I'd like you to start with the ol' "in the beginning..."with how you
were an East End boy... with how your Dad was a tailor... your Mom a machinist.
DAVID BAILEY: Okay. Well it all started in London's East End,
where I was born on the street next to Alfred Hitchcock's. I guess I'm the last
of the Cockneys. Now the East End is mostly Indian or Pakistani, but then it was
a mixture of Church of England and Jewish. I was dyslexic, so I was put in the
silly class at school. I was at the top of the silly class, though, which... well,
I guess it's better to be at the top of the silly class than at the bottom of
the clever class. Anyway, I was brought up during the War, so from the age of,
I don't know, three to seven I spent every evening down in an air-raid shelter
waiting for Hitler to try and kill me.
Islington, London, April 1962
© David Bailey
(1 of 20)
What was life like then? Did you have a sense of being poor? Of living on
the "wrong" side of the tracks? Did you have a sense of "I'll never get anywhere?"
Of "I don't have a chance?"
BAILEY: Being dyslexic, I was told that I was an idiot all the
time, but I knew I was smarter than the teacher so I was sort of arrogant. When
you're dyslexic it pushes you into doing things like painting and photography.
Or bird-watching: At one point I wanted to be an ornithologist.
Was there any kind of cultureas we think of culture?
BAILEY: No, the only cultural input was Hollywood. My whole cultural
influence is really Hollywoodold Hollywood, '40s Hollywood. We'd go to the
cinema seven times a week; it was cheaper than staying home because you didn't
have to put money into the gas machine that kept the fires going in the house.
I think when I was around 12 my heroes were Fred Astaire, John Huston, and an
ornithologist named James Fisher. I thought Fred Astaire was the most glamorous
thing in the world. And I thought John Huston was like a white hunter.
What happened after school was out?
BAILEY: I had sort of discovered chemistry and photography when
I was 10 or 11. I had my mother's Brownie and I used to process the film down
in the cellar. So I had an early interest in photography. But it was mainly a
technical thing: I loved mixing up chemicals. Then I used to paint and draw. That's
the only thing I was ever top in at school. I had lots of jobsyou know,
a kind of John Steinbeck syndrome. I was a carpet salesman, a shoe salesman, a
window-dresser, a copyboy for the Yorkshire Post, a runner for 20th Century
Fox. And when I was 17 I was a bad-debt collector. That was tough.
You once referred to seeing a picture of a Picasso as a pivotal moment....
BAILEY: Yes, it changed my life. I always painted because it
was the only thing I could do. I saw some paintings by Picasso of Dora Maar and
it was like getting religion. Suddenly my whole vision changed. What Picasso showed
me in an instant was there are no rules. Discovering Picasso opened up a whole
network of things. Then I played trumpetrather badlybecause I wanted
to be Chet Baker, and I saw these wonderful record covers of Baker and all these
West Coast jazz musicians that were done by William Claxton. And that re-sparked
my interest in photography. But the picture that probably inspired me the most
was that famous Cartier-Bresson photograph, "Kashmir, 1948, Muslim Woman Praying
at Dawn in Srinigar." So when I was 16 I started mucking around with cameras more
seriously. Then I was caught by the British government, and they put me in the
Air Force. I went to Singapore for two years'56 to '58. I still played the
trumpet, but I lent my trumpet to an officer and a gentleman who never gave it
back. As a private, I had no comeback. But Singapore was a tax-free port and when
you bought a packet of cigarettes they'd throw in a camera practically for free.
So I got a camera.
pin-up at his billet,
© David Bailey
(2 of 20)
Do you remember how much you were paid?
BAILEY: It was 24 shillings, which would be about two dollars
What did you do in the Air Force?
I was a parachutist, believe it or not. I volunteered for jungle rescue because
then I got excused... didn't have to do anything. I could just sit in my hut on
the runway and paint and read. I read about five books a week. I read everythingTolstoy,
Dostoevsky,... all of the Russians.
And then, after Singapore, you came home to London?
BAILEY: I wrote to every photographer in London I thought wasn't
bad, and it happened that the two most famous ones of that period both replied,
both offered me a job. One was John French; the other one was Tony Armstrong-Jones