Wide-Ranging Interview

Francis Hodgson is an interviewee in a long and wide-ranging conversation on matters photographic which appeared on Vikas Shah’s Thought Economics in April 2015.  http://bit.ly/1JjAcUO .

Not Finding Wiltshire – David Bailey in Papua in 1974

Wigwoman of Wabag District, © David Bailey

A Lady Dressed To Kill, © David Bailey

Highland Boy, © David Bailey

Untitled, © David Bailey

Kukukuku Man with Bow,© David Bailey

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.

Irving Penn. Three Asaro Mud Men, 1970. © The Estate of Irving Penn

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.

David Bailey – Still Troubling After All These Years

The Rio Club 1968

As you take the Docklands Light Railway back to London from David Bailey’s new exhibition it is all too easy to fall into pools of irony as deep and as dank as the great docks themselves. Bailey was born in Leytonstone, in the east of London. As he once put it, “we were posh East End, if that’s possible, but I had cardboard in my shoes and was at the bottom of this cheap private school; some of the parents had tobacconists’ shops, which was a bit posher.” London seen from the DLR is a wasteland. It wasn’t wrecked only by the bombs; they didn’t help, but they were only one element in an ungodly soup of unfettered industrial development in the early days, abysmal social housing and forced movements of people, the dock strike, the late unlamented Docklands Development Corporation, incompetent and venal borough government… The Olympics, without which there would certainly have been no exhibition here, are touted as providing ‘regeneration’ and perhaps to a minuscule extent they do. But an awful lot of lipstick has been applied to sows in the name of the Olympics, and precious few of them will look any better when it wears off.

David Bailey has an OBE, but I wonder if he turned down a knighthood at some time in the past?  It would be just like him.  But we should offer him one anyway.  Now well into his seventies, and still as passionate about photography as he ever was, Bailey has upped his game again to produce a top-notch exhibition in a former Compressor House on a blighted bit of dockside in the former Royal Docks.

I asked Bailey what used to be compressed there, and he answered off-hand, meat from Argentina. I had visions of corned beef squashed into cans. It turns out not to be quite right: it’s a big building, but it housed just the refrigeration plant. There used to be a pond on the roof to hold the water needed to circulate through the machinery. The meat from Argentina was in literally acres of cooled sheds which no longer stand next door.  It’s curiously typical of Bailey that he knew the answer, but not precisely.  He’s a considerable scholar, and a technician of the highest order. He’s meticulous about cameras and film, but he’s also impulsive and imaginative and blessed with the most astonishing reflexes.

Bailey’s exhibition takes place under the umbrella of the ‘cultural Olympiad’ with a view to leaving a cultural legacy in Newham (a particularly blighted East London borough). It was ‘produced’ by something called Create – principal sponsor, the Deutsche Bank – and the Arts Council are claiming a piece of the action, too. It would be interesting to see the real books for this farrago. It is all too easy to imagine how much less the productions of the ‘cultural Olympiad’ will have done for their putative clients than for the armies of arts administrators and other employees who have been on good or very good salaries in their name. Bailey claimed to me that he was out of pocket for the show, and I’m sure that he is, although whether that includes abstractions such as his time freely given while he spent months in the darkroom making brilliant black and white prints I have no means of telling. But I suspect from something else that he said that he had to pay for the frames. If he did, what does that say about the level of help from the Deutsche Bank? The same Deutsche Bank whose world class art collection certainly doesn’t go short of a few frames?

It is an exhibition of brilliant photography, no doubt about that at all, wide ranging and varied in both subject-matter and style, and sharp as Cockney banter for tone. It is so rich in types of photography for which Bailey has been less known – magazine-style reportage stories, topographical views, contemporary street photography – that it rewrites his reputation at a stroke. Bailey used to be known for portraits of celebrities, for horny fashion photography, and for commercial videos. Now, in his seventies, he looks much more like an acute and anxious social commentator.

Newham residents get in to Bailey’s show for free. No scope for irony there: that’s good. If one of them eventually becomes a photographer or a social scientist or a fashion maven as a result of an impetus originally found in front of a picture of the Kray twins seen in the former Compressor House of the refrigerator for the meat sheds of the Royal Albert Dock, that will be a tangible ‘Olympic legacy’.

As a matter of fact, I got in for free, too. I’m a critic and the publicity machine for ‘cultural regeneration’ needs the press. I may therefore represent a tiny irony among others. But the big ironies are there, too. As you reach the elevated sections of that ride away, on the train that was meant to be the principal infrastructure investment for the entire East London region, you see the shining towers of the cities of the plain, the Sodom of the Isle of Dogs and the Gomorrah of the City of London. You see them above a blightscape of cheap industrial units scattered around the original low-lying marshland. Bailey’s show is on the other side of the same huge dock as the City Airport. Not a single sea-going vessel is in there, not one, in what used to be one of the busy ports of the world. On the dockside, a piece of international-crap architecture, a Newham prayer for attention from the incoming jets, stands ready to be rented to corporations who just aren’t coming. It’s within a couple of miles from those great financial centres, yet there’s nothing. The people who work at the tops of those towers get their free papers from air lounges, not from among those abandoned on the seats of the Docklands Light Railway.

Kray Brothers’ Gambling Club, 1968

A framed black and white portrait hangs in a hallway.  Two children, familiar.  The little girl is hooting with laughter, the little boy solemn. The colours of the hallway are muted, the colours of old Land Rovers, army surplus colours.  A cheap paper dado rail divides the lower grey-blue (harder wearing, vaguely institutional, shows the dirt less) from the custardy cream above (futile attempt to reflect more light).  The furniture is cheap, the light bulb such a weak orange it’s almost brown.  Austerity Britain in a passageway.  Then recognition: those children are Princess Anne and Prince Charles.  And a final clue in the caption: the hallway is in the Krays’ gambling club.  Remember that TV sketch in which John Cleese, Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett stood in a line of diminishing height and explained about class?  You can find it on YouTube. Bailey is like that at best: pleasantly witty but hard and true and cutting underneath. And we never really knew. Here’s a portrait of an East End lady drinking a beer.  It’s in colour, but it comes straight from Bill Brandt.  More than that: it has the social sharpness of Martin Parr long before Parr himself.  This is a London that we’ve been asked to forget.  But Bailey hasn’t forgotten.

In Paris, Atget used to photograph in what was called la Zone, the area cleared of housing just outside the city wall to make a field of fire. Who was intended to be aimed at is not always so clear: it might have been the Germans after 1870; or it might (at exactly the same time) have been working Parisians after the Commune. La Zone, by the time Atget came to it, was repopulated by unofficial Paris: shanty construction, dubious trades. East London looks like la Zone, and feels like it, too. There is meant to be a new city in all this, yet to rise very far, which is Stratford, the city reborn of the Olympics. It has a large shopping centre to which people come from far and wide, to buy consumer goods with their borrowed money. The new symbol of Stratford may be the worst-conceived monument ever built in London, the gnarled knot of the ArcelorMittal tower. It’s an insane postmodernist joke, a piece of self-flagellation. It’s meant to be a brand new Eiffel tower for the Olympic park. The Eiffel tower was built for a trade fair, too, and it, too, was widely disliked at the outset. But the Eiffel tower remains stiff and proud and nothing in Paris can be built to obscure the lines of sight to it now. The Stratford tower is an Eiffel tower with brewer’s droop. It’s hard to know whether to applaud the optimism of the people who believe in the regenerative power of the Olympics, or whether to curse their naivety.

Marc Reisner wrote in the mid-1980s a searing book called Cadillac Desert, about the great US irrigation projects. He shows huge public investment in making water available in areas of the Western United States that are essentially dry was transformed into profit for private corporations. The scale of state investment was prodigious. It was a real Socialist enterprise: bringing water to Southern California almost drained the Colorado River dry. And the beneficiaries? Citrus growers. It’s the story of the film Chinatown, in which the corruption is on such a huge scale that it’s hard to see it from close up. I wonder if the same will not in the end prove to be true of the great ‘regeneration’ projects. How different will Newham really be, once the great Olympic circus has moved out of town?

Bailey knows all this. His exhibition is anything but naïve. The cumulative view of the East End that he provides is one of loss, not gain. In one picture, Abbey Mills Pumping Station, the pivot point of Bazalgette’s great north London sewage network, is given a kind of smokey glory of a Eugene Smith kind.

Stratford 1961

Abbey Mills probably quite literally saved London. Without it, London was drowning in its own shit. A huge and ambitious piece of underground engineering pumped the effluent away and one or two glorious buildings – Crossness south of the river, Abbey Mills to the North – marked the achievement. Abbey Mills, built in a splendid Victorian Byzantine style, used to have four huge minarets at its corners, but they were taken down as making it too easy for the Luftwaffe to steer by. Abbey Mils, Bailey seems to be saying, that was then; when capital contributed to cities. Further along, a picture of a cheap blue hoarding.

Stratford 2007

It blocks out the sky. It’s brighter than the sky. I don’t think it’s actually the infamous Blue Wall that locked Londoners out of the Olympic site and divided the places that would receive fancy new terrazzo surfaces from those condemned to remain in London Stock and Engineers’ Blue. This one is just a hoarding, I think, peeling. Behind it, rivetted water tanks wait to be dismantled next time the price of scrap metal goes high enough to justify it. This is now. Inadequate investment, and profit made only from money spent long ago.

Stratford, 2007

Stepney Green 2005

A sylvan river? A rural cottage? Stratford and Stepney Green respectively. Is Bailey laughing at the culture of the glamorous holiday, the city break, the Maldives and the Seychelles? You didn’t get them when you came from Leytonstone. Or is he more plainly simply showing us that cities are never just concrete and steel?

East End 1968

Some of the portraits in the show are pure Bill Brandt. A craggy drinker in a pub waves his pint high above us. It’s close to the camera, so is bigger than his head. In his other hand, at the diagonally opposite corner of the picture, his roll-up, still in pieces. Both pint and fag are expertly clutched without spillage. His hair is floppily long, not because of fashion but because it costs money to get it cut. He is of the generation that used to do even rough work in a suit: an older man behind is still in working tweed, although the hero of the picture is in some kind of decommissioned double-breasted number. I even wonder if it might not be a demob suit, almost the only thanks you got for leaving the Army at the end of the war. This picture dates from 1968, so the suit would be twenty years old if it were so, a goodish time for a suit to come down in the world. He wears a tightly knotted but not very ironed scarf around his neck, and instead of a waistcoat a brown knitted cardigan, open. He reminds me of something, but it takes me a while to place it: if he had only the wide leather belt, he would look for all the world like a member of one of the greatest of all the industrial tribes, the canal navigators.

The great boom in canal building was in the 1790s, a generation before photography. There are pictures of the canal men, though, because habits changed slowly as long the canals still functioned properly. Eric de Maré was a prince among canal photographers, and the RIBA (Royal Institute of British Architects) gave him a long-overdue show not that long ago. Somehow Bailey seems to have read that old industrial heritage in this one man waving his pint at the camera; it’s a million miles from the other Sixties that Bailey was working at the same time. In Carnaby Street, Bailey was making a world, or helping to. In the East End, he was trying to understand the one it was replacing.

There’s great beauty in Bailey’s view of the despoliation process: he prints black and white like a silversmith chases metal. A woman in profile – headscarf and fag – in front of a wall of price tags is fully worth its predecessors by Walker Evans.

East End 2007

By the time he gets to working fast in the street with digital equipment and in colour, he finds beauty another way. A woman in a wheelchair (with a stack of Blockbuster videos hung in a bag from the handles) passes a woman in a shalwar kameez. Neither acknowledges the other, but the earthy solidity of the textiles of the wheelchair rider is pointedly contrasted against the gossamer translucence of the floating drapery. Just in case you didn’t get it first time, a lens flare acts as a miniature point of starlight. “Shh ! “, this picture says, as our grandmothers used to, “in that silence an angel passed”. In an older picture, a curiously cartoony doorway somewhere like Bethnal Green has white paint daubed next to it. So do all the other doors in the street. Lot 13. It’s an auction. Winner takes the whole street.

What to make of a show like this?
One, that the stories that Bailey has to tell are different to but no less substantial than the fashion and portraiture from which he made his name. This is a sustained and highly successful exposition of the lack of care that has been found acceptable for a substantial swathe of London and for the people who live there. The Krays are in the show, brilliantly photographed. They’re the only gangsters named, but they’re not the only gangsters present.

Two, that David Bailey has had insufficient attention. That sounds absurd. One of the most famous photographers we have? Certainly, but he’s almost never had a public show – one big one at the Barbican (and the Barbican is oddly funded, it’s not really a national venue) otherwise scraps. It is impossible to imagine a German photographer of equivalent status, a French or a Dutch, to have received so little public confirmation. Our curators really haven’t been doing their work if Bailey can unearth treasures on this scale in a few months of trawling his own files. There’s colour work here of spellbinding subtlety and control, as well as the glorious silver printing. As a little bonus, there’s a wonderful early self-portrait of Bailey as a mod, surrounded by jazz instruments.
Lots of people won’t go to this show because it’s far out on the Docklands Light Railway; well, it’s there for good reasons. And one of those reasons is that Bailey sees to it that – for any viewer with eyes in his head – the trip back will be freighted with irony.

One final footnote. I see that the show is dedicated to the late Claire de Rouen, bookseller of the Charing Cross Road, and a person whose enthusiasm for photography was the engine for an entire generation of UK practitioners. It’s an elegant gesture of Bailey’s to lift his hat to her in that way.

Sir Cecil Beaton – Earning a Royalty





The Victoria and Albert Museum has put on a show of Sir Cecil Beaton’s royal portraits as a contribution to the diamond jubilee celebration of HM the Queen, and it has been met with predictable enthusiasm.  Lots of crowns!  Lots of gowns!

It’s actually a disappointment. Although he was almost crippled by snobbery, Beaton was capable of technical skill and imagination.  He was a charming (if slight) draughtsman, a fine designer (notably of stage sets) and his writing is shrewd as well as waspish, and often gracefully put together, too. He was a sufficiently versatile photographer. Fashion, of course, he took to as the natural milieu of the visually oriented queen, but his best portraits of artists drip with a kind of jealous scrutiny and his war photographs were by no means negligible.  One can see how the jubilee demanded a certain kind of treatment, but this is a fawning exhibition which does no favours at all to a photographer who might be more interesting than the one-dimensional view of him presented here.

Beaton was born in 1904, in the same year as Bill Brandt, and it is not absurd to compare them. Peter Conrad did just that (The Observer, Sunday 25th January 2004) at the time of their mutual centenary, when two shows allowed him to think of them side by side.  Conrad picked up on Beaton’s ‘lofty responsibility’. His job, as he put it, was ‘to stage an apotheosis’. With its ‘silvery magic’, the camera bestowed ‘a glorious halo’ on the people it portrayed.  Never mind that some of that halo, when its address was Buckingham Palace, conveniently reflected on the photographer.  It is too easy to think of Brandt as a dark European intellectual to Beaton’s childish British vampery – too easy but not inaccurate.

Brandt was born to considerable privilege, secretive and shy, interested in the poor and the dispossessed (a socialist in his photographs, even if his politics in life were less plain than that), not much appreciated in his lifetime.  Beaton came from a modest background of which he was embarrassed, was a moth, attracted to Hollywood and country house parties and all that glistered – including, it goes without saying, the royal family.  He was certainly a Tory in his photographs although he, too, was more complicated than that. He was absolutely obsessed with being appreciated.  Beaton’s natural tone was absurd: think Kenneth Williams from the Carry On films.  In a little snippet of a documentary David Bailey made on him which is screened in the V&A show, he is asked what he says to people while photographing them: “I coo like a bloody dove,” he says, camp as a row of tents.

This exhibition is designed to make a serious point, that Beaton’s pictures were one element in the campaign to modernize and stabilize the monarchy in the Windsor mould: a family business, hard at work in the service of the nation, certainly not swanning around ankle-deep in privilege.  Fair enough.  The present Queen has overseen a steadying of the monarchy at a time when it is much easier to make a name twitchily demanding change of any kind than working for stability in the long term.  Part of that steadying was to supply a steady image. Beaton contributed to that, and was happy to do so.  “ Today”, he wrote in 1953, “ members of the Royal Family realise that, the demands from the public and the Press becoming ever more voracious, being photographed is one of the serious obligations to which they must submit at increasingly frequent intervals.” It is on record that Beaton was not pleased when Anthony Armstrong-Jones became what Beaton felt he had the right to be, the senior photographer-courtier, and was ennobled in the process.

Every regime puts out official pictures, and we in Britain are luckier than some in that we don’t feel obliged to have them over every official desk in the land. Pumping out a number of reassuring pictures of Windsors at work and if necessary at home has hardly been a shocking abuse of power, and we could easily have left it at that.  The show reveals a large number of prosperous people leaning on heavy furniture in interiors with very high ceilings.  It is feeble to try to illustrate a story of the monarchy being modernised with such very conventional photography.  But still… No surprise, no  great insight, no problem.

Too much is made of Beaton’s inventiveness.  He once put the Queen in an Admiral’s cloak, for statuesque simplicity. It looks rather coarsely borrowed from Rodin’s Balzac, as though he’d found it in a book the day before the shoot. He made some ‘contemporary’ and ‘relaxed’ portraits from time to time, notably of the royal children.  There are some small signs of a photographer tying to do his best, including a charming seized moment of Princess Anne walking on ermine during a pause in the Coronation sittings, and one or two attempts to strip out background.  But this is ‘contemporary’ in the same way that any routine wedding photography business can offer you Contemporary as opposed to Traditional, just another set of rules to apply for a predictable outcome.

Many of the best pictures are a small selection of portraits of Beaton by others – patently added to flesh out a show in sore need of a lift.  Curtis Moffat, Paul Tanqueray, Erich Salomon, Irving Penn and a hilariously stagey rendition by David Bailey: this is quite a nice show within a show.  There are also some interesting mounted series of pictures approved by the Palace.  It is thin gruel, though, for a major exhibition at the V&A, far too thin.  The V&A holds some 18,000 royal pictures by Beaton. There are about a hundred in the exhibition.  If these really are the strongest we could have seen, then the holdings are a disaster.

There floats in the background a question. Beaton’s archive is somewhat messy, and there is lack of clarity about who owns exactly what copyright. Beaton worked a great deal for Vogue, and many of his pictures have a Condé Nast copyright. Condé Nast pushes out a steady stream of books on Beaton to exploit that fact. Sotheby’s also commercializes a holding of Beaton material, not very effectively, sometimes in co-production with Condé Nast and sometimes independently.  But the royal archive was a specific gift to the V&A, and the V&A benefits materially from the reproduction of every royal Beaton, although not of Beaton’s images on other subjects. Is it possible that one of the motives for this really quite poor exhibition was simply that the increased circulation of royal Beaton imagery could make a windfall for a museum which (like every other) struggles to finance its operations?

Brandt By Bailey 1982

Brandt By Bailey 1982

A generous and technically brilliant tribute to one British photographer from another.
Here David Bailey has laid aside his own more usual style to make a portrait of Bill Brandt in something approximating Brandt’s own manner.
Result? A grand salute both to the person and to his work.