An interview with David Bailey

Reading Time: 7 minutes

If you’ve heard Tom Hulce’s laugh in the film Amadeus, you’ve got an idea of how David Bailey’s laugh sounds – high-pitched, explosive, and very infectious. I’ve met him before at a press breakfast and he seemed like a bit of a handful; this time it’s a one-to-one in his studio, and he’s on affable, charming form. “What’s your story?” he asks at the end of the interview, then he introduces me to his team.

Still, he doesn’t suffer fools gladly. We’re here to talk about NW1, the recent re-edited version of his 1982 book showing largely deserted streets in the London postcode; when I venture he’s better-known for portraits, he snaps he “can’t help other peoples’ lack of curiosity”.

“They think I live in Devon, I’ve never lived in Devon,” he expands, warming up to his theme – his studio manager later clarifies that he has a house and visits it, but doesn’t live there. “Kate Moss is not going to come down to Devon to get her photograph taken. You can only live in London, New York or Paris doing what I do.”

But he does have a point. Though he made his name with fashion and portrait photography back in the 1960s – helping transform British Vogue and capturing personalities from Mick Jagger to the Krays – he’s always done much more. His book East End was shot in the 1960s, 1980s and 2000s, and shows bombed-out streets, sooty buildings and dive-bar pubs, as well as a young Jean Shrimpton. More recently he’s been to Afghanistan, and even the Indian Naga Hills.

“That was quite a trip,” he says of the latter. “It’s the first time I’ve felt really old.”

Steidl’s publishing that project this year and, fast approaching 80, Bailey has still got a lot else on. Flipping through a recent Wall Street Journal, he shows me a series of portraits he shot; he’s just finished the A/W Valentino campaign, the sixth he’s been commissioned to do, when “nobody had ever done more than one in a row”.

He’s also working on a book on Essex, noting that – contrary to popular misconception – “it’s probably one of the most beautiful counties in England”. “I’m fed up with Sudan and New Guinea, I thought I’d go somewhere dangerous,” he says, and fires off that cracking laugh.

Diane Smyth

Diane Smyth is a freelance journalist who contributes to publications such as The Guardian, The Observer, The FT Weekend Magazine, Creative Review, The Calvert Journal, Aperture, FOAM, IMA, Aesthetica and Apollo Magazine. Prior to going freelance, she wrote and edited at BJP for 15 years. She has also curated exhibitions for institutions such as The Photographers Gallery and Lianzhou Foto Festival. You can follow her on instagram @dismy