A Day Out with David Bailey

“I got arrested with him once,” says David Bailey of renowned Mayfair art dealer Robert Fraser. “Yeah it was Robert Fraser, me and Brian Clarke. We came out of a gay club and got in the car, I can’t remember who was driving, and this policewoman arrested us, for no reason.”

Bailey, who has been sober for more than 45 years, thinks the trio were persecuted for where they’d chosen to spend the evening. They were later released with no charge.

“Robert had a broken leg, which he told everyone he did while he was skiing, but he was runnin’ for a bus,” Bailey cackles in his unmistakable East End tone.

This anecdote is one of many that Bailey recounts during our meeting, but he doesn’t remember his first visit to Mayfair – “not really, I thought it was where all the whores lived, the more high class ones” – he was, however, a regular at the Curzon cinema on Curzon Street.

“Curzon showed an interest in films, they weren’t just Hollywood smash hits, they used to play [Sergei] Eisenstein films,” he explains. “There was a place in Leytonstone that did play good films too. I remember taking Jean [Shrimpton] there to see Ivan the Terrible or something like that. Hitchcock was born in the same place as me by the way, two streets away I think, 40 years earlier. He’s the master. I can’t think of another English director that is quite up to him. Maybe Michael Powell.”

I meet Bailey in his studio in a mews near Chancery Lane. He’s charming, to the point, and jumps around from topic to topic, often ending stories with profound statements about mankind or political curveballs. The studio is a large, open plan space, with various friendly assistants and a fluffy Chow dog called Mortimer surrounding the two sofas we’re on.

“I’ve got a Jack Russell as well but he’s trouble. He [Mortimer] will never stand on a print, he’s polite, well-mannered Chinese,” says Bailey, dressed in jeans, New Balance trainers, an aztec-print top and a photographer’s waistcoat.

He looks well, a lot more mellow than my warning from the PR would have me think, and seems happy to chat to me for an hour. I’m astounded to hear he turns 79 on January 2.

“I didn’t start to feel old until I was 75,” he says. “I’ve got a lot to do, and not much time left.”

I’m here to talk about re-release and subsequent exhibition at Heni Gallery on Lexington Street of NW1, a stunning book of photographs of Primrose Hill, Regents Canal, King’s Cross and the streets around, that Bailey produced in the early 1980s.

“I’ve got nothing against people like Jordon, cos what else would she have done? It’s not interesting what she does. Anna Wintour phoned me and said, ‘can you make Jordan look like a lady?’ I said well I don’t know who Jordan is. I asked the boys here and they said yeah. We did make her look like a lady.”

“I never thought they’d surface again but it’s good that they did.”

“I just had a guy ask, ‘did you just walk around and take pictures?’ I said well it’s not as simple as that, strolling around with a Leica under my arm! In fact, all the pictures were taken with a tripod on a play camera, 10 8 or 5 4. You look somewhere and you think shit the light’s not right, so you come back later.”

Did bringing NW1 back make Bailey think about how much London has changed?

“No not really, because I knew it was changing then. I mean, remember I was brought up in the Blitz in London, and there was buildings disappearing all the time. You’d go there one day and the next day there’d be a great big hole with water in it. They used to keep water in the bomb sites for the fires.”

Bailey was born in Leytonstone in 1938 – “In those days it was called Leyton, they changed it to Leytonstone to make it sound more posh” – but moved to a flat in East Ham when he was three.

“We were bombed and living in a shelter at the bottom of the garden. It didn’t affect me as a kid cos you just think it’s fun, you get to play on bomb sites, there’s no coppers around, you can do what you fuckin like, break as many windows as you like.”

Now Bailey lives in Tufnell Park – “in an alter end of the church, closer to God” – with his wife Catherine. He has three children – Fenton, Sascha and Paloma.

Bailey is often referred to as a fashion photographer, but he’s not actually done any since the 1980s.

“But that’s you journalists getting it wrong you’re all d***s. Celebrity snapper, how would you like to be called a celebrity snapper?” I protest that of course, Mayfair Times would never call him that.

“It’s just a way to get paid, very badly paid by Vogue I might point out, but a way to vaguely take a creative picture,” he adds.

What was it that made him want to become a photographer?

“Nothing really, it just happened. I used to paint before. Things happen to you, you think you’re gonna do something else and you end up doing something. It’s like that quote, ‘life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”

It’s certainly worked. Bailey is prolific, and he’s not slowing down. He’s just made a film for Valentino, and is working on a Great Britain campaign. So far he’s shot the Queen, Eddie Redmayne, David Hockney, Zaha Hadid and Mo Farah, to name a few. He’d like to do Kate Moss, one of Bailey’s best friends.

“I wanna do Kate as she is, but I don’t wanna do her with false eyelashes on her cheeks,” he says, laughing.

He laments Zaha’s untimely death. “She was great, she had a sense of humour no one knew about. We were gonna do a book on Sheikh Saud Al Thani. He was one of the few people I really respect, he had such a fantastic eye for everything, whether it was Egyptian or Islamic or Picasso. He so got overlooked. I spent a lot of time with Zaha on Sheikh Saud’s plane.”

Bailey’s paintings and sculpture are dotted around, vivid, expressive works, many featuring Hitler. There’s a brilliant iron sculpture next to us, crows feet holding a round face.

“The three artists I love are Picasso, Caravaggio and Walt Disney,” he says.

“You’ve got Walt Disney who invented a fuckin’ mouse who could sing and dance I mean he was a genius. There couldn’t be more American than that.”

Does he ever think about how his own pictures will be received?

“I don’t have too many great expectations about what people think. There are very few people who understand what we do. Stardust [Bailey’s 2014 exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery], lots of people wrote about it criticizing the print. They don’t understand, they’re judging prints by computer standards, and a print, as Ansel Adams says that the negative is the score and the print is the orchestration. They say oh they’re too hard, too dark, too contrasting, but that’s how you’re making the picture, it doesn’t have to be exactly how the computer does it because that’s right down the centre perfect, which is incredibly boring, perfection is incredibly boring.”

He’s also about to release a new book, Bailey’s Naga Hills, a photographic portrayal of Bailey’s visit to Nagaland, a state in Northeast India with 17 different tribes.

“It was physically tough. Fantastic, the two cultures, you’ve got stone age people with guys that wanna be called Mr Pink, it’s really funny. I wasn’t there for long, you don’t need long. The longer you stay the less interesting it gets because you turn into an anthropologist, you have to visually take in what you see straight away, you don’t wanna get used to it, otherwise it becomes the town hall.”

“You can’t go there ‘cos it’s closed,” he adds.

How did Bailey get in?

“Charm. I can usually get in most places. I got into Buckingham Palace once with a credit card,” he smiles. I don’t doubt that.

NW1 is at Heni Gallery, 6-10 Lexington Street, until January 31.