We’d promised ourselves a visit to The National Portrait gallery because a) Julie and never been and b) we were drawn to it by the recent TV programme where Simon Weston was the voted the people’s portrait and we wanted to see the result in the flesh.
Of course, this gallery is way more than that with portraiture from the middle ages to right now with everything in between. In truth, it’s a beautiful gallery, carefully curated to display our relationship with our own image through the ages. From Richard the third through to Kate Middleton, the gallery holds a mirror up to how we see ourselves and catalogues society’s obsession with fame and recognition. And yes, the Simon Weston portrait was actually really, really good.
The whizz bang show when we visited was David Bailey’s personally curated exhibition of his work, over 250 images cataloguing British celebrity culture from Twiggy and The Krays on to Kate Moss and Damon Albarn. It’s not as ephemeral as it sounds though. The show is a unique collection of images that capture the heart and soul of the sitter, whether it be Hollywood A-listers or East End hard men — Bailey definitely has a unique eye for the story behind the eyes.
The collection was much larger than I expected and as a retrospective, incredibly thorough. The arts were well represented with fashion, film, music, art, photography all providing iconic and striking imagery (I thought churlishly David Bowie seemed a little over represented) and alongside the more commercial work, experimental journalistic projects jockeyed for position, with mixed success. It seemed to me that Bailey is most comfortable in the studio where he has ultimate control of the output. His iconic black and white photographs against a white back drop beautifully capture the essence of the sitter where his location images seem to lack this power and cohesion.
I find it impossible to criticise Bailey for no having a go though. He’s had a pop at everything and this exhibition is in itself just a snapshot of a prolific career. But the black and white portraits still endure: eyes telling stories across the decades, images that look like they were taken last week, an entire room of Rolling Stones photographs catalogues a supergroup in the making (although we’ll forgive him shooting the Stones amidst the Stones at Avebury, but it was the sixties after all).
His unflinching nudes demand attention: ordinary people getting their kit off as part of the project, piercings and all, sit alongside statuesque images of Bailey’s ex model wife with alabaster skin. I particularly liked the shots of a bygone age in the East End of London, a way of life captured, gone for ever. Bombed out post war-time streets in Whitechapel sit comfortably alongside Hollywood royally and Bailey seems to revel in this journey from poverty to wealth, never losing sight of the image maker in him.
We saw this show before we explored the rest of the gallery and it was interesting how it provided a filter for fame, a contemporary take on the portrait as a status symbol. It seemed no different to me as the prolific Victorian portrait artists, desperate to capture everyone’s fifteen minutes no matter how obscure, or the first world war officers painted sketchily and somewhat hubristically before heading off to the front. In the pub afterwards, someone was confused why there would be photographs in the national portrait gallery and I was quite glad to have that heated discussion and put them straight, as I’m certain would David Bailey, with bells on.