The Rolling Stones through photographer David Bailey's eyes, in LA show and book

At a Los Angeles gallery show about the Rolling Stones, David Bailey reflects on being among the band's early image makers. Steve Appleford takes a look

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 10 January, 2015, 10:41pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 10 January, 2015, 10:41pm

The names on the walls outside the Taschen Gallery on Beverly Boulevard in Los Angeles are freshly painted in bold and rosy shades of pink. "The Rolling Stones", they declare, and "David Bailey". Just as bold are the photographs inside, including many by Bailey, documenting the 50-year rise of an essential band.

In the 1960s, Bailey was a rare photographer whose fame rivalled that of his subjects. His life as a young artist in Swinging London inspired Michelangelo Antonioni's 1966 film Blow-Up. He was among the first and most important photographers to shoot the Rolling Stones, helping establish them as icons of music, fashion, sexuality and danger.

"Kids having a good time, really," Bailey says cheerfully of his pictures, which fill the main room of the Taschen Gallery's debut exhibition. "It was great, because everyone was willing to take a chance - because we had nothing to lose."

Now 77, Bailey knew Mick Jagger from the Stones' earliest days in London. Bailey was engaged to British supermodel Jean Shrimpton then, and Jagger was dating her sister, Chrissie.

"I got on great with him - he liked Willie Dixon and all those great blues singers," says Bailey, grey-haired and relaxed in a corduroy jacket, blue bandanna knotted loosely around his neck. "I never understood the Beatles, because I thought they were just a boy band - until they did the White Album and things like that."

The show celebrates a new oversize book of pictures, titled The Rolling Stones, published by Taschen Books. Bailey is the guest of honour on a rare visit to Los Angeles. As he talks, the Stones' lascivious lips-and-tongue logo is being carefully painted onto a display case.

The new gallery is showing nearly 100 pictures from the book, by Bailey and others, among them Anton Corbijn, Terry Richardson, Albert Watson and Guy Webster. The pictures follow the Stones from blues-obsessed miscreants to grizzled rockers entering their 70s, like the old bluesmen before them.

"We didn't want to make a music book," says publisher Benedikt Taschen, who plans to maintain the gallery as a showcase for his books. "It was more about photography and how the Stones were image makers for decades."

Like their rivals the Beatles, the Rolling Stones had a knack for attracting the most accomplished photographers, from Annie Leibovitz to Robert Frank. They had a special appreciation for the medium, says Ethan Russell, who toured with the band in 1969 and has several pictures in the book and gallery. "They could look at the pictures and understand what they were looking at."

I got on great with [Mick Jagger] – he liked Willie Dixon and all those great blues singers. I never understood the Beatles, because I thought they were just a boy band

One of the earliest images in the show is a black-and-white Bailey portrait of Jagger in a furry hood, pouting in innocence, heat and confrontation. Hanging nearby is a group photo (used for the single Jumpin' Jack Flash) with guitarist Brian Jones at centre, raising a wine glass and a plastic pitchfork, toying with the band's dark image.

"Charlie is the funniest," Bailey says of drummer Charlie Watts. "He still thinks it's going to fall apart in eight weeks' time. Charlie's always been like that."

One wall is dedicated to Bailey's portraits for the album Goats Head Soup, including the cover image of Jagger's head wrapped in rippling pink chiffon, which gives his face the look of a ghostly, flickering flame. "Mick didn't want to do it," Bailey recalls with a laugh. "I said, 'I want to make you look like Katharine Hepburn in The African Queen'. Mick thought I meant Audrey Hepburn."

Early on, Bailey established a subversive style of portraiture, often placing his famous subjects against simple white backdrops, crowded into square frames to project a new generation's energy and attitude.

His iconic photographs include not only those of various Stones and Beatles but also of actors Michael Caine and Peter Sellers, a shirtless Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate, artists David Hockney and Man Ray, as well as other newsmakers and fashion models. "I used to think, 'If I've got Jean Shrimpton, why do I need a … palm tree in the background?'" he says of his simple, graphic approach. "Less is more in everything, except sex, of course." Bailey grew up in the hardscrabble neighbourhoods of London's East End during the final years of post-war rationing. His family was in the tailoring business. "We always had good clothes. We might have holes in our shoes, but we looked great," he says with another laugh.

At 14, he was in business himself, selling suits to teenage Teddy Boys, but art already had his attention. Obsessed with Pablo Picasso, he began to understand the possibilities of photography after seeing a 1948 image by Henri Cartier-Bresson of four Muslim women draped in long cloaks, praying towards the Himalayas. Bailey was also inspired by the jazz photographs of William Claxton and the surrealism of Bill Brandt. He started shooting with his mother's old Brownie camera.

At the opening reception, the gallery is crowded with people mingling among the photographs. Photographer David LaChapelle stands near the entrance chatting with actress Pamela Anderson. A man in white gloves turns the pages of the US$5,000 "SUMO" art edition of the book - autographed by each of the Stones.

Also in the room is Aerosmith singer Steven Tyler, dressed in traditional rock star finery: scarf and long coat, hair to his shoulders, medallions dangling over his chest. "Everybody wanted to be like them. I positively got a lot of my frontman-ship out of Mick," he says. "If you had someone who looked as badass as the music sounded? That was a boo-yah. It was a shoo-in. It was a bingo."

Also walking through the crowd in shades of black and tinted glasses is Jack Nicholson, arm across Bailey's back, examining the pictures with a grin. No one looks more amused than Bailey.

"I never talk about what I do, really. Mick doesn't either, by the way," Bailey says. "Usually, the people that do are … boring. Why don't they shut up and just do it?"

Los Angeles Times