David Bailey began photographing for British Vogue in 1960, and shot his first Vogue cover with Jean Shrimpton in 1961. Known for his dramatic lighting, simple photographic style and stark backgrounds, the legendary photographer was able to capture his subjects in a manner like no other – complimenting and confronting them “in one deft click.” Bailey transformed British fashion and celebrity portraiture with though-provoking images, and now he has captured the National Portrait Gallery (NPG) with Stardust.
Bailey’s Stardust exhibition features over 250 images expressly selected and printed by Bailey. For the show, he rendered new silver gelatin prints, and created a book to complement the exhibit.
David Bailey had the upper hand for this retrospective from its conception. In 2011, he was given a doll house-type replication of the museum spaces to orchestrate his vision for the show. He meticulously coordinated it, all the way down to the music visitors should listen to while observing the images. In a February interview with Vogue, Bailey addresses his take on the matter. He said that it always surprises him when individuals request something and “then tell you how to do it.”
It is a rare occurrence, especially for a large art gallery such as NPG, to consent to giving so much liberty to one artist. According to Sandy Nairne, the gallery director, who said that while allowing carte blanche was highly irregular, it was evident David Bailey “did have a vision” about how he wanted his show presented.
In spite of its dreamy title, the Bailey’s Stardust exhibit does not just concentrate on the beautiful people; it also looks at Bailey’s work in support of Band Aid the charity, his experiences in Papua New Guinea and of East Africans overcome by famine.
Bailey’s works take over the ground floor of the NPG, and are presented thematically across a series of complementary rooms – East Africa, Australia, Papua New Guinea, Delhi and the Naga Hills and London’s East End, with exceptional images of the Rolling Stones and other icons in arts and fashion.
One room in the exhibit gives a more intimate impression of Bailey. Named after his wife, Catherine, the photographs in this space are almost contrary to Bailey’s other work, as the images capture Catherine’s pregnancy and giving birth. Viewers are shown a rare glimpse of Bailey’s private life.
The exhibit also highlights archival materials such as Bailey’s school report and a national service medical report stating his vegetarian preference.
The Bailey’s Stardust exhibit illustrates the photographer’s remarkable array of individuals that he has encapsulated, from writers and actors to artists, musicians and filmmakers. Many of the faces are legendary, like John Lennon and Mick Jagger. Some of the individuals are unfamiliar, but all of them are equally impressive.
His photographic work spans more than half a century, and the image maker was instrumental in “breaking down antiquated and rigid class barriers.” Bailey has always possessed the gift to foster an extraordinary connection with his subject.
The NPG exhibition of Bailey’s Stardust is one of the largest photographic shows the institution has ever presented. It is on view until June 1, 2014.
By Dawn Levesque