Lens crafters

David Bailey and Bruce Weber are old school about camera technology but have no problem with the digital revolution

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 15 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 16 September, 2013, 5:36pm

The two photography legends are a good fit for each other. One is chatty and chirpy, an amiable raconteur with a bundle of entertaining stories to tell; the other is quiet and thoughtful, perhaps a little shy, but still a source of hilarious anecdotes, such as photographing Elizabeth Taylor with a black bear called Bonkers.

If you think photographers are silent observers of life, travelling unnoticed through the world as they record time's passing, David Bailey and Bruce Weber may come as a bit of a surprise: their cheerful and engaging double act would give a pair of professional comedians a run for their money.

I always have a camera on my shoulder. I wouldn't think of going anywhere without a camera. Even if I go to the dentist, I take the camera
David Bailey

Phone companies often talk about how they bring friends together, but that claim came with a slightly different spin from Nokia. In a publicity exercise for its new Lumia 1020, the company gave Bailey and Weber the camera smartphone each and sent them out to photograph in New York's Harlem for a day. Working through one of the city's hottest summer days, the two old friends worked together to take pictures of life in the famed New York community.

The resulting photos are being shown at the Nicholls and Clarke Building in Shoreditch, London, until Saturday.

"We saw one of those things that is very typical of Harlem at this time of year," Weber says in an interview the day after the shoot, in New York's SoHo. "They opened up the fire hydrants, and all the kids were playing in the water. David dived straight in there with the kids, and he got soaking wet. I thought, 'Wow, that is pretty great'."

Weber, 67, who mainly lives in Miami, says he enjoyed walking with his long-time friend Bailey, and Bailey's wife Catherine, through a part of New York that that he knows very well - "like a property agent", as he puts it.

Bailey already had some ideas about the place and wasn't disappointed. "Catherine said, 'If we ever move to New York, I want to live in Harlem'," he says. "For me, it's my youth, it's the blues, it's jazz, and all those things were an influence on my photography."

Bailey, 75, is noted for his fashion photography and portraiture, which often places his subjects on a white background. As one of the first fashion photographers to become a household name, he is one of the individuals who has come to define the London of the Swinging Sixties; the photographer in Michelangelo Antonioni's seminal 1966 film Blow Up, played by David Hemmings, is said to be modelled on Bailey.

Weber, who was born in rural Pennsylvania, is no less notable. Recently at the Venice Film Festival to celebrate the 25th anniversary of his film about jazz trumpeter Chet Baker, Let's Get Lost, Weber is best known for his work as a fashion photographer. He became well-known for his depiction of the male body in the Calvin Klein advertisements of the 1980s, and still does fashion spreads for magazines such as Vogue.

For Weber, the Nokia shoot was something of a new experience - he prefers to work with celluloid film rather than digital technology, and it was his first digital assignment. Bailey, too, prefers film, but says digital cameras can be useful tools.

Both men say the digital revolution has not really changed the way they work.

"Digital is about less than 20 per cent of what I do. I still use an 8x10 and a 4x5 [film] camera. Digital is like a tool for me. If I'm going to somewhere like Delhi, where you get X-rayed all the time, I'll take a digital camera," Bailey says, referring to the damage X-rays can do to film.

Like many photographers, Weber likes to work on a print in a darkroom and hold the finished object in his hands. "I kept thinking the day of the shoot, 'When am I going to touch these photographs?' I missed touching the photos in the darkroom, but I found it a good experience as a photographer, as it was new."

Bailey says he had never taken a picture with a phone before - because he always has his camera on him. "I always have a camera on my shoulder," says Bailey. "I wouldn't think of going anywhere without a camera. Even if I go to the dentist, I take the camera as I want to photograph the dentist.

"It is always there, it is second nature to me now. I can't imagine ever being without it."

Weber agrees: "A photographer [once] told me, 'I am going away for two weeks on vacation, and I am excited, because I am not taking my camera.' I was surprised, as it would not be a vacation for me without the camera." Bailey takes up the point: "That means that photographer worked at photography, rather than loved photography. If someone said I could go somewhere, but not take my camera, I would say, I'm not going! I'm not going to heaven if I can't take my camera in!"

Although they like to work with film, they are not against those who digitally manipulate photographs with software such as Photoshop. "Raphael [the Italian Renaissance artist] did Photoshop," exclaims Bailey. "You don't think that when Medici or Borgia said, 'Go and paint that princess in Portugal because I'm thinking of giving her one', he brought back a picture of her dandruff, her dodgy skin and her black teeth. Of course not, he 'Photoshopped' it. Nothing has changed except the technology."

Weber says he thinks methods like Photoshop are sometimes acceptable, but he has always liked to keep it real: "I remember that one time I photographed Elizabeth Taylor with this black bear called Bonkers. I remember telling Elizabeth that Bonkers was in films, and was almost as big a star as she was, and she had to take note of what the bear handler said. She held the bear's paw. What I'm saying is, I didn't photograph Elizabeth and then photograph the bear, and composite them together. I photographed Elizabeth with the bear."

Over the period that Weber and Bailey have been working, photography has moved from being something that was published to something that is shown in art galleries. Are they happy that photography is now finally considered an art form?

"I don't care about what people think," says Bailey. "If they don't think it's an art form, it's up to them. I like painting as you start with looking at a blank canvas, wondering where you put that first drip. It's the same in photography, a blank canvas … especially mine, as it's always a white background if I can get it that way."

Adds Weber: "I'll answer the question this way. I was supposed to have a show in Paris many years ago. They took me to the exhibition place, which they were raving about. I walked in, and all of a sudden, music played. Then they took me into another room, and the lights went on automatically.

"I said, 'Let's go next door to the pizza parlour and talk about this'. We went to get a pizza, and I told them, 'I'm not sure if I want to do this exhibition after that'. And if I do it, I told them, I want to do it in this pizza parlour. Because that makes more sense to me."