Say what you like about David Bailey (and he attracts mixed opinions), he does get a very great deal of stuff done. He’s several times been quoted noting wryly how many more prizes he’s won as a commercials director than as a photographer. He’s a sculptor, too, and seems to have an ever-more-frequent publishing programme. He has often worked in collaborations, notably with Damien Hirst. I still regard it as very strange that he has had so few shows in public spaces — one big one at the Barbican, as I mentioned in a previous piece on this blog a while ago, and nothing else major. Isn’t that inadequate for a photographer of such enormous talent? A show is in the works for the National Portrait Gallery, but it’s still a meagre haul for such a publicly visible photographer, and one so widely admired. Coming after his eye-opening retrospective in the Docks recently, this present show adds another little facet to a reputation which most of us still quite lazily limit to a few good portraits in an Avedonic manner: dark suit, white shirt, black tie, plain cove background…
There was an element of disingenuousness in the announcement of the exhibition of a group of Polaroids by David Bailey from Papua New Guinea at the Daniel Blau Gallery in London. The press release calls them “hidden from view ever since” (they were made in 1974). The pictures weren’t hidden: they were published in a perfectly commercial book soon after (David Bailey. Another Image : Papua New Guinea. Matthews, Miller & Dunbar, London, 1975). The fact that the book wasn’t all that successful doesn’t make them hidden. As I write a dozen copies are available on Abebooks. The book is a pleasantly anecdotal — if relatively slight — presentation of what these pictures are. The prints (a very different thing, of course) have been boxed and now appear, nicely unfaded, on a gallery wall for the first time. David Bailey spoke about them at the gallery the other day, in conversation with Anthony Meyer.
To start with, what on Earth was Bailey doing taking anthropological portraits in the first place? I think the answer is not far to seek: Irving Penn. As senior photographer at Vogue America when Bailey was making his name (also at Vogue), Bailey had no choice but to follow Penn in detail. And he had been making famous ethnographic portraits. Penn’s Dahomey studies are dated 1967, his New Guinea studies (including a very famous photograph, Three Mud Men of Asaro) are dated 1970; his Moroccan portraits 1971. In the face of that, it is easy to see that Bailey had something to follow. Perhaps he regarded it as another way in which photography could open out, get him beyond the world of fashion which even then he found limited and limiting.
As he describes it, the trip itself was hard. He didn’t like the people that he had contact with in New Guinea, finding the men very aggressive and the women shy. He had little or no communication, apart from just about managing to convey the idea of the pose. He asked nobody to dress for the pictures, and the painted masks are the ones they were already wearing on the day. He downplays the idea that they were cannibals, saying that they played violent war games in which nobody was supposed really to get hurt, but that if one were accidentally killed there might be a certain sharing of body parts among the rest. Nevertheless, he slept with a Bowie knife when he had to accept hospitality in a longhouse among them. His most striking anthropological or ethnographic note is a memory that for some reason the women breast-fed their pigs. “I’ve been a vegetarian since I was 12,” he says drily, “so that didn’t bother me.”
Bailey describes the reaction of tribesmen to the pictures as disappointment: they treated them as broken mirrors, he says several times, turning the Polaroids here and there, puzzled as to how the picture stayed put and failed move as a mirror would. Polaroid SX-70 was very new at the time, and one can see that Bailey (who was always interested in the technology of photography and good at it) would have leapt at the chance to try out something light, fast, and one-off . Interestingly, he is scathing about those photographers who “chase the Polaroid”. He explains that he means those who use a Polaroid back before a shoot, and then spend the rest of the session trying to recreate the effect they obtained. He uses Polaroid backs himself, he says, but only at the end, to check that the cameras are working properly.
Polaroid did not pay for his Papua trip (he paid for that himself), but they equipped him generously with cameras and film. He took a blanket and a sheet to act as field backdrops (a trick he learnt from John French, whose own ex-army blanket was once lovingly restored by the V&A textiles department before appearing in a French retrospective exhibition). Another recurring backdrop is corrugated iron, which Bailey enthuses about. It’s one of the things he likes about Australia. I’ve never been to Australia, but Country Life once published a serious piece of research about the nineteenth century British firms which sent flat packed corrugated iron buildings, complete, for colonial use. You could buy a scout hut or a villa appropriate to a district officer or even a complete church. I imagine the Tin Tabernacle, just off the Kilburn High Road, in London, is one surviving example among many, although I don’t know which company made that particular one. Corrugated sheeting is an interesting choice for Bailey to have made as his background. It speaks (as do the occasional Christian crosses worn around Papuan necks) of a degree of Westernization, willing or forced, in stark contrast to the un-colonised appearance of the sitters themselves.
As a matter of fact, many of these Polaroids, perhaps the majority, are not terribly appealing pictures. They’re all very interesting, though. Choose the right one, and things start to leap out of these little frames with a startling energy. But many of them are flat, very dark, a little weary. He gets very close to the sitters, but can’t get them to break into an expression. They stare, dourly. They hardly move. The word I’d use is depressed. These are slightly depressed pictures. And that’s not a word I’ve seen associated with David Bailey before.
Penn’s ethnographic studies had turned the subjects into stylish clothes-wearers, (or stylish wearers of the absence of clothes) and they make me uncomfortable with a degree of condescension. I imagine Diana Vreeland, the purveyor of dismissive bons mots who is more responsible than anyone for the lasting association of Vogue with unthinking and mildly contemptuous snobbery, would have loved them. When Penn puts Truman Capote against a plain background, I understand that Capote was savvy enough to look after his own ‘image’, and the pictures are to some extent a collaboration. But when Penn made the Asaro mud men caper about like the chorus of some tribal Broadway musical, I’m less easy. Much earlier, in Cuzco, in Peru, Penn had made pictures of his hosts as he travelled which are not patronizing. But by the time he went to New Guinea, I’m not sure he knew how not to be. Bailey’s Papua pictures, small and intimate and relatively quick to make, are an obvious counter to that. I suspect, from looking at them, that he himself felt a certain discomfort at what Penn had made. I asked him, and he sort of huffed and said Penn wasn’t him and he wasn’t Penn and each to his own and so on. Take that for a mild ‘yes’.
So what is one to make of these small studies of Bailey’s? First and foremost, I think they are consciously not Penn. They are non-snobbish, non-colonial. Bailey produced a wonderful line in the gallery when he said “You know, once you’ve travelled a bit, everywhere looks like Wiltshire.” I translated that as meaning that Bailey had found nothing of the sublime in Papua, either of the people or of the landscape. Yet Bailey is a substantial collector of Oceanic and African art. “I like the crap as much as the good stuff. Anything that looks like Picasso, I suppose, “ he says with mock modesty. He even bought some pieces on the trip then. So it wasn’t that he was closed to Papua. But somehow, it didn’t really fire him up. No doubt, it was a hard trip. No doubt, too, he found that his egalitarian, hail-fellow-well-met 1960s attitudes met no answering spark. And perhaps there were personal and professional worries of which we know nothing which simply meant that he was off form at the time. It happens, why not?
I have another suspicion, which I cannot prove. I suspect that Bailey really didn’t get along with the Polaroid. At his recent show in Newham we were reminded just how brilliantly he could get the best out of any camera. If anyone could get magic out of the equipment, Bailey could. Large and medium format studio camera, 6×6 and 6×7, more recently lighter digital equipment, he’s tamed it all. He’s like a string player who could make decent music on a fiddle or a cello or even a viola if he had to. But in the Polaroid SX-70, Bailey seems to have found his ukulele. It just didn’t give him enough control, didn’t allow him enough options.
They’re not bad pictures, far from it. Any collector could easily choose a good one. It’s a very intriguing show, revealing as it does a new light on an artist we thought we knew. It’s odd, though. I can’t get away from the thought that it’s a brave show, too. It’s the first time I’ve seen a photographer come so very near to publicly acknowledging that maybe he picked the wrong tool for the job.