Northern exposures: My images are no ‘romantic lament’, says David Bailey
NW1, an exhibition of work by legendary photographer, opens in Soho
12 December, 2016 — By Dan Carrier
St Pancras station from Euston Road in 1981
DAVID Bailey has spent more than five decades photographing the great and the beautiful – but his lens has also captured objects and sights that do not lend themselves to traditional concepts of aesthetically pleasing images.
And while his work feels like it extremely contemporary – shooting portraits of fashionistas such as Jean Shrimpton and Kate Moss is by its very nature of a moment – a new exhibition of work he produced more than 30 years ago has been launched at the Heni Gallery in Soho.
Called NW1, it features pictures he took for a book produced in 1982 that captured the streets and buildings around his home in Primrose Hill, where he had lived for 30 years. It was not the Primrose Hill of new basements, manicured front gardens and Farrow and Ball-painted front doors he recalls. It was almost an island, cut off from Camden Town by the canal and railway tracks.
“I had bought a house in Primrose Hill and it was so cheap – people said to me: why are you there? They thought I was mad. People didn’t want to live there because of the steam trains. It was full of smoke, grubby, sooty.”
He lived in Gloucester Terrace – “it was one of the few houses not split into flats” – and it was from here he put together the series of images, the subject matter chosen as he walked through his neighbourhood.
“It took four years to do,” he says. “They were taken on plate cameras and I used tripods.
“I’d look at something that took my fancy, I’d note the time of day and when the light was going to be right and then go back three or four times. I did it as a continuous work.”
He says that the shots of a Camden Town now long gone shouldn’t be read as a “romantic lament” for something worth conserving in aspic, as change is constant.
Recognising that the Camden Town he had first known when he moved there in the 1950s was evolving, he turned his lens towards the boarded-up railway arches that once housed businesses, the Victorian façades that were peeling and crumbling, and the advertising hoardings with their layers of products for sale.
Primrose Hill in 1981
Looking back he says the change he saw then was not a surprise – and our city is constantly on the move, making it more important to capture moments and preserve them.
“London changes all the time, and that isn’t unique – everywhere changes, every day. I did the same type of series in the East End, in Brazil, and elsewhere,” he adds.
In the preface to the book that accompanies the exhibition, David speaks of an early childhood sheltering in a coal cellar as the Blitz raged above him, of memories of walking through crunching glass and smashed brick. He recalls how when a street was hit, interiors laid open for all to see: “houses cut in two like dolls’ houses that open their whole front; bedrooms, bathrooms, kitchens and toilets still standing on the broken floorboards.
“They seemed to tell the story of the people that lived there, like an invasion into their personal life.
The Aerated Bread Company shop in Camden Road
“These buildings were the first building that I knew and they had a Gothic effect on me. I prefer buildings that have a certain history about them, and the people that lived in them, made love in them, gave birth or died in them. The facade of a building is like a person’s face, it tells a story.”
He says that this made the streets a place of daily discovery.
“I like continuous change – it is more interesting,” he said. “I was brought up during the Blitz, the flat next door to mine was bombed when we were in the garden in a shelter. It meant you would come out to find something gone, something altered.”
With pictures of the old ABC Bakery in Camden Road – long replaced by the Terry Farrell-designed Sainsbury’s store – and ghostly figures in the snow on Primrose Hill featuring, NW1 conjures up a London that is still within living memory, but feels very much like the distant and lost past, told by a photographer whose work has captured the very essence of London from its post-war wreckage through to today.
• Heni Publishing have produced 1,000 signed special editions of NW1, and the free exhibition runs until January 31 at the gallery, 6-10 Lexington Street, W1F. Visit www.henipublishing.com