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Bailey’s Stardust: National Portrait Gallery

16 September 2013 | Tom Butler

"Be a whore! Just fall in love with your subject, they’re the centre of your universe for two or three hours."

Every now and then, an exhibition comes along that stirs the senses, a show that generates intrigue and anticipation. Bailey’s Stardust, opening at the National Portrait Gallery in February next year, is one such occasion.

There’s a case - a pretty strong one at that - to say David Bailey is this country’s most successful and well know photographer of all time. To some extent, he’s more famous than a huge number of celebrities he’s shot. So when the NPG gives up nearly all of its ground floor to host over 250 of Bailey’s portraits from the last five decades, you take note.

Bailey has selected all the images himself from a range of subjects and groups captured throughout his career of over 50 years. Who better to curate than the man himself? By his own admission he could have filled the exhibition space ten times over without any duplication of shots, so how did he decide which ones made the cut?

“I decided to do it thematically. So each room is a story in itself. Sometimes the person is good enough but not the portrait, other times it’s the other way around, so it’s a compromise. It’s just portraits of course so it meant that we could include stuff I did in Papua New Guinea, Naga and Sudan. Plus it just seemed the most sensible way of doing it…there’s lots of uncommon sense around these days.”

“I’ve also done all the printing myself. There have only ever been two printers as good as me and there are maybe only ten shots in the exhibition I didn’t print myself because there are no good printers around anymore. So I’ve basically spent the last three years in a dark room.”

Such an eclectic mix is sure to appeal to the majority. Whilst some portraits will be of the glamorous and famous others will be of the notorious and impoverished. What is certain is that they all promise to be memorable. As a perfect example of this, there will be a room entirely devoted to The Rolling Stones  - “I liked jazz and the blues which was why I was more interested then in shooting the Stones than The Beatles” - alongside a room highlighting the famine in East Africa at the time of Band Aid in 1985.

So why the title of ‘Bailey’s Stardust’, “Well first of all Stardust is my favourite song of all time. Hoagy Carmichael was probably the first cool white man, ever. Secondly, because we all come from stardust. It’s all part of being human to be stardust, it’s always been around.”

Is there a secret to what he does in the creation of a photo? “In the making? Sure there is, there’s only 10 of us in the club that know how to do it, and thankfully the rest of them are all dead!” Any advice he’d pass on? “What would I suggest? Be a whore! Just fall in love with your subject, they’re the centre of your universe for two or three hours. The other week I was shooting someone who had won a prize. I was talking to him and he was so unbelievably dull. He was so dull that he became interesting. I wondered how anyone can be so dull! So love everyone you shoot.”

So what’s next for Bailey. After all, he’s spent the last three years in a dark room. “Sex! It’s what life’s about. We’re here to reproduce, not write poncey articles!”

Bailey’s Stardust will show at the National Portrait Gallery from the 6th February to the 1st June 2014. For more information and to book tickets please click here.

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