David Bailey in Milan: ‘There’s no nostalgia in my life’

The reticent British photographer talks about his dark past and successful career in his usual no-nonsense manner.

He may be a Swinging Sixties icon, but up close the British photographer David Bailey is a wisecracking crank who shrugs off his immense success as one of the world’s most famous celebrity photographers.

"I'm not proud, I don't do proud," he says at the opening of his Stardust exhibition, which is showing in Milan from now until June after a run at the National Portrait Gallery in London.

Intimate portraits of stars such as Kate Moss, Jack Nicholson and Mick Jagger gaze down from the walls of the Padiglione d’Arte Contemporanea, alongside ­photographs of Bailey’s fourth wife, the model Catherine Dyer, and children.

A section dedicated to naked unknowns, who posed for Bailey’s Democracy project between 2001 and 2005, follows a series that captured the 1960s in London’s East End, where Bailey was raised by his father, a tailor’s cutter, and machinist mother.

“What a lot of work,” Bailey says of the exhibition, but he won’t be drawn further, fobbing off questions with his characteristic bluntness: “It’s just my job, it’s what I do.”

The 77-year-old suffered from dyslexia at school and played truant regularly before dropping out entirely, practically illiterate, at the age of 15. “I didn’t know I was dyslexic ­until I was 30. I thought I was an idiot until then,” he says.

Bailey ended up selling suits and credits his interest in ­photography to a 1948 image by Henri Cartier-Bresson of Muslim women wearing long cloaks in front of the Himalayas, a shot that he said made the women appear to be mountains themselves.

He crossed paths with the East End underworld including the notorious Kray twins, who ran a protection racket and carried out a series of robberies and murders in the 1950s and 1960s – and whose photographs he took in 1965.

He says he was beaten up several times during his life and found out a few years ago that the Krays, whom he spent a couple of weeks with during the shoot, had knifed his father. But he does not regret the time spent with the gangsters, or anything else for that matter – not even his three divorces. “I have no regrets, and there’s no nostalgia in my life,” he says.

“That was the time I was living through. I live in the moment and always see the ridiculous side of life,” he says, adding: “You’ve got to seize the moment. See that moment? It’s just gone.”

Bailey has taken portrait shots on smartphones but is somewhat dismissive about the digital ­medium compared with old-­fashioned film.

“Yeah, I’ve used phones. The phone is just another machine, a tool. It’s not the camera that takes photos; the person does. I prefer film, though. There’s no magic with digital, you cannot make mistakes – and if you do, you delete them immediately. There’s no mystery.”

Despite signing the odd autograph, he doesn’t appear comfortable with fans, turning his back on his photographs and insisting his life “is a lot bigger than this – I make bronzes, movies, paintings, too”.

But what was it like living through the Swinging Sixties as someone as famous as the stars he was photographing, and working with The Beatles and The Rolling Stones?

He shrugs, saying: “It wasn’t very swinging if you were a coal miner or a steelworker,” and refuses to be drawn on models he would like to photograph today. “I don’t know any models and don’t like actresses,” he says.

Wrapped up in a red coat with sheepskin ruff and with bags under his eyes, Bailey, whose career inspired Michelangelo Antonioni's film Blow-Up, has a simple answer when asked how he went from dyslexic dropout to Vogue collaborator, the start of his stellar rise to fame: "I worked hard. The harder you work, the luckier you get."