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Legendary photographer David Bailey talks to Amie Mulderrig about returning to his roots
THE world’s most famous photographer lets out a throaty laugh, betraying what was his 100 cigarette-a-day habit.
“That’s a great f***ing trio you’ve got there,”cackles David Bailey, “myself, Alfred Hitchcock and Grayson Perry? We should form a pop group.”
I’ve just asked David, who is preparing to exhibit his East End Faces at the William Morris Gallery, whether he thinks the area produces particularly creative types or is a rich source of inspiration for artists. Offering up himself and Hitchcock as examples – the pair lived just two streets apart when they were younger, with Perry, creator of the infamous Walthamstow tapestry, thrown in for good measure – the iconic snapper appears tickled by the idea.
When I suggest that former Walthamstow resident William Morris should join their troupe, the notion is quickly dismissed. “He was kind of posh wasn’t he? Well he doesn’t count then.”
A strange response you might think, giving that he’s exhibiting in the namesake’s gallery, but David is as famed for his forthright opinions and no-nonsense attitude as he is his photography.
Born in Leytonstone in 1938 into a rag-trade family, both his mother and aunt were machinists and cutters and his father worked as a tailor.
“That’s part of where I got my visual awareness from”, he says, “that and my surroundings. I don’t know if it’s influenced my style as such. I don’t know if I believe in that style nonsense.
“Its influenced my life, that’s for sure. Everything has influenced my life – my mother, my family, the Blitz, the East End, the people I’ve met, everything.”
Forced from their family home to East Ham because of the Luftwaffe, the 75-year-old has few recollections of Leytonstone.
“Glass, lots of broken glass and trying not to cut my feet, that is what I remember,” he says. “All the houses around us were bombed, we all wondered if we’d be next. But they kept missing,” he chuckles.
When he was 12 a science teacher taught him how to develop film, but it was not until he reached 16 that a real interest in photography was sparked – he wanted to take a picture of himself playing the trumpet and looking like Chet Baker.
Following national service in the RAF, he secured an assistant’s job with the John French advertising studio, simultaneously launching his bid to become famous and a photographer. And the rest, as they say, is history. His faultless eye and striking use of monochrome caught the tone of the 1960s and David, one of the Terrible Three alongside Brian Duffy and the late Terence Donovan, came to epitomise the period, as much for living it as for snapping it.
But despite being assigned to New York Vogue, having taken photos of countless celebrities and achieving worldwide fame, east London has always lured him home.
“I do go to other places,” he states, matter-of-factly. “But east London is a place that is always changing and that’s what interests me, that’s why I keep coming back.
“Everything from the buildings, to the high street, to the people. When I was living in east London I remember there were only Chinese people here, but now there are more Indians, more Bangladeshis. I find this cultural change fascinating.
“People are also better off and the area is looked after a lot more.”
A number of the photos David has taken of east London during the 1960s, some unseen until July last year as they were unused options on contact sheets and as such stored away, make up his exhibition.
The show also features a large portrait of the Kray brothers, which was set to run in a broadsheet supplement, but didn’t as the pair were arrested soon after.
Nonetheless these snapshots in time, enchanting because they give a glimpse of east London as it was, are also a powerful reminder of David’s talent and skill.
But he remains nonchalant, perhaps even modest about his abilities.
“The way I take pictures hasn’t changed much since I was 16, I keep it nice and simple. I just keep my eyes open,” he explains.
“You see one thing and it leads you to another. Over the years I’ve found it difficult to walk around with a camera and just take photos, people are immediately on the defensive, you have to come in on a different angle, look for things other people don’t see.
“I’m not interested in composition and all that kind of stuff; I just use the camera like paintbrushes for a painting. And I don’t favour digital cameras over film ones – it’s like trying to decide between a 4x4 or a Ferrari. It depends what you do. If you’re driving across the desert, you don’t want to use the Ferrari, do you?
“I do love making images, whether it’s painting, sculpture, film, photos, whatever. I don‘t prefer photography, it just happens to be more what I’m known for I guess,” he says, before disappearing off to his dark room.
The next instance I have contact with David is at the show preview. He stands among the crowd, dressed in blue jeans, a lumberjack style jacket, and a red and white chequered bandana tied around his neck. Beads of sweat are gathering on his brow, which he explains is a result of him having caught the flu.
But despite feeling unwell, his lively character is revealed by the way his steely eyes dart around the room and the little smile that flickers across his lips.
So what does he think about the exhibition, has he got any favourite pictures? “I don’t do favourites,” he says bluntly.
“I have to like them all otherwise they wouldn’t be on show. Even if the building was on fire, I’d rather take the fire than choose a favourite. “I’m pleased to be exhibiting though, I think people will come along for the nostalgia. There aren’t many of us left, not at my age.
“I’ve lost all my fans and I’ve lost all my competitors,” he laughs. “I don’t know which is worse, maybe losing your fans is worse than losing your competition. “Why? Because no-one will remember what you did.”
David Bailey’s East End Faces is on show at The William Morris Gallery, Lloyd Park, Forest Road, Walthamstow, until May 26. Details: www.wmgallery.org.uk or 020 8496 4390