Master Series: David Bailey of The Terrible Trio
In 1976, I discovered The Rolling Stones. In 1978, in a little theater outside of downtown Los Angeles called The Rialto, I sat in the dark and had my mind blown watching Antonioni’s Blow Up. My mom had to drop me off and pick me up from the theater because I didn’t even have a driver’s license yet. I had never seen anything quite like this movie except maybe the butter scene in Last Tango in Paris. There he was, David Hemmings, photographing the ever-luscious Verushka in his studio, practically fucking her, I mean, making love to her on the studio floor. 2 years later, while exiled in Paris because my parents were fearful of my juvenile delinquency and sent me abroad hoping the “change would do me some good”, I walked in on David Bailey’s portrait of Mick Jagger, hanging in a Parisian art gallery. That’s the day I made the decision to become a fashion photographer. Soon I was to learn that the lead character in Blow Up was based on David Bailey. A + B = C: David Bailey is a rock star.
Born in the East End of London in 1938, Bailey remembers taking bread and jam sandwiches to the cinema in the winter with his family because it was cheaper to go to the cinema than it was to put on the gas fire. I’m sure that those films were his earliest inspirations because his work certainly has a filmic quality to it that I related to very much.
He had problems in school because of undiagnosed dyslexia and even further complicated by a motor skill disorder so he ditched school at 15 and took a job as a copy boy on Fleet Street. Soon he was called up for duty for the National Service, serving with the Air Force in Singapore in 1957. The loss of his trumpet forced him to seek out other creative outlets so he bought a Rolleiflex camera and thus a legend was born. After serving in the Air Force he was determined to seek a career in photography. Because of his poor school attendance he wasn’t able to attend college so he took a second assistant job to David Ollins.
It’s sort of dizzying to read about Bailey’s meteoric rise to success. It’s a little enviable, too, to be honest. Soon after landing the second assistant job at David Ollins’ studio, he interviewed with John French where he landed a job there as his assistant in 1959 and in 1960 he was a photographer at John Cole’s Studio Five before he was contracted later that same year by British Vogue.
Along with Terence Donovan and Brian Duffy, the three known as The Terrible Trio not only captured the Swinging Sixties in London, they helped create it. They partied with the celebrities that they shot, the musicians that were also on a meteoric rise like The Stones and The Beatles, and they were truly the world’s first Celebrity Photographers.
His rise at Vogue is mind-bending: within months he was shooting covers and in one year shot over 800 pages in Vogue. That’s pretty amazing, really. Grace Coddington, who modeled before she was a fashion editor, recalls “It was the Sixties, it was a raving time, and Bailey was unbelievably good-looking. He was everything you wanted him to be- like The Beatles but accessible-and when he went on the market everyone went in. We were all killing ourselves to be his model, although he hooked up with Jean Shrimpton pretty quickly”.
Bailey is just as famous for his love life as he is his fashion photographs. In 1960, after only 9 months of marriage to an unknown typist, Bailey met and fell madly in love with Jean Shrimpton which led to a burst of iconic imagery produced by the two as photographer and muse in the throws of their tumultuous and passionate affair. Shrimpton is quoted as saying, “We were instantly attracted, and whenever we worked together this attraction created a strong sexual atmosphere.” Bailey insisted on using Jean for the cover of British Vogue in 1962, which catapulted both of their careers. She is probably the first to be deemed a “supermodel” and Bailey still admits to this day that “she was magic and the camera loved her too. In a way she was the cheapest model in the world-you only needed to shoot half a roll of film and then you had it.” BBC did a movie about the pair and their first trip to NYC called We’ll Take Manhattan.
It is David Bailey who fought to change the way fashion was photographed, taking it away from the stuffy, Upper Class, rigid and staid look to shooting the young models on the streets and in phone booths and in restaurants. He also had so much charm that he was able to hang out and become friends with the rising stars of the music and entertainment fields, later shooting these friends of his in the studio. It has been said that he was to fashion photography as to what the Beatles were to music or Mary Quant was to fashion. Some may argue that his role was truly this enigmatic but no one can dispute that he brought magic to the set which, through his eye, resulted in some of the most important and memorable fashion photography in history.
I know that every time I’m shooting a black and white portrait or even a beauty story, I always think of David Bailey and his work. While I am shooting, I am thinking of Bailey. I have referenced him and his photography countless times in my mood boards and my visual reference tools. He and his work are responsible for me pursuing this career and he will forever be in my heart.
There are many links if you google his name which can take you through his history. I just suggest you familiarize yourself with his work. I love his book “Goodbye Baby and Amen” which chronicles his work in the Sixties, the decade I was born in, the era that changed the world and the way we see. And watch the movie Blow Up. Because you MUST.
Here’s some more of his amazing work: