David Bailey Talks Art, Photography And Sumatran Tigers – Artlyst Exclusive Interview

David Bailey Photo:Paul Carter-Robinson

David Bailey is not at all what I expected. He’s imposing without being scary. He’s warm and down to earth. He speaks his mind, unafraid and not at all intimidated by the art establishment. He is knowledgeable and references all the right things. And I escaped being called a c**t…. not even once. His latest work is a sculpture, currently on view in Fortnum & Mason’s Piccadilly window, highlighting the plight of the Sumatran tiger and produced in aid of Greenpeace, a cause that he has supported for over 30 years.

‘If you’re going to be a journalist read Graham Greene… Learn how to write’ – David Bailey 

PR. How do you describe your practice and the mediums that you work in?

DB. Mostly photography but I made more money from movies and directing adverts. The agencies came with a script and I could develop my own storyboards. I liked doing commercials and got more awards from commercials than anything else. 

PR. You were lucky you were given the opportunity to break away from your box, ie ‘portrait photography’

DB. Yeah, yeah England does have these boxes they love labels in industry. 

PR. Which artists do you cite as your main influences?

DB. The people who changed my way of thinking about art were first Disney, of course. My teacher sent my painting of Bambi to a City & Guilds competition and it won. My Mum told everyone, ‘My Dave is going to be an artist’. My next influence was Picasso, then Duchamp, Andy (Warhol) and then Damien (Hirst) Whether you like them or not they’ve changed the way we see the world.   

PR: Do you feel that today everyone is a photographer because everyone has a camera on their phone?

DB: It’s always been that way. In and around 1895 when they brought out the first box camera the professionals said, ‘ Oh this is the end of photography’. It’s not, is it? It becomes something else. You get to the point where you can’t really do that kind of pictures anymore, cause everyone’s doing them. That sort of street photography, that’s so popular. There’s so much of it on the net. They can all copy it.  

PR. What kind of photography interests you these days?

DB: The only photography that interests me is when it’s completely personal. You have to make it personal and make it join up with your subject to make it unique. With my work, it was always difficult as I used plain backgrounds and in the end, it was like a passport picture and the average person doesn’t go beyond that. If you take a shot by Avedon and shot by some anonymous average photographer, most people won’t see beyond the white background. That’s where people need to be educated and it takes a lot of educated looking. If you take a picture with an iPhone you can be a photographer but you have to take the right one. That’s when it becomes personal. The quantity of work on the net makes you filter all the dross, cause you have to go that step further to find something interesting. 

PR.: Why did you give up fashion photography?

DB: I got bored with it and I look at it now and the problem with fashion photography (and I gave it up in the 1980s) is it’s become like Netflix. They’ve all been to film school those directors and it’s all about the same look. It’s perfect but it’s perfectly mediocre. Art’s gone that way now too. Especially in the last 10 years. You put a bit of silver decoration from a Christmas card on a canvas, show it at Frieze and people think it’s art. 

PR: Did you go to Photo London?

DB: Yeah I did. I think that there are a lot of Photographers that are artists these days. I like Juergen Teller.

David Bailey Sumatran Tiger Project
David Bailey Sumatran Tiger Project in aid of Greenpeace

PR. Tell me about the Tiger project and how it came about.

DB. They asked me to paint a plastic tiger, you know like the cows you know the celebrities like Kate (Moss) they get to do these things. I said no. I did the Greenpeace commercial 34 years ago one of the most successful ever made cause it’s emotional. And they said have you got a better idea and I said yeah give me a few days and came back with 400 tigers in a box and each time one is sold there is one less until they disappear. Much like the reality of the situation. I made it look like a piece of art itself, a piece of conceptual art. I think art/photography always needs something behind it or it’s meaningless. It’s not just decoration. I worked in lost wax and when I sculpted it I tried to make it somewhere between an American 1950s car and a Bugatti (the Art Deco sculptor) work. You could stick it on the bonnet of a car.

PR: Like Irving Penn, you are an artist. Do you value your non-photographic work on par with your photography? 

DB: I don’t separate it out. You do what you do. Some people bake bread, some make bicycles. Art is like Love. People think they know what love is but often they don’t. It’s the same with art. It’s something you do or you don’t do. Love …Art…I don’t really know what it means…

PR:  I think you’ve had more experience with both than most people…

DB: I like the freedom art has given me. I don’t have to wear suits or any of that stuff. I like primitive painters. I like all the outsiders they’re the only real artists left. The way art has gone in the last decade. There’s too much money at the end of the game. It’s changed, art has completely changed. You could say it’s dumbed down but it’s got more public appeal and it’s far less elitist. 

PR: What do you think of Selfies?

DB: With the rise of AI everybody’s going to want to be an artist. I have nothing against selfies, but it’s back to that thing that everyone thinks they’re an artist. First time I heard of a selfie I was with Bruce Weber we were doing a thing on a mobile phone and Bruce had never used one before. I always had the latest equipment but he’s always liked to use film. 

PR: In the beginning, a person had ‘their photograph taken’ often a single frame on a plate camera. Your best portraits are, in your words like Passport Photos, are you (in your studio) then the world’s greatest Photo Booth?

DB: Yeah I suppose in a way I am, I shoot mostly 5 X 4 I’ve always done. I do 10 X 8 but it gets so expensive and 11 X14 is about £200 a clip and it’s difficult to get film now and I prefer film. I got this Leica thing that has a lens designed in 1950 and you can get it made, quite expensive but worth it. You can’t take colour with it as it has the colour filter taken out. It mimics Tri-X I use that quite a lot now.  

PR:  How do you see yourself evolving over the next few years and are there any other interesting projects that you are working on for the future? 

DB: Oh yeah I’m working on a big book for Taschen (like the Helmut and the Hockney book) It’s finished, out next May. And one for Steidl. I found this yellow paper in France and I’ve been printing everything kinda dark. That’s coming out any moment. I got stick from the National Portrait Gallery show cause the pictures were so dark. I printed them myself. Lots of people don’t understand that they were too dark on purpose. I printed them in a dark room so they’re not all perfect like on a computer. People today judge prints by digital prints not by film prints.  

You may donate to Greenpeace and buy an original David Bailey bronze tiger Here  

Words; David Bailey Interviewed By Paul Carter Robinson Photo: P C Robinson © Artlyst 2017


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