David Bailey has been an advocate of Olympus for many years and even advertised their superzooms in the 1990's. So when the manufacturer held an event at a small studio in London to try out the new E-30 and E-620 Mr. Bailey attended for a Q&A session. ePHOTOzine were one of the lucky publications to attend.
In fact, we were the only ones to arrange any questions for him, so Mark Thackara, Marketing manager for Olympus, positioned us to the front to kick the evening off:
ePz: You said in an interview that you'll never take a perfect photograph. If you did ever do that, what do you think you'd do after, would you give up?
DB: Yes. What's the point in carrying on if you've got it right? There's no motivation in that.
ePz: Are the noughties everything you expected?
DB: Yes, but then at my age, tomorrow is something to look forward to.
ePz: How do you create a picture that doesn't date?
DB: Keep it simple and don't have a style. Da Vinci doesn't date, Turner doesn't date. The photographers who use too much style in their pictures will be outdated soon.
ePz: Have you started any new books?
DB: Yes I have two at the moment. There'll also be one next year and one the year after that and one the year after that. If I'm still around the following year, there'll be one then too. Probably God will have some dodgy little blonde he wants me to photograph anyway, when I get up there (laughs).
ePz: Do you believe in God?
DB: No. I like the mythology that comes with it, if I was religious, I'd be a Catholic because of all the theatre, it's fantastic. Imagine having St. Peters as your headquarters-Not bad. Catholicism's great if you're on the board of Directors, it's not so great if you're out in Africa.
ePz: You mentioned in an interview that you don't particularly like the English. What is it that you don't like about them?
DB: It's not that I don't like them, there's just not much about them. I prefer them to the Germans, there's just no substance.
ePz: You mean they're set in their ways?
DB: In a way, yes.
ePz: You're a household name originating from the sixties. You and other photographers such as Terence Donovan and Austin Powers. Why has your name grown so prominent while the others have disappeared into comparable obscurity?
DB: Persistence. Keep going and don't stop. Newton was taking pictures the day he died. Of course (Terence Donovan) is dead so the odds are stacked against him.
The questioning was then opened up to the floor where they started to flow:
You've taken some of the most iconic photos of our generation. Which of those photos is the most important to you?
DB: There isn't one, it's like asking what's your favourite colour, I like all colours.
You're one of the most passionate people in the industry, there must be one that gives you a sense of... (Gets cut off)
DB: Well my kids when they were young if you're talking personally. Other than that, the ones that make the most money.
Nobody sees what I do anymore because galleries won't display what I do because it doesn't sell.
Is that because the industry's changed a lot since you started?
DB: (laughs) no, it's because I don't want to pay the galleries forty or fifty percent.
So it's just a job?
DB: No, it's not just a job. That's exactly what it isn't.
What is it that's in a face that makes the subject interesting for a photograph?
DB: Every face is interesting, anyone, unless they're dead. But then they're probably happy because they're dead. It's whether the photographer is good enough. There's magic in everyone's face.
Have you any plans to emulate what Rankin did with the 15 minute talk shows?
DB: Well let's get this straight, I love Rankin because he's such a scallywag. But I don't really do things like that. He's great for his persistence and energy. I think he could be more selective. I mean I'd say this to his face. He's good fun.
Does your current style in photography affect your video...(Gets cut off)
DB: I don't have a style in photography, you'll have to ask a fashion photographer about style.
So you take a dozen pictures and pick one and you're saying there's not much skill involved?
DB: There's not much skill involved in photography anyway. I could teach you to be a photographer in three months, I could teach you how to drive in three months, it doesn't mean you'll be any good. There's no technical thing, I've no technical... Look at poor old Lichfield, he's gone now but he was technically great, couldn't take a picture to save his life.
He made a career out of it, though.
DB: That's different, we're not talking about making money because if I wanted to make money, I'd work in the city. Not working for a bank.
You probably wouldn't enjoy it.
DB: I would, I love those guys, they live right on the edge.
Do you think women are treated unfairly in the industry?
DB: I didn't realise they were. I never believed that they were until feminists told me they were.
Feminists in the 70's would've told you that you weren't necessary because you were a man, would you believe them as well?
DB: We had a bad time in the 70's, we even had to have guards at exhibitions because they threatened to come and smash everything up. Never understood that. They're not very good drivers though. Or map reading. There's only one road in Northern Australia and she got me going the wrong way.
You once said that to take a great picture, you have to be in love with your subject.
DB: I think you have to fall in love for those few minutes or however long it takes you do whatever it takes to fall in love.
Do you do that to make your subject look good or yourself?
DB: Oh no no, you have to love them. Most photographers are a boring lot aren't they? They come in and take hours, taking polaroids and four hours later they take a picture. Richard Young could do a much better picture, walk in and go snap snap. So you wonder what all the fuss is about sometimes.
I'm very quick. Ten minutes, that's about enough time for a portrait.
I know you use 10x8, but what's the mix of formats that you shoot on?
DB: Usually for portraits, especially men, I shoot on 10x8. But if you want to go down to there (motions to cropped in at the head and down to around chest level) then 5x4. There's no set thing it just depends on the situation. If I do a location shoot like I'm in India in a couple of weeks, we'll take digital because of the X-rays. It's expensive to take a picture on 10x8, every click costs about £50. Actually more I think and Vogue get annoyed. Well they all get annoyed asking why I can't use digital.
In the end I don't think digital is any cheaper, the time spent fiddling about with it and choosing it and printing it. These things take longer. On 10x8 I've never taken more than eight pictures, sometimes six. We used to shoot on 11x14, then I'd only take two, one on either side. Then it's easier to choose because ones out of focus or one, someone's blinked on. With digital, you spend hours in front of a television screen. But I think for the general market (digital) is fantastic, everyone can be a photographer. Same thing happened in 1890 when they brought out the Box Brownie everyone said photography was finished, but it's not, it just makes it harder because now everyone takes the same picture. The problem with digital for me is that there's no accident. You can't make an accident, like Rankin he takes a picture then looks at the screen. He moves it over a bit then does another. For me, there's no magic in that. I mean I don't know what's going to come back, it's kind of if I make mistakes it's part of the creation in a way because the only way you can get creative is by making mistakes. With digital there's no mistakes, everything's perfect.
You look at those photographic magazines and they've hundreds of fantastic, boring landscapes all the same. They do up the colour and it's a picture of another tree. How many trees can there be that haven't been photographed?
So you use digital?
DB: Oh yeah, I've got all the cameras.
When you've grown up with film photography, isn't it a great feeling to look at the back of the camera and see what you've just taken.
DB: Is it? I don't want to see. I like the suspense.
Do you spend much time with film?
DB: I spent the last two days in the darkroom. I do all my printing myself but it's hard to get the paper now. It's hard to get anything, they've all stopped making 10x8 colour. I'm always phoning different people trying to source the stuff. Inkjets will last longer than the C types or whatever they are, but people won't mind.
Jerry Hall always asks how long they're going to last, I answer asking how long she's going to live?
Who do you aspire to photograph?
DB: Nobody and everybody. I often make a joke about not being able to get (Fidel) Castro but that's more a joke because I knew I'd never get him.
Do you take sexual photographs?
DB: What do you mean?
Do you take images that are erotic? Sex sells.
DB: I don't think about what sells. I mean the stuff I printed this week is never going to sell. That doesn't come into it. I did do some sex earlier on with Marie Helvin but if I start to take sexy pictures of a woman in her thirties, she starts to look silly. It's not that they're not good enough it's just that it's for young people.
I did some for GQ a few years ago and they want me to do some more but I won't unless I can think of something to do. It's got to be more than just stocking tops leaning against a doorway. Helmut did the best of those kind of pictures anyway, nobody ever got close to him. I think it's because he was totally asexual with them. He wasn't a bit interested in them.
Wouldn't it be some kind of challenge for you to try his style?
DB: No, no. I don't care what Helmut did. Helmut did what he did and I do what I do. I just think that what Helmut did in that area was the best anyone's ever done.
You talk about images that are good and bad, who gets to decide what's good and bad?
DB: My own pictures?
You said that you can make good photographers great.
DB: No, I said that you can average everything out. You can't make them better than average in Photoshop.
How do you decide or who gets to decide what's a good image and what's a bad image?
DB: Well I think it's a collective consciousness. I mean everyone in this room will agree that Helmut took great sexy photographs, we all collectively know that. It's not some twit in a museum says it's conceptual. That's another word for bullshit. You look at some photographs that are just sheep on hills. It's not conceptual, it's an out of focus sheep on a hill and they say it's artistic.
Who decides, I don't know. History decides? There's lots of photographers who look old fashioned to start with and it's probably because they're no good. If it's good, it never goes out of fashion. There's a difference between style and fashion. Style's much more important.
You say style is important but you have no style.
DB: I know, smart aren't I?