Bailey’s Stardust – National Portrait Gallery

While in London a a couple of days ago I was able to make it to the National Portrait Gallery for the David Bailey exhibition Stardust. A fantastic retrospective of Bailey’s portrait work of a wide variety of people. The entrance to the exhibition is eye catching to say the least, a giant portrait of Michael Caine fills the high gallery walls. The quintessential Bailey portrait sets you in for a visual experience of continuous quality and innovation that has set David Bailey apart.

Baileys most notably portrait style is the black and white against a white background, his ability to continue to use this set up and resulting multitude of different outcomes is a testament to his skill. The images of Noel Gallagher and Damon Albarn, rivals during their hay day are both photographed relatively close up to the lens filling the image with features. While Albarn comes across very shy and fragile Gallagher has an air of disinterest and unimpressed.

The amazing number of celebrities on the walls of the exhibition is an interesting testament that sets Bailey from other photographers, a celebrity himself he attracts the clients and famous faces, wanting to be photographed by him. This reversed way is only achieved with firstly the talent and vision but also the persona around Bailey.

Similar to the portrait painters of the Tudor period, they would paint their subject in a way that they want to be seen, not necessarily how they looked. It is with this mindset that I have become somewhat disenchanted with the portraits and images of celebrities who now, perhaps more than ever are so concerned about their looks and persona. What we expect generally is to only see these people at their best but what David Bailey does is capture these individuals in an honest and insightful way that makes the viewer feel they are learning a little about the subject, their playfulness, seriousness, or vulnerability are all seen within this fantastic exhibition.

The iconic image of Mick Jagger hidden within the fur coat hood has been a personal favourite of mine for some time, I believe it captures some of what I was saying in the previous paragraph, we are seeing something a little more from the subject, the partially hidden face being a veil for a vulnerability, perhaps hiding from the fame and press. Compositionally I love the tightness of the frame, it gives the impression of getting beyond that hood and seeing Mick Jagger.

His portrait of Francis Bacon taken in 1983 shows a difference in Bailey’s style, photographing Bacon against a set has given the image more depth and context but his ability to still maintain the focus on the subject is brilliant, the piercing eyes of Francis Bacon due to the catchlight, grab the viewer and coupled with the slightly open mouthed expression create an interesting portrait that leaves more questions.

Overall I found this to be a thoroughly enjoyable exhibition, more so than I anticipated.


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