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.
A new exhibition of his work, recently opened at the National Portrait Gallery in London, showcases over 300 of his portraits. It is one of the Gallery’s larger-scale photography exhibitions ever, a testament to the artist's prolific output and broad appeal.
The portraits have been personally selected by Bailey from the varying groups that he has captured over the last five decades. Alongside the pictures of famous people, Bailey has also selected more personal portrait work from his travels, in Australia, Delhi and the Naga Hills.
The exhibition is structured thematically, with iconic images presented alongside many lesser-known portraits. The title, "Bailey's Stardust" reflects 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 — are presented in a series of contrasts.
Besides new work, there are 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 will run at the National Portrait Gallery in London from February 6 to June 1, 2014.