David Bailey Remembers His Travels Through Peru

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© David Bailey

A new book, and corresponding London exhibition, put the British photographer’s 1971 and 1984 trips back in the spotlight

David Bailey is at home anywhere he goes. Driven by a profound sense of curiosity and a desire to engage, the photographer’s observant eye and quick intellect allow him entrée into just about any situation he chooses for himself; his calm confidence combined with an easy laugh span any chasm where language might otherwise be a barrier.

“They probably think I am mad for wanting to take a picture of them,” Bailey tells AnOther, reflecting on his experiences travelling through Peru in 1971 and 1984, with Grace Coddington for British Vogue and the Wool Board, and for Tatler, respectively.

Bailey made a practice of shooting fashion in the morning and evening so that he had the day to himself. He made his way through the cities and the towns, travelling across the plains and into the mountains, to create a captivating portrait of a people and a place collected in the new exhibition David Bailey: Peru, opening October 19 at Heni Gallery, London, and accompanying book publishing November 1.

Bailey’s Peru unfolds like an epic poem filled with magic and mystery, history and myth, as scenes of daily life evoke a sense of timeless wonder and awe. Now in his 80th year, Bailey laughs, “You ask me to remember what, 60 years ago?” – only to do just that for us.

On being David Bailey...
“I like everywhere. Everywhere has got something going for it. People say, ‘He’s a boring bloke,’ and I say, ‘Maybe he’s not. Maybe if you photographed him, you’d find out he’s not a bit boring.’ It’s the same with countries. 

“I am not sentimental and I’m not nostalgic, and I have the right amount of intimacy. I got on quite well with the people. Remember, I’m a Cockney so I can talk to anybody. There’s no problem with Peruvians. You can always get through to somebody, even bandits in Naga Hills.”

On the pleasures of an outdoor photo studio...
“Just because it’s been done a thousand times doesn’t mean I’m not going to do it. It’s not what you do – it’s how you do it. It was set up right in the center of Cusco, the old capital. There are lots of courtyards like that. You don’t get it in Dorset or Devon [laughs]. If you find something you don’t have in your country, it’s a good idea to use it. You see people in a café and invite them. It’s not hard. But I never tell people beforehand otherwise they come in their Sunday best, which is always a disaster.

“Martín Chambi was the most famous photographer in Peru. He lived in the old capital but I couldn’t find him because he’s dead, so I found his daughter. That was the highlight. I took a picture of his daughter holding the portrait of her father..”

On recognising a work of art...
“It’s always personal – it has to be. I think lots of things are art. I think people who make gnome gardens are artists. I’m sad that nobody does it anymore. I used to love sighting a gnome garden in suburbia! I thought that was the most exciting thing. It is always a thrill, and getting rarer and rarer. Maybe people are art-collecting gnomes now? That was always art to me. Art is what you want it to be.”

On artistic freedom...
“Every picture you take is not a work of art. The critics always get it wrong. They say, ‘That’s not a very good picture’ but maybe it’s not a very good picture – it’s part of a story I want to tell about the country and that’s why I put fashion, travel, and art pictures all together because people are always a bit snobby about fashion. They say, ‘Oh, you shouldn’t have fashion,’ and I just go, screw that. I do what I want.”

David Bailey: Peru is at HENI Gallery, London, until December 21, 2018. Bailey’s Peru is out November 1, 2018, published by HENI Publishing.