Bailey’s Stardust is the title for the enormous, lifetime retrospective of Britain’s greatest photographer. I was so incensed by reading the review in the Guardian (link included below) that, even though I know his work very, very well, I went down to the National Portrait Gallery the next day to check for myself.
Maybe this was the whole point of that review, to goad people into going?
Maybe that was why the Guardian purposely mismatched show and reviewer, in order motivate through abject irritation?
Even so, Jonathan Jones review was the daftest I’ve read for a long time.
I'll paraphrase to save you actually reading it -
Bailey’s work is not art and it’s not as good as Rembrandt or Caravaggio. Furthermore, the work is superficial and bereft of any deeper meaning.
But surely, besides anything else, I’d have thought the clue was right up there in the show’s title - 'Bailey’s Stardust'?
Call me an old pedant but I’d have thought that a reviewer who considers themselves able to discern meaning might have noticed some significance to be read in that precise wording?
Meaning, one presumes, that quality which is ephemeral and glitters briefly and is then gone but which Bailey brings into the equation himself.
That interpretation, at the very least, would not seem to be rocket science.
But "bereft of any deeper meaning"? Isn’t this rather the nature of fashion and celebrity photography anyway? What should one expect, Proust?
He writes "Bailey's style is all move, jump, grin, gurn or pout for me, babe. But Stardust's ecstatically brainless glamorama is glib entertainment for those who can't be bothered with real art.”
"If this is mastery, give me incompetence.”
Jonathan Jones clearly doesn’t think that photography is art and, though he’s entitled to his opinion however ill-informed, it’s an argument that was first heard in the 19th Century and was pretty much over by the time of Stieglitz and Steichen a hundred years ago.
He also reveals what he really means in the later comments section - "It's the lack of anything more profound that personally makes me wonder why anyone would pay to see this when you can see Rembrandts and Caravaggios for free at the National Gallery around the corner."
And then later “…I prefer Rembrandt, Caravaggio and Van Gogh - there's more to think about and a deeper meaning.”
This is asinine. It’s a bit like comparing ballet to rugby league.
It’s also very condescending. What on earth is to stop one enjoying the work of David Bailey AND the paintings of Rembrandt, Caravaggio and Van Gogh? Since the National Portrait Gallery and the National Gallery are now umbilically joined, I’ll bet that’s exactly what many people will do.
The thing is, unless you know something about the works of Rembrandt, Caravaggio or Van Gogh there isn’t any deeper meaning to be discerned from the paintings themselves. Zero. It’s just paint and varnish on canvas. It’s not intrinsic. One has to know something about the subject, the painter, the period and the context in which the painting was produced. Then the meaning you perceive in those paintings is a function of what you take into the gallery yourself.
On the other hand, a photographic portrait of someone, no matter how superficial or fleeting in its creation, will always have a meaning because it’s technically a record of what that person looked like at that particular moment.
One doesn’t have to know anything about the subject or the photographer (there doesn’t even have to be a photographer, the camera can be automated). You only have to look at police mug shots, Photo Me booth self-portraits or iPhone selfies to see this. They are sometimes as meaningful and poignant as photographs ever get.
All photographs have their meaning, you just have to have the ability to see it.
One of the first photographs one sees in Bailey’s Stardust, even before getting to the ticket collector, is a large headshot of the model Kate Moss with her hair ridiculously messed with, sprayed up and primped. Her mouth is artfully open and she’s wearing as vacant an expression as only a really top model can quite manage. It’s a very instructive photograph and, I think, shows Bailey at his most mischievous and contrary. Even more so since he’s had it placed right at the beginning.
It really is an awful photograph and I'd defy anyone to find anything good about it - other than on a simply technical level. Kate Moss must have been photographed hundreds of thousands of times over the last twenty five years and I don’t once recall seeing a more uninteresting photograph of her. And why is that big lump of hair sticking out on the left, is it Bailey's nod to the 'Something About Mary' hair gel shot?
Since Bailey curated the show and positioned all the work himself, it's safe to say he's trying to tell us something. I can't tell what. Brainless glamorama possibly but it’s certainly not meaningless.
Maybe it’s very brainlessness is it’s meaning? Did you consider that Jonathan Jones?
Once inside it becomes clear that ’Stardust’ is a huge show. The blurb states that there are 250 works but it certainly seems like more. I’ve never seen a show this big of one person’s photography before. And, since he curated it himself, it’s quite clear what David Bailey thinks. He thinks rather a lot of himself.
There are sections of the show devoted to the ‘60s (as one would expect), the East End of London, gangsters, artists, other photographers, fashion icons, his wife Catherine Bailey, the Rolling Stones and some of the World’s native peoples. And there are also some very interesting vitrines containing books, magazines, contact sheets, an old Pentax and even a couple of his passports.
There are also a lot of photographs of Mick Jagger in the show. Far too many.
Mick Jagger has been in the public eye now for over 50 years and what does anybody really know about him other than his music, the women he’s been with and the fact that he likes cricket? What more is revealed by these portraits. Very little. Bailey and Jagger are a match made in Heaven. All the portraits of Mick Jagger do seem superficial and unengaging but could this not be because Mick Jagger actually is superficial? It’s certainly a question left hanging in the air for me.
The huge number of works (which in fact only scratches the surface of his enormous archive) and the wide scope of the show is a bit of a mistake IMHO because it reveals something that I don’t think Bailey would have wanted.
Which is that, in truth, he has never been quite as good in any one photographic genre as some of his peers. He was great in the ‘60s when he was a pioneer of fashion shoots taken outside of studios and shot on SLR cameras.
But the works in this show starkly reveal that Bailey was never quite as good inside one as Richard Avedon. Or nearly as good on location as was Herb Ritts. Or as good at both as was Helmut Newton.
I also don’t think he stacks up well, as a photographer of the World’s native peoples, alongside Irving Penn or Sebastião Salgado.
Or as good at street photography as Bruce Davidson or Diane Arbus. And to which group we should also now add the peerless or Vivian Maier.
Or, come to think of it, as good at photographing gangsters as Jocelyn Bain Hogg. Not by a long chalk.
Here’s the thing.
To come second to any of the great Twentieth Century masters is not a bad thing. And one must remember, Bailey did it all. He still does.
He’s very good at it all. Just not the absolute best at any of it.
But although Bailey hasn’t actually been at the cutting edge since the ‘60s, his most recent work is amongst his best ever.
The Fashion Icons room, containing huge colour portraits of Zandra Rhodes, Vivienne Westwood and Molly Parkin, made as recently as 2012 are, in my view, the best work in the whole show. As a man in his mid-seventies himself, he has the ability to make all those women, none of whom is particularly young themselves, look dynamic and youthful. He photographs them with genuine warmth and affection.
And his photograph of ceramicist Grayson Perry is the best of the lot.
I don’t think there is anything superficial about these portraits. They are all rather unusual looking characters but they look good very good here. One might almost say beautiful.
I love Bailey's portrait of Don McCullin too. He looks so very evil here, Bailey has caught the real darkness of the man. Not quite like Eisenstaedt’s famous photograph of Goebbels but going on that way. Don McCullin may be a photographic icon himself but his experiences as a war photographer have, in later life, made him into a (shall we say) person who is very hard to warm to. Baileys portrait catches that quality exactly.
Other than the Kate Moss shot, I really have only one criticism of the work itself. Some of the black and white printing is awful.
The photograph of I.M. Pei taken in 2002 is a case in point. There is only highlight and mid-tone detail in the print. There is no detail in the shadows whatsoever. Another shot of Bill Brandt from 1982 is like this as well. In fact many of the smaller black and white photographs have been printed in this way. The detail must be there but Bailey has chosen to hide it from us. I find it hard to believe but the NPG blurb says that Bailey printed the entire show “himself". Is this really true or do they just mean he supervised the printing himself?
Either way, the prints must be as Bailey wants them, so who am I to quibble?
He is famously rude. In the promotional film for the show, he’s even shown insulting and swearing at the people producing it. His old misery guts routine is just that, a routine, and he spouts a lot of nonsense about his own work and methods and one never knows when he’s being serious. I think he simply enjoys winding everybody up.
Almost all the photographs one sees of Bailey himself these days show him sneering or scowling towards the camera. And so it was with me the one time I met him and photographed him for The Face magazine back in 1985 (detail of which is shown above). He couldn’t have been nicer and more friendly and yet, every time I aimed my camera his way, he had his game face on.
I admit to being a big fan of David Bailey. More than anyone else, he inspired me to want to look at photographs at least ten years before I ever even thought about being a photographer myself.
Seeing a show like Bailey’s Stardust left me feeling the same sense of inspiration and wonder that I felt as a schoolboy, first seeing his photographs in the Sunday Times Colour Supplement.
This is a huge show, huge in scope, huge in conception and with some huge prints. And some prints with grain the size of golf balls.
It’s really a celebration of a life spent consumed by the art of photography. That’s why I find it, despite some of the not so great photos and questionable printing, so inspiring. It made me rush home, reevaluate my own work and try to figure out how I could ever get to be as good (I’m still wondering).
And besides that David Bailey is, at heart, still just an East End kid who enjoys upsetting the toffs. I don’t know if he reads his reviews but, one never knows, maybe he’d have perversely enjoyed that the Guardian only gave him two stars out of five?
My verdict is, as someone once said back in Bailey's heyday, "I’ll give it foive”.