David Bailey is putting down his camera and picking up a paintbrush. The man who shot some of the best-known images of the past 50 years is returning to his childhood memories to draw Mickey Mouse and Adolf Hitler.
For Bailey, this isn’t a radical departure. He started sketching long before buying his first Rolleiflex. He’s an artist, not a painter, he insists.
They are all just images, he says, gesturing across his London mews studio. He has photos of Mick Jagger, the Beatles, Rudolph Nureyev, Jean Shrimpton and Andy Warhol as well as thousands of fashion shoots, nudes and landscapes.
These have won many awards: Bailey got his first prize when he was 12 in a City & Guilds contest, for a drawing of Bambi. Disney and London’s wartime bombing helped inspire the paintings. Rolling Stone Ronnie Wood’s son James organized Bailey’s show at his London gallery Scream under the title “Hitler Killed the Duck.”
“I spent most of the war down the cellars and air-raid shelters,” Bailey, 73, recalls. “I used to go to the cinema in Upton Park. One morning, I woke up and Hitler had bombed it -- a bit of a blow. I was probably six at the time. Hitler has always been a dark angel in my life.”
Nod to Bacon
Some of the paintings are as childlike as Bailey’s photos are stylish. They include primitive Hitler portraits, the wartime character Chad peering over walls, and slogans: “Wot no beer?” and “1942 WAS A BAD YEAR.” There are many religious references and a self-portrait of Bailey dressed like a pope with a striptease artist. It’s a wry homage to Velazquez and to Francis Bacon, who was inspired by the Spanish artist’s work.
“Bacon tried to pick me up once when I was about 20,” Bailey says. “I didn’t know who he was. I said, ‘Who is this old guy who is buying me Scotch and sodas?’
“I don’t believe in God or anything of that nonsense,” he says. “I love myths. I think we have to have some mystery in our lives. If you are too practical it takes away all the magic in life. I don’t believe I’m going to go to heaven and sit in a nice comfortable chair with Jesus.”
The paintings pay homage to Picasso’s curvy nudes. Bailey is an admirer of the female form: He has been married four times. His mixed-media works marry photos of La Cicciolina, Kate Moss, Jerry Hall and others with oil, canvas and silk. Asked about a frontal picture of Hall covered with orange and red brushstrokes as if she is on fire, the asthmatic Bailey wheezes with laughter and says, “Well she’s a very hot lady, that one.”
Books on Delhi
Bailey has published more than 30 books and is working on a raft more: two on Delhi, one of Polaroids he shot in Australia, maybe three on the East End of London and Warhol.
He left school on his 15th birthday with no education and dyslexia. His teacher told him, “somebody has to sweep the roads.” Bailey remarks, “People say, ‘Why do you do what you do?’ I say, ‘Because I can’t do anything else.’”
He wastes no time in taking charge of the video shoot during the Bloomberg interview, directing the camerawoman, setting the angle and lighting, constantly firing off questions: “Do I look like I’ve got personality?”
“And then some,” I say.
He praises his friend Jagger’s “SuperHeavy” CD, criticizes Tony Blair over Iraq and rattles off anecdotes such as his bafflement at seeing a blind man in a camera shop.
Bailey’s advice to someone wanting to be a photographer?
“What should people be doing?” he says. “Be true to yourself, as simple as that. Use your common sense.”
(Mark Beech writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own. This interview was adapted from a longer conversation.)