Until 18 October, Bailey’s Stardust is on exhibit at the National Gallery in
Edinburgh. Curated and directed by David Bailey himself, this blockbuster
exhibition is a retrospective of the artist’s varied career spent shooting
everyone from Mick Jagger to the local elders of the Naga Hills.
The exhibit is a wild mix of photography, sculpture and mixed media canvases. While celebrity and fashion portraits are perhaps what he is
best known for, it is Bailey’s other work – most notably the haunting photographs he took while in refugee camps on the Ethiopian-Sudanese border during the 1984 famine – that are most affecting.
The gallery space is a weird hodgepodge of different collections. From one spot, you stare up at a windswept Kate Moss circa 2014. At another, you are transported to 1960s East End London. It is Bailey’s diversity of subjects that makes the exhibit so interesting.
Few artists could produce a heartwarming portrait of Nelson
Mandela only to display it alongside full-frontal model shots and bizarre
Bailey seems restless as an artist, constantly shifting his medium from film to collage to shadowbox. He is also obsessively interested in capturing fellow artists with his camera, from Salvador Dalí to Jack Nicholson to Damien Hirst. His interest in other photographers is also on display, with portraits of Henri Cartier-Bresson and Man Ray. There is a beautiful shot of Linda McCartnery on display who, like Bailey, was known for her work photographing rock stars during the ‘60s.
It is Bailey’s portraits of celebritiesthat draw in audiences, as the name
of the exhibition suggests. Bailey’s Stardust, as a whole, is perhaps an interesting meditation on the collapsible nature of celebrity. While the Stones
and Johnny Depp are still shining, some of his other famous subjects have self-destructed or were otherwise bright lights extinguished too soon, such as John Lennon.
Infamy, the flipside of celebrity, is also a theme of the exhibit, as shown
in Bailey’s portraits of the Kray twins, the notorious East End gangsters,
who are currently being portrayed by Tom Hardy in the movie Legend, now
Publicity surrounding the exhibition has focused on Bailey’s most famous
subjects, even while those celebrity portraits only comprise part of the
show. Nonetheless, a scathing review appeared in the Guardian last winter
while Bailey’s Stardust was on display at the National Portrait Gallery in
London. Jonathan Jones wrote: “The trouble is, dynamism and colour and
vibrancy and really great subjects are not enough to give a picture poignancy,
meaning or death. Bailey is inexhaustibly shallow.”
However, while the success of Bailey’s Stardust is sure to rest on the
endless allure of famous people, his work also contemplates human fragility.
All of his subjects are magnetic, whether old women strolling down
the streets in East End or Tom Ford staring down the lens. Sometimes
this magnetism is painful, such as in Bailey’s portraits of infants starved
nearly to death during the aforementioned famine. Sometimes it is transcendent.
Like Andy Warhol (another one of his subjects), Bailey is obsessed with
notoriety. However, he also seeks out the truly obscure, those rare gems that are hardly ever exposed to the world.
In 2012 Bailey traveled to the NagaHills, a remote region between India
and Burma, to photograph the local elders. He was in his late 70s. The portraits that resulted from that trip are hardly shallow, but they still maintain the glossy draw of his other work, as any exhibition visitor will notice. It seems as though all of Bailey’s subjects become icons before his eyes.
Bailey’s Stardust is at the National Gallery in Edinburgh through 18
October. Discounted tickets are available to students for £9.