It seems fitting that the face of Kate Moss covers all the advertising for David Bailey’s career spanning exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. After all, Moss is probably the first model that springs to mind when we think of someone in the fashion industry who is British, timeless and has had the staying power to keep us interested for decades. Bailey, is the photographic counterpart, without whom, we may not even have models as big as Kate today.
The exhibition which was curated by Bailey himself over two years includes 250 photographs from five decades. The photographer was given the whole of the ground floor of the gallery which had only previously been given to exhibitions of David Hockney and Lucian Freud. The show reads like a who’s who of celebrity culture from Bailey’s emergence from the swinging sixties with Jean Shrimpton and Penelope Tree to the likes of Beyonce – is there anyone he hasn’t photographed?! Most of these celebrity portraits are stripped back, black and white images and it is this simplicity that probably draws us in. We see the same idea in a series of photographs of 1960s East End London where Bailey grew up: an honest depiction of his childhood.
While Bailey got his big break in fashion, the show gives us more than Jerry Hall and Grace Jones posing in pretty outfits. Bailey went on tour with the Rolling Stones, was friends with Mick Jagger and also includes a series of portraits involving the Kray brothers – figures who you wouldn’t expect to appear in the National Portrait Gallery.
As we move through the exhibition there are many portraits of fellow artists and photographers. These include Salvador Dali, Andy Warhol, Grayson Perry, Francis Bacon, David Hockney, Joseph Beuys and Damien Hirst – with whom Bailey has collaborated with on many projects. Here it seems that the photographer has had some kind of dialogue with all the pre-eminent figures in art and photography since his career kicked off. My favourite portrait in the exhibition was of Maurizio Cattelan, probably my personal favourite artist/photographer in the show, who spread the skin on his face as if he was wearing a mask.
Following this we move into a more personal room, dedicated to his model wife Catherine Dyer and his children Fenton, Sascha and Paloma. Here we see family photos as well as beautiful portraits of Bailey’s family life and the people he loved. The photographer further proves that he does not just document the cult of celebrity with a series of indigenous people of Papua New Guinea, Australia and Delhi, using his photography to bring light to forgotten regions of the world.
Towards the end of the exhibition are a group of images taken with mobile phones. Here Bailey appears to poke fun at the advances in technology since he began taking photographs over half a century ago and also includes a few selflies.
However, the exhibition is not purely photography. Across the exhibition are three sculptures made by Bailey. These are humorous, small figures which crop up every once in a while, which seem to make the viewer chuckle amidst some more serious black and white images. The show also finishes with glass cabinets containing memorabilia from the photographers life including books, records and magazines.
Bailey has titled the exhibition ‘Stardust.’ Stardust suggests magic and enchanting, an allure of glamour. The photographer’s career is just that. A stellar show that simply cannot be missed.
Bailey’s Stardust is on display at National Portrait Gallery until 1 June 2014