The image was right there in front of him, and David Bailey couldn't resist molding, changing, correcting it. His wife, Catherine, had just walked in near the end of an interview focused mainly on his career as a photographer, and she sat nearby, quietly listening from a mock tiger-skin couch.
"I wouldn't sit there, darling," Bailey said, interrupting himself. "The light is terrible."
He laughed, as he had in intermittent chuckles and giggles throughout the talk. The British photographer-filmmaker rarely gave interviews now, perhaps as a lingering reaction to the overexposed personal life he led as the most celebrated portrait photographer in Swinging London of the 1960s. But the opening of his first Los Angeles solo exhibition was less than an hour away, and Bailey made an exception.
The 54 works on display at the Fahey/Klein Gallery through April 6 were culled from nearly three decades and offer a startling diversity of styles. Less than half the exhibition has been devoted to the early black-and-white portraiture that first established his reputation, capturing the still-young and often brooding faces of actor Michael Caine, rock stars Mick Jagger and John Lennon, artist David Hockney and others. Most of the gallery's wall space was left to Bailey's more personal recent work, experimenting with figure studies and still lifes, sometimes mixed within larger paintings and collages.
And yet, still photography was long ago brushed aside in favor of filmmaking as the central activity in his life. Bailey, now 53, has remained a contributor to the pages of Vanity Fair magazine, and recently shot portraits for a Gap clothing stores ad campaign. But he's grown comfortably obscure in the last several years as the mainly anonymous creator of hundreds of television commercials in Britain and America.
Bailey said he's never regretted his gradual move away from photography, adding: "It's good when you move out of something, because you can see it clearer. It's much easier for me to look at photography now that I'm not so involved in it."
There is also little regret over his loss of the intense fame that early in his career made him as recognizable in London as many of his celebrity subjects. His brief 1966 marriage to model Catherine Deneuve, along with Michelangelo Antonioni's 1966 film "Blowup," purportedly based on Bailey's glamorous life and relationships with fashion models, all conspired to re-create him as a pop culture caricature.
"People overlook that you might be quite good at photography as well, if you have too much of that kind of life," he said. "They see you more as a playboy rather than as a serious photographer. I never felt it stopped me any way artistically if I had a beautiful girl in bed at night."
It was during that era of personal notoriety that Bailey was nonetheless creating a body of work establishing his style, colliding formality with a brash youthfulness, while documenting the faces of his time. Among those in the exhibition is a 1966 portrait of the rock band the Who, its four members crowded into the frame in a mix of innocence and gloom as the young faces emerge upward from the shadows. Nearby is a 1964 Mick Jagger, his face and fully ripe lips caught within a fur parka.
A 1965 photograph of Andy Warhol portrays the artist as strangely raw, unfamiliar to those expecting Warhol's customary cold and distant image. His face lunges subtly forward, mouth agape, as his body tapers out of the frame from sharp, angular shoulders. Warhol was a recurring figure in Bailey's work, notably in a 1973 documentary that was initially banned from British television.
"It's difficult to know someone like Andy," recalled Bailey, who was introduced to the then-unknown artist by a New York art director in 1961. Bailey later had tea with Warhol's mother.
"He thought I was very glamorous," Bailey said. "In fact, he said he wouldn't do an interview with me for my documentary unless I went to bed with him. So we filmed the interview in bed together. It caused quite a stir at the time."
Vanity Fair editor Tina Brown has known and worked with Bailey for about 15 years from the time she was editor of England's Tattler magazine. And she remembered a 2-day road trip in Bailey's Jeep, traveling from London to Paris and back during an airline strike to shoot a 1981 cover of Deneuve.
"It was very funny," Brown said. "What impresses me really is that he will go to any length to do a shot. He wasn't daunted when he found there was an air strike."
When the magazine needs a portrait from England, where Bailey lives most of the year with his wife and two small children, the photographer is usually offered the assignment first, Brown said. His "sharpness and vitality" continues in his contemporary work, she said, even as his reputation remains rooted in the '60s.
"I think his mystique probably helped him," Brown added. "It may have lumbered him with a kind of '60s swinging thing, perhaps, but I think most people in the world of photography and magazines and commercials think he's a major player and aren't really affected by that."
Surrounded by the large framed prints of other noted photographers, Bailey reclined in a rear office at the Fahey/Klein Gallery, laughing and smiling between remarks behind graying stubble on his face. He dressed much as he did in the 1960s, wearing cowboy boots and blue jeans. Bailey had spent most of the day up La Brea Avenue at A&M; Films, casting a role for what he hopes will be his first feature film.
The movie is to be a dark comedy, a road picture, and what Bailey called "one of those things you don't want to talk about until it's further along."
Another looming feature may include longtime portrait subject Jagger among the cast. The day before, Bailey scheduled a meeting with executives at Universal to discuss the project. But en route, his rented Mercedes suffered its fourth flat tire in three weeks, leaving him stranded in pouring rain.
The accelerating film work will likely keep him too busy to mount many more gallery shows this year, he said. And so he was anxious to showcase the newer photography at this exhibition, hardly interested at all in the old images from Swinging London. He admitted he's grown weary of printing Michael Caine's face, which remains one of Bailey's most recognizable photographs.
"When London became 'Swinging London' it was over, because the excitement was all these people emerging from, basically, a working-class background," Bailey said, including in that group himself, Caine, Jagger and Julie Christie.
It was gallery owner David Fahey who persuaded Bailey to include the older pictures in the show. And Fahey explained that this was partly designed to give visitors something recognizable among the aggressively personal and challenging recent photographs and collage dominating the other walls.
Many of the collages are rife with sexual themes, smeared brutally with thick paint strokes, juxtaposing nude photographic studies of his wife with repeated images of the "Mona Lisa" and primitive masks. Others offer a tightly cropped self-portrait mixed with scenes from nature, found snapshots from the early 1900s, a chunk of porcelain, torn pages from British tabloid newspapers--much of this literally stitched to the canvas.
Somehow linking the diverse elements of Bailey's show is a red and green silk screen from 1988 built around his 1965 portrait of the Krays, the romanticized brothers and crime overlords in London. The brightly colored work is from a series on the twins, both of whom were finally sentenced to 30 years in prison, and represents the end of a long and sometimes uncomfortable association with them. He even photographed the '60s wedding of Reggie Kray at the gangster's insistence, with the result published for the first time last year in Vanity Fair.
"They come from where I come from, a tough part of London, in the East End," Bailey noted of the Krays, who were themselves the subject of a movie last year. "I grew up with them, in a way. I knew about them when I was a kid. They are like Tolstoy's Cossacks in that they have their own rules. Although they were terrible gangsters, they were very middle class, and moral. They wouldn't deal in drugs and prostitution. They loved their mother."
Next year, Bailey's still photography from the last decade is to be collected in a book titled "If We Shadows," a line taken from Shakespeare. With a foreword by portrait subject Jack Nicholson, the book is being designed as a series of juxtapositions to effect new interpretations of each picture.
On one page, Bailey said, an image of Jagger screaming will face a picture of a blood-stained mattress. Artist Julian Schnabel will face a coffee cup with a thumb in it. Nicholson will face himself.
As with the new exhibition, the positioning of the photographs may offer an impact of its own. "Somehow after you've seen these images together, you can never see them apart," Bailey said. "They complement each other. It provokes something."
Photography by David Bailey continues through April 6 at the Fahey/Klein Gallery, 148 N. La Brea Ave. Open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays. No admission. For information, call (213) 934-2250.