With more than 250 portraits, the National Portrait Gallery’s current exhibition of David Bailey photographs is the largest ever show of his pictures. And with whole rooms dedicated just to his work with the Rolling Stones, Catherine Bailey and more, there is something to fascinate everyone here.
Bailey himself has curated Bailey's Stardust, which also includes some rarely seen images from his travels to Australia, Delhi and the Naga Hills. The exhibition is thematically structured with iconic images of people such as David Bowie and Kate Moss rubbing shoulders with lesser-known individuals such as the people who volunteered to come to Bailey’s studio to be photographed naked for a series.
Highlights of Bailey’s Stardust include images of David Bowie and Catherine Deneuve from 1982 looking like beautiful bleached blond aliens, and a ‘selfie’ of Bailey with Andy Warhol back in 1972. But you do start to wonder if there is anyone who Bailey hasn’t photographed! Because absolutely everyone is covered here from every industry – Seal, Desmond Tutu, Johnny Depp, Mia Farrow, The Krays, Beyonce… they’re all here. Although the pictures aren’t in this exhibition, Bailey was even commissioned to take the photographs at Reggie Kray’s wedding to Frances Shea in 1965, such was the trust the notorious gangsters had for him.
More discomforting, however, is an enormous colour photo of an eye at the end of one wall, with the eye being stretched open by medical instruments. A grotesque image, it also makes you keep turning round to look at it again such is the magnitude of it… in every possible sense.
With a whole room devoted to his wife Catherine Bailey, it’s clear the impact she has had on the photographer’s work. In a quote on the wall, Catherine says she has never felt exploited or used by her husband, but when you see so many naked images of her, or while giving birth, it’s hard to imagine how happy she feels with some of these pictures.
The series from the exhibition that left the strongest impression on me, however, was not one of celebrities, but of East End characters from 1968. They are fascinating snapshots of a London life that is now long lost, and in many cases not only due to the changing of fashion but also under the weight of the wrecking ball. Bailey’s images of old East End shops and streets are just as effective and mesmerising as his images of the people who lived and worked in the areas.
Bailey’s Stardust is exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery, London, until 1 June. Click here for more information.