Almost the entire ground floor of the National Portrait Gallery is filled (in some places from floor to ceiling) with the new exhibition of David Bailey’s photographs. While the sheer scale of the exhibition makes this initially look formidable, with over 250 photographs selected and arranged by Bailey himself, the rooms of the gallery enable the exhibition to be broken into several different themes and make it manageable and enjoyable for the visitor. Bailey’s photographs, many of which are well known and iconic, cover the artists, designers, models and fashion designers of the past 50 years, supplemented with other series including the Democracy project in which visitors to his studio were photographed naked, pictures of the famine in east Africa taken in support of the Band Aid charity in 1985 and, most recently, images from his visit to the Naga Hills in India in 2012..
It is the black and white portraits at which he excels, with light and shade and with textures of fur and fabrics contrasting with smooth skin. Less successful are his more recent experiments with a mobile phone camera and with colour in his beach scenes – there are other photographers who do this better.
Critics have given this exhibition mixed reviews. Jonathan Jones in the Guardian is critical: “Bailey’s style is all move, jump, grin, gurn or pout for me, babe. But Stardust’s ecstatically brainless glamorama is glib entertainment for those who can’t be bothered with real art” and he makes contrast with Anthony van Dyck’s whose last portrait the Gallery is campaigning to save for the nation, “for Van Dyck bequeathed to the British the “swagger portrait”, in which everyone is primped and posed magnificently. Bailey takes that kind of portrait with his camera”. Alastair Sooke in the Telegraph is more positive contrasting the stylish portraits of the fashionable with the reality shown in the series of photographs showing the harsh reality of the east end of London. As an exhibition that illustrates different aspects of our world over the last 50 years, through the eyes of a master-photographer, this is worth seeing.