INTRO : David Bailey, found his salvation and fame on the pages of British and American Vogue in the swinging 60s. For his most recent book the septuagenarian photographer has turned his lens on Delhi, its called The Delhi Dilemma published by Steidl.  To say the least was not impressed.


Story Book Cliches?

‘I’ve never been interested in photography, I’m interested in the image’ says David Bailey. ‘So don’t ask me about photography ask me about images and don’t shout.’ I caught up with Mr Bailey on his most recent trip to Delhi and I’m already on the back foot. Bailey, and he is just called ‘Bailey’ by those around him, relaxes on a sofa, cup of tea in hand, and talks about his latest book the Delhi Dilemma, a two-volume work documenting the Indian capital in 2009 published by Stiedl. “Also I don’t like that hat of your yours take it off. Much better, we can start now.”

Bailey’s larger than life energy more than precedes him, it pushes ahead with razor sharp wit, grabs you by the hand. He’s the center of attention, a barking presence in any room both physically and vocally. You can almost imagine him working at his studio. Dressed in a dusty, unbuttoned flannel shirt thrown together with a pair of old baggy blue jeans, Bailey will flatter, flirt, disregard, insult, eye-up or even dance with a subject in order to get the picture he wants. He even punched Satyajit Ray in the face during a portrait session for looking deadpan. It’s a disarming, if not bewildering, force. I was nervous and he smelt it like a dog smells fear.

David Bailey needs no introduction – he is England’s most famous photographers of the past five decades. He found his salvation on the pages of British and American Vogue in the swinging 60s – his true fame, though, lies in his photographic creations, images that move effortlessly from fashion photos to “intimate, almost friendly” portraits of celebrities and rock stars : “The pictures I take are simple and direct and about the person I’m photographing and not about me,” Bailey modestly sums up. “I don’t care about composition or anything like that. I just want the emotion of the person in the picture to come across…. to get something from that person.”

Bailey, almost as well-known for who he’s slept with as for who he’s photographed, has lived a life most of us only read about in the tabloids. He cohabited with British ’60s model sensation Jean Shrimpton, married sultry French actress Catherine Deneuve, and became best friends with Rolling Stone’s Mick Jagger. Mr Bailey was even the model for Italian film director Michelangelo Antonioni’s classic film Blow-Up (1966). note: our love of film here at is only self-evident :)

Bailey has visited India several times, he has taken several portraits including ones of Mother Theresa and Aishwarya Rai , but Delhi Dilemma is the product of an intensive burst of work, three years ago, with lots of pictures poured into two volumes.

Talking about with Mr. Bailey’s fascination with India he says,‘The idea of having so many gods it’s impossible to count, I love it,’ he says. ‘There is such diversity and an accumulation of intelligence. One of his biggest collectors asked him to do a book on India. ‘I said: “I can’t, it will take me 5,000 years”,’ he laughs. ‘I can do a book on Delhi, Nagaland, Kerala. Try to do a book on India and it’s impossible. That is why I call it Bailey’s Delhi Dilemma. How do you photograph something that has been photographed to death without cliche?’

The books though serve more as handbook of Indian visual cliches than the anti-cliches :images of roadside beggars with unkempt hair, cycles and acid colour bangle filled bazaar scenes, throw in some cows on the road and one obviously must take some snapshots of prostitutes in the red-light district. There is also obviously an insatiable curiosity behind the gift for the essence of his subjects. The pictures themselves bleed out on the page in Bailey’s signature simplicity.

I tried to redeem the master by asking him what the pictures were actually about, maybe I had missed point, “I see the all the images in the books as one image. I can’t tell you what they are about that for you to see” he said. There is one particular image of a pavement photographer outside Birla Mandir in Delhi, who takes black and white images and then superimpose his subjects’ bodies into the jaws of a black-and-white lion. Most Indian viewers of the book would happily feel that they too have been superimposed into jaws of a black and white lion. The dilemma acute. Are cliches such bad things I ask ?, “ Do you know where the word come from? It’s from a french onomatopoeia which describes the sound of a printing press. One man’s cliche is another mans ‘ art.”


Originally Published in Vogue India