Considered one of the pioneers of contemporary photography, David Bailey is credited with photographing some of the most compelling images of the last five decades. He first rose to fame making stars of a new generation of models including Jean Shrimpton and Penelope Tree. Since then his work has never failed to impress and inspire critics and admirers alike, capturing iconic images of legends such as: The Rolling Stones, the Kray twins, Damien Hirst and Kate Moss, these simple yet powerful black and white images have become a genre in their own right.
Mostly, David Bailey is known for his stark black and white portraits, however he also shot some stunning landscapes, capturing a vanishing part of London. Published in 1982, Bailey took photographs of his local area: NW1, Primrose Hill and Camden, which had been his home for nearly 30 years and was gradually altering, so he decided to:
…photograph the shuttered cinemas, boarded railway arches, crumbling Victorian facades, dormant car park and advertising hoardings. 34 years ago it was a statement of the suburban decay, and looking back on the images now it becomes even more poignant.
Gone is the history to be replaced with glass and steel, family businesses replaced by chain fashion stores and coffee shops.
Bailey owned a house in Gloucester Terrace – one of the few houses not split into flats – and from here he would wander through his neighbourhood selecting his subject matter. At the time is was grubby and cheap, not at all like the ‘swanky’ area it is now.
When I saw that these works were going to be on display at Heni London (a small upstairs gallery which I nearly walked passed!) I made a note that I should definitely go and have a look.
I was a little disappointed that they did not have any handouts, but you were allowed to photograph the exhibition which I found a pleasant but surprising change from most venues. The lovely assistant did tell me I could buy the book of:
…David’s thoughtful perspective on the area [which]is translated in these iconic, black and white archival photographs.
Displayed in a very light, airy, white, high ceiling-ed room, I was also surprised that the photographs were framed with highly reflective glass. Taking advantage of this I explored creating surreal images using the reflections of the beautiful large windows.
A brilliant study of how to shoot within your local area; the compositions and the smaller details evoke memories of the 70’s for me ( The design of the wall, framed within the car window, is a blast from the past! ) and capture the atmosphere of the place, linking to the coursework and my research into how photographers used authorship and reflexivity to create a sense of local identity. The body of work took four years to complete, Bailey using plate cameras and tripods and his trade mark black and white imagery.
“I’d look at something that took my fancy, I’d note the time of day and when the light was going to be right and then go back three or four times. I did it as a continuous work.”
Looking back he says the change he saw then was not a surprise – and our city is constantly on the move, making it more important to capture moments and preserve them.
London changes all the time, and that isn’t unique – everywhere changes, every day…I like continuous change – it is more interesting
When looking at the buildings he recounts how:
They seemed to tell the story of the people that lived there, like an invasion into their personal life…These buildings were the first building that I knew and they had a Gothic effect on me. I prefer buildings that have a certain history about them, and the people that lived in them, made love in them, gave birth or died in them. The facade of a building is like a person’s face, it tells a story.
Which fits in neatly if not slightly obscurely with the ideas expressed by David Campbell when he quoted: ‘Is it the case, as Robert Hariman has argued, that sometimes “things speak louder than faces.”’
As well as a personal account these images provide a historical documentation of the area, especially as the majority of independent businesses have been replaced by high street chains.
This interview is brilliant!
What did I take away from this?
- Don’t use highly reflective glass in frames
- Handouts are always useful
- What might seem mundane everyday images at the time, become poignant historical documents, even within a relatively short space of time
- you don’t always have to include people
- Urban landscapes can work well in B&W – possibly something to explore
- Check the lighting/time of day assists with the narrative, go back several times if necessary
All in all, a very useful and pleasant trip out.