Exhibition, Scottish National Gallery, 18th July − 18th October 2015
By Kleio Pethainou
One of the most important exhibitions in Edinburgh this year is in its final week. Featuring more than 250 pictures Stardust allows David Bailey, who personally directed and curated it, the opportunity to walk us though the different themes of his work and the aspects of his artistic genius. The show has been a great international success but the Edinburgh exhibition is different: the majority of the portraits on show have been newly printed.
David Bailey was born in East London, the son of a tailor's cutter and a machinist. In 1958 he bought his first camera and after becoming a fashion photographer for British Vogue he dominated the 1960s. His work since then has been constantly ignoring the boundaries between fashion photography, portraiture, documentation and visual journalism.
Bailey’s portraits are generally consistent: the subject is photographed under sharp lighting against a plain white background. All staging is, most of the time, inexistent, allowing for the individual to pose, gesture, show themselves. Dramatic effects are created by playing with the contrast between light and dark, shading, shapes and textures, both in his colour and his black and white images. Thus, Jack Nicholson grins sardonically , half hidden in shadow; Salvador Dali seems to be dressed in shadows altogether; Maurizio Cattelan stretches his face so much that it almost looks like a rubber mask; Mick Jagger is seductive with his face hidden in the hood’s fur. His wife and muse Catherine Bailey poses again and again, as do actors, singers and celebrities of every background. It is easy to see, when looking at the pictures, why he prefers some people over others: of course glamour can be created, and he does create it every time – some people, however, do stand out. Kate Moss, Johnny Depp, Andy Warhol, Salvador Dalí. Naturally, self-portraits could not be missing, including images of himself with others, taken in front of a mirror.
A stunning moment is the Democracy project, where unsuspecting visitors to Bailey's studio were asked if they would agree to be photographed naked. Those who consented are pictured in these images, changing the reality of the image only by the change in themselves as the shooting continued. The exhibition also includes The Seeds of Beauty, an exploration of Bailey’s own childhood imagination which includes a shop, a packet of seeds and ideas of transformation and growing.
Bailey also includes less well known series expressing the documenting, almost journalistic part of him. Images from the Sixties in East End, colourful and boozy. Brick Lane and Bethnal Green, bombed, broken and today non-existent. Unique shots taken in Papua New Guinea, Sudan, India and Australia. Images taken in support of the Band Aid charity in 1985 in Africa, showing starving babies in refugee camps.
What makes the Edinburgh version of Stardust unique, however, is the inclusion of an exhibition within the exhibition with works that have never been exhibited before. MOONGLOW is another expression of Bailey’s immense creativity, which goes beyond photography and explores other media and materials. Dramatic painted silkscreens on canvas and ingenious application of image manipulation dominate the room. Exploiting the accidental effects of exposure, Bailey staked his renowned images outdoors mounted on canvas, and he poured honey, yoghurt or anything else needed to attract birds and insects – thus working with nature to create another kind of image, “an image made by nature”. Sculpture is also present, in the form of little wooden boxes containing found objects, like miniature installations or cabinets of curiosities.
The exhibition has been particularly successful so far and it is going to be in Edinburgh for few more days, promising an inspiring experience to all who will see it. Although the number of works seems overwhelming, everything is directed in a way that allows a complete visual experience. Bailey’s images, in fact his art, goes well beyond the fashion world’s glamour: it is a research on the individual, on the subject, on the world and how it is shaped, formed, changed, destroyed, maintained. I left the Scottish National Gallery thinking that Stardust was indeed a most successful title.
Bailey’s Stardust, Scottish National Gallery, The Mound, Edinburgh (0131 624 6200, National Galleries website) until October 18, open daily 9am–5pm (Thursday until 7pm), £11/£9
Press release: Stardust, Highlights, Read More
Images are courtesy of the National Galleries of Scotland.
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