As a youth, David Bailey had a very limited vision of his future: “You could become a boxer, a car thief, or maybe a musician”. Growing up in the desperately poor East End of London during the country’s World War II hardships, his pessimism seemed well-founded. While he did not become a musician, in his career as a portrait photographer, he captured not only musicians but actors, writers, filmmakers, designers, models and artists — a generation of people who helped define the creative world as we know it.

This exhibition of his work, which showed at the National Portrait Gallery in London, showcased over 300 of his portraits. It was one of the Gallery’s larger-scale photography exhibitions ever, a testament to the artist’s prolific output and broad appeal.

The portraits were personally selected by Bailey from the varying groups that he has captured over the last five decades. Alongside the pictures of famous people, Bailey also selected more personal portrait work from his travels, in Australia, Delhi and the Naga Hills.

The exhibition was structured thematically, with iconic images presented alongside many lesser-known portraits. The title, “Bailey’s Stardust” reflected the notion that we are all made from, and return to, “stardust.” Portraits of a range of sitters — from the glamorous to the impoverished, the famous to the notorious — were presented in a series of contrasts.

Besides recent portraits, there were selections from two of Bailey’s most acclaimed bodies of work: the “Box of Pin-Ups,” which helped define the 1960s through arresting studies of key figures, and Bailey’s “Democracy,” in which people visiting his studio were asked if they would agree to be photographed naked.

It is rare but very telling when an artist is given the chance to curate his own exhibition. Don’t miss out.


Editor’s Note: The exhibition ran at the National Portrait Gallery in London from February 6 to June 1, 2014.