Tonight is the opening of photographer DAVID BAILEY’s exhibition “Stardust” at the National Portrait Gallery, London, and it’s one of the institution’s largest photography shows ever. Bailey, who himself selected the works in the exhibition and curated it, has become one of the world’s best-known and most distinctive photographers since he began capturing the swinging 60s. The more than 300 photographs on view, hung in a salon-style puzzle, reveal the most talented individuals of the past half century in the worlds of art, fashion, music, and entertainment: Terence Stamp, Francis Bacon, Jean Shrimpton, Mick Jagger, Man Ray, Kate Moss, Johnny Depp. and countless others. Also included are Bailey’s documentary photographs of London’s East End—including a portrait of Kray twin criminals—and of his travels in Australia, Delhi, and the Naga Hills.
One might feel inclined to view this show simply as a comprehensive survey of glamorous high culture, relying more on dynamism and vibrancy than meaning or depth, a kind of vanity “swagger portraiture.” But this misses Bailey’s brilliance, which isn’t any less relevant today than it was 50 years ago. His talent has always been in his unique way of interacting with his subjects, and as the director of the NPA, Sandy Nairne, puts it, Bailey “makes something happen between him and the sitter.” As someone who identifies with the world through the camera, Bailey the artist has something very real to say about emotional commitment in a hyped-up, media-hooked culture so saturated with stimulation. Bailey’s mantra—“It takes a lot of looking before you see something extraordinary”—is still a substantial lesson to be learned today, and its mastery has been made more visible than ever before in “Stardust.”