Genius beyond the career built on stardust

The ever expanding Edinburgh festival draws in, like a whirlpool, established and emerging talent from around the world. It seems that it also has the power to pry the heavyweight exhibitions from London too. Bailey’s Stardust, fresh from The National Portrait Gallery in London is a mammoth retrospective for arguably the master of 20th century photography, David Bailey.

The exhibition, organized thematically, seeps into every possible genre of image making in the medium of photography. Walls of celebrities, with not one popular culture icon of the last 50 years seemingly missed, stare back in earnest at visitors; it is a contorted and glimmering vision of popular culture. His Box of Pin Ups series is an essay in cool; a photographic embodiment of the seismic cultural shift in the 60s. However, if you venture beyond the allure of the stars you encounter exotic sunburnt lands, un-exotic scenes of the grime in Bethnal Green and intimate images of the birth of his children.

These lie in pure juxtaposition to the aforementioned Stardust. Furthermore, Bailey’s own clutter of personal objects are scattered in the middle of the room contained by glass vitrines. These vitrines offer a glimpse into the world of the man behind the pictures. School report cards, passports and other objects reveal facets of his life, for instance he was a vegetarian and served in the army.

Thus, it is an exhibition that could be described as both an exoteric vision of modern times and an intimate look behind the eyes of the man responsible for the iconic images.

Bailey has built his career on stardust, but it is the portraits of people that we have not previously consumed that are the most fascinating. Yes, the exhibition is marketed on celebrity portraits, but Bailey’s true genius lies in his ability to capture a not just a good portrait but a moment in time. It is his photographs of London’s East End, both in the 60s and today, and his photographs from Sudan and Papua New Guinea that really show his prowess in capturing emotion. They, unlike the celebrities do not need to please the camera.

Perhaps even more unexpected than Bailey’s memorabilia or non-celebrity portraits is the inclusion of his own paintings. In a room dedicated to his paintings the vibrant and abstract multi-media works are tongue in cheek and recall the mid-century style of his subjects such as Bacon or Hockney.

When paralleled with his chic black and white celebrity images you can see how he achieved their candid portraits; it is the witty, critical side of Bailey that is exposed to the audience via his paintings.

One cannot fail to be charmed by Bailey’s retrospective; fame, fashion and family collide with poverty, war and decay. Stardust is a title only apt for half of the story, but perhaps that’s part of the pleasure of the surprise, a notion that Bailey no doubt relishes.

Bailey’s Stardust: a glossy magazine that when opened reveals a gritty snapshot of both the man and the world around him.

Image courtesy of David Bailey / Scottish National Gallery

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