Wednesday, March 3, 2021. Bright and sunny and very cold day, yesterday in New York. Beautiful but brrr… But today, the forecast is for temps in the 50s.
A friend of mine sent me a copy of photographer David Bailey’s memoir “Look Again” written with James Fox. She sent it with the message that she couldn’t put it down. I didn’t know much about Bailey except that he was British and came into vogue (and Vogue) in the early 1960s, and in his heyday was considered one of the hottest fashion photographers in the business, right up there with Richard Avedon and Irving Penn.
Frankly when I received the book, I wondered if I’d ever get around to reading it since fashion photographers are not at the top of my list of must-reads. However, a few days after receiving it, since it was sitting on my desk, I opened it to take a look. Ha! on me! I read the first 100 pages in what seemed like a few minutes because Bailey’s story is a piece of history of the mid-20th century, my old stomping ground (he’s three years older than I) and his life and his wives and his work is definitely one for the books. It invites you in and you don’t want to leave.
Coincidentally around the same time Bailey started out in his career, I was dating a girl whom I later married who was working as a stylist for a major fashion photographer here in New York named William Helburn. Her stories about her job and the people she worked with was always interesting. It turned out also to be the decade when fashion photographers became a type, an industry, and all points glamour and celebrity.
It was an era that like everything associated with fashion burst out like the next season’s line of clothes. For example, Sheila at the time most admired another contemporary who worked for a photographer across the avenue (Park Avenue South). She was also a photo-stylist named Ali McGraw who worked for another top fashion photographer Jerry Schatzberg — and we all know what happened to her career that hatched from a series of test shots for a proposed Chanel ad.
That’s probably how I’d heard the name David Bailey, and ultimately why I decided to have a look. Well, “Look Again” turned out to be one of the most interesting and can’t put-down-able memoirs I’ve ever read. I should also add that his memoir was written or put together and organized by James Fox who did a brilliant job.
Why? Bailey (as he was known by one and all) was a kid from the East End of London, on the other side of the social world — not the kind that usually interests an ordinary reader. It was a world of ordinary working class people, many of whom lived in poverty or thereabouts. His mother and father had a typically (for those of us who’ve experienced that) difficult and unhappy marriage. Children coming from that often had a difficult and unhappy existence as part of their lot in life. Bailey’s was no exception.
But this is a story about the wonders of a highly creative kid with few advantages except for his own curiosity. His had to do with discovering the camera — which came into popularity the 1940s when he was a child fascinated by picture-taking. Back in those days, the photo camera (the Brownie was what most Americans had) was a novelty and used, as we all know, for taking photos of family events and friends and relatives.
By the time he was a teen-ager Bailey’s interest — he had very little schooling as was the habit for many of his contemporaries — was what a camera could do for him. By his late teens he had acquired better cameras and interest in his work by the editors of British Vogue. A whole world opened up. And the kid from the East End — who never left his beginnings behind — embarked on a spectacular career all over the world with many of the leading players of the time and era, as well as many of the most beautiful and famous women of our age.
The first of his “conquests” (wrong word but right idea) was a girl named Jean Shrimpton who age 18 had taken up photo-modeling after avoiding college and failing to find motivation from a secretarial school. She enrolled in a modeling course. Through British Vogue she met Bailey who was looking to make his way. A very tight relationship developed. Within a year or two, the man and the model made a trip together to New York to meet American Vogue and specifically Diana Vreeland.
So it’s a success story and full of bold-faced names. But what makes it so compelling is the character of this guy Bailey who could mix with the best of them, and the worst of them (including the Kray twins who became their own kind of notorious as murderers if they didn’t like someone) as well as movie stars, socialites, royal personages and gorgeous women — many of whom he had affairs with (sometimes more than one at a time) as well as three marriages.
But what makes this story so compelling is the character and personality of this kid (who never lost his working class accent or his sense of where he came from). Everything became part of his charm and he was at the right place at the right time in our contemporary culture. His first photo of Mick Jagger was taken before there was the Rolling Stones.
This is not an ordinary memoir because it includes back-and-forth interviews with Bailey’s friends and women and family: simple Q and A’s; as well as Bailey’s habits of expression (slang, etc.) to take you with him into the world of this amazing man. After Shrimpton — on the love-side of the story; and an interview 40 years later with both principals participating — came Catherine Deneuve, (whom he married), Penelope Tree (whose mother Marietta Tree hated him from the first time he came to townhouse door on East 79th Street) and many many others.
The glamour and prominence of so many characters, as well as those characters without any of that, invite you in to see what’s possible in life.