “Bailey compared himself to Picasso”. I didn’t. I’m too intelligent to say something as stupid as that. A girl journalist has got to make a living, okay? You can put that in.