Vogue, the Krays, Bowie and Mandela: Bailey's Stardust dazzles at the National Portrait Gallery

By Emily Beeson | 12 March 2014

Exhibition review: Bailey's Stardust, National Portrait Gallery, London, until June 1 2014

A black and white photo of a man lying in bed
Self-portrait during National Service in Singapore by David Bailey (1957)© David Bailey
Strike a pose, Vogue. Showcasing a career that has spanned more than half a century, Bailey's Stardust is an exhibition charged with the glittering glam and esoteric affairs of celebrity from the 1960s to the present day. Poignant and thought-provoking additions wait around every corner.

A black and white photo of a female model in profile
Kate Moss by David Bailey (2013)© David Bailey
This vast show of more than 150 portraits does well to provide sobering insights into photographer and image-maker David Bailey's time spent shooting portraits in India, Papa New Guinea and the Naga Hills, as well as taking an intimate look at personal friendships and his relationship with wife, creative partner and muse, Catherine Bailey.

Bailey grew up in the East End, an area that he has lovingly photographed for many years. It was here that the artist originally photographed the infamous Kray brothers for his Box of Pin Ups series, which can be seen later in the show. These stark images of hard men Charlie, Reggie and Ronnie amid the likes of Lennon, McCartney and Cecil Beaton cemented that signature stark style.

Bailey's black and white photos capture just about everyone who's anyone, from Bowie to Mandela. His friendship with the 'hard to shoot' Jack Nicholson makes for two magnetic shots of that raffish sneer while, in contrast, a doe-eyed Brigitte Bardot flutters in a soft-focus haze

A photo of a man and a woman lazing around in the sunshine
Kate Moss by David Bailey (2013)© David Bailey
Any photographer knows that exposure maketh the shot and Bailey's distinctive super-contrasts are certainly a testament to that, giving the likes of Ralph Fiennes, who languidly holds a skull in the ironic fashion of the Dane and peers intensely from an almost black backdrop, an eerie presence.

Iconic 60s fashion portraits of Jane Shrimpton and Penelope Tree are frequent and well-placed among a selection of Bailey's numerous Vogue covers. Recent shots of Kate Moss and Vivienne Westwood dazzle in sharp focus and, brilliantly, Grayson Perry, dolled-up in a one of a kind blue dress, joins them. He looks a dream.

A black and white photo of a male actor in a coat smiling
Jack Nicholson by David Bailey (1978)© David Bailey
Within an entire section dedicated to Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones and another for artists such as Hockney, Damien Hirst, Warhol and Salvador Dali, there's comical face-pulling and bizarre angles a-plenty. A laugh or a gasp round every corner, Bailey triumphs in encapsulating a startling variety of human expression in his highly recognisable monochrome style.

It's the area dedicated to images of his family, featuring shots of his children and, most importantly, Bailey, that really marks him as an artist. For all the glitz, lipstick and rock 'n' roll threads elsewhere, it seems that Catherine is the biggest superstar in the room.

Larger than life, staggeringly beautiful and photographed without so much as a raised eyebrow in sight, her portraits are consistently emotive, honest and particular.

A photo of a woman wearing elaborate jewellery holding a skull
Catherine Bailey by David Bailey (1989)© David Bailey
There's a specific kind of satisfaction in seeing a host of beautiful, well-loved faces lining the walls of the National Portrait Gallery but this exhibition is no superficial journey through the glitterati. Bailey's many Vogue covers aren't the crux of the show. Viewing some of the images from his time spent shooting images in support of the initial Live Aid campaign, and of his time spent travelling through Africa, is a striking and emotional experience.

Bailey's Stardust almost needs no explanation. For years, the prolific photographer's ability to capture a very nuanced mood or sense of luxe and beauty with a single black and white image has been self-evident.

Viewers won't be surprised to find what awaits them. That certainty is precisely why this dazzling retrospective is worth a visit.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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JEAN not Jane Shrimpton .
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