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In the frame
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In the frame

You expect glamour, and lashings of it, when you go to a David Bailey exhibition. The infamous photographer, still making waves in his mid-70s, is inextricably associated with the best of British – swinging ’60s fashion, supermodels and celebrities, and lives of high drama and intrigue.

And in the National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition of his work spanning his early career to current day, there is plenty of the above.  You arrive and are blown away by one of his iconic images of Kate Moss; her, luminescent and flawless and clearly at ease with the man behind the camera.

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Kate Moss by David Bailey

But then, on the other side of the hallway, is a more muted, soft focus portrait from the early 1960s. The image of a face smiling from within a hair salon, contrasted with a more dowdy woman on the street, recalls Bailey’s east end roots and the fact that he has long been far more than cameraman to the stars. In fact, some of the most thrilling treats in this vast showcase hark back to his old stomping ground, not least a series from 1968 for The Sunday Times Magazine, with the jaunty shots of sequin-clad women, shady looking fellas, and children playing in an urban wasteland.

There is, naturally, glamour in abundance, with a seemingly endless wall of Bailey’s signature black and white portraits, with their skilful use of light and dark to tell the story of the subject, featuring all the names of the ’60s, from the Stones to John Lennon and Paul McCartney in their Beatles heyday, and from Michael Caine to Jean Shrimpton, as languid and idealised as you’d expect.

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Mick Jagger by David Bailey

There’s plenty of star-spotting: look, there’s John Galliano and Alexander McQueen positively leaping out from their frames, or Jerry Hall, all sun-tanned legs and megawatt smile.  Some rooms are like an A to Z of Hollywood though the ages; Meryl Streep looks pensive alongside a raging Jack Nicholson, who is himself neighbour to Johnny Depp in full frustrated teen idol mode.

More intriguing, perhaps, are his portraits of the other artists; Andy Warhol, glaring out of the frame in 1965; Bill Brandt peering sceptically from the shadows. There’s Man Ray – depicted, appropriately, in forensic, abstract close-up, and Dali, in a series of wonderfully whimsical Kodak moments.

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Jerry Hall by David Bailey

Bailey the photojournalist is also very much on show, not least with his devastating collection taken in Sudan in the 1980s, which brought home to the Band Aid generation what starvation looked like in a way the written word never could.  There are collections from Delhi, Papua New Guinea, and Australia; that last featuring wonderfully vibrant portraits of Aboriginals that leave you wondering about the lives of those being photographed.

I was mesmerised by a series taken on the Naga Hills at the Burmese border; the National Portrait Gallery has chosen to display these snapshots of ordinary life as enormous prints, and the result is simply enthralling; a reminder of how a talented photographer can transform the mundane into a scene of great beauty and mystery.

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The exhibition brings together the varied and seemingly disparate strands of Bailey’s illustrious career; his Democracy series, for which he asked for willing nude models and photographed them unflinchingly, is a world apart from the intimate work informed by his marriage to Catherine Bailey.  There’s an entire room devoted to his wife, featuring some of the most mesmerising photographs on show, particularly one of Catherine from 1974, her face striped in black and white.  Walking through the gallery, the experience is often about attempting to reconcile the many Baileys on show.

My only complaint was that, at more than 250 photographs, there was simply too much to see.  A feast for the eyes, certainly, but possibly too much to take in in one trip.  Still, on for another month, it’s worth the entrance fee. Bailey’s photos, from the glossy shots to the more contemplative ones, are unfailingly interesting.

Bailey’s Stardust, until 1 June, National Portrait Gallery, Tickets: £14.50