The National Portrait Gallery’s blockbuster spring exhibition is a landmark show focusing on the work of British photographer David Bailey. Featuring over 300 images, personally selected, printed and curated by Bailey himself, the exhibition offers a sumptuous survey of the work of one of the world’s greatest image makers.
A giant blow-up of a young Michael Caine, with his trademark black-rimmed glasses perched on his head, greets the visitor on arrival at the gallery, and sets the theme for the greater part of the exhibition, for Bailey is most famous for his pictures of the glamorous and famous. In our celebrity-obsessed age, do we really need a large-scale exhibition of portraits of – well – celebrities? Clearly, Bailey and the National Portrait Gallery think so, and, judging by the crowds seething enthusiastically through the rooms, this is set to be London’s most popular museum show of 2014.
It is somewhat disconcerting to step into a gallery and be confronted by so many famous faces staring from the walls: David Bailey has been taking photographs of celebrities for more for half a century, capturing their likeness almost before they were famous. One could argue that by doing so Bailey was cleverly tapping into the zeitgeist, moving with the groovy times, but these pictures are curiously staged and static, so that while the pictures are undoubtedly eye-catching and glamorous, there is very little story or depth behind the eyes of his subjects. And many of the pictures are now so familiar to us – the young Mick Jagger with his sexy pout, Kate Moss, also pouting, her hair carefully tousled, David Bowie, Grace Jones in a strange pyramid-like costume, Bob Dylan, Andy Warhol, the Kray twins – that the exhibition treads a fine line between a superficial panoply of personalities and a demonstration of the photographer’s art and craft.
Fortunately, this exhibition is more than a who’s who of the fashion and artistic elite of London, New York and Los Angeles. Pictures from Bailey’s travels in Australia, Papua New Guinea, India, and Sudan also grace this exhibition, but even here the subjects seem posed in the manner of his glamour pictures, which robs these images of real poignancy. But the pictures of Bailey’s fourth wife, Catherine Dyer, and their children, are full of affection and warmth, lovingly framed and exhibited in their own room.
With the advent of camera phones and applications like Instagram, photography has become democratized and is no longer the preserve of the specialist practitioner. With this in mind, it is actually quite refreshing to view the highly-crafted, albeit posed and beautifully-produced pictures that make up this exhibition. Tastefully displayed on plain white walls, the photographs ooze glamour and dynamism, while in a section entitled “iPhone” Bailey proves he is alert to the new technology in a series of vibrant large-scale colour photographs.
The exhibition is organized thematically, with Bailey’s iconic images presented alongside lesser-known subjects, from the glamorous to the impoverished. There are selections from two of Bailey’s most acclaimed bodies of work, the “Box of Pin Ups”, which helped define the 1960s through striking studies of key personalities of the time, and “Bailey’s Democracy”, in which people visiting his studio were invited to be photographed naked. Perhaps the most interesting pictures in this exhibition are those taken in London’s East End in the early 1960s. This is the place from which Bailey came, grimy and scarred by war and poverty, a reality which was soon eclipsed by the glamour and vanity of the swinging sixties.