Michael Caine by David Bailey

Michael Caine by David Bailey at the National Portrait Gallery

David Bailey’s portrait of Michael Caine is iconic of the sixties and of the particular style of David Bailey. It is a harsh high key image shot in the classic Bailey style against a white background relying entirely on the personality and character of the subject to inform the viewer.

Labelled as glib entertainment for those who can’t be bothered with real art by Jonathon Jones of the Guardian a comment I found rather harsh,  maybe Jones is just trying to raise his profile at the expense of Bailey who no longer really has anything to prove.

The classic David Bailey style typifies the sixties in the same way that the work of George Hurrell defined Hollywood. Despite Jones comments it is interesting that when the name of Michael Caine is uttered this image is one that instantly comes to mind, Bailey has had this effect on most of the people he has shot over the years.

In this image Michael Caine is sporting a set of black framed national health style glasses that should appear rather nerdy, however history has proved them to be cool harking back to images of Buddy holly sporting the same style of eye wear and later the blues brothers wearing similar styled Ray Ran Wayfarer sun glasses, these unlikely fashion accouterments have become cool.

I personally love the high contrast black and white treatment of this image the fact that we lose almost all of the detail in the black of the suit creates the hard pose that says Hard Man. It’s something of a contrast to the Michael Caine we now know as a rather likable chap. At the time this image was shot Michael Caine was playing characters such as Alfie, Charley Croaker, and Harry Palmer, and this was the perfect imagery to sit alongside those characters.

Where Bond was all style and swagger Caine ’s Harry Palmer was more down to earth this image depicts a cool looking spy who still has to fill in his expenses claim forms something you never imagine Sean Connery doing.

Where I think Bailey hits the mark every time is the ability to show us so much variation in personality using the same technique this single light hard high key style ought to produce the same result every time, which it does, in the sense that David Bailey’s voice comes out of all his images, each one being very recognizable in the same way a Van Gogh is distinctive from a Constable, Bailey never fails to transmit a very different personality from each of his sitters. The style does not allow Bailey to rely on props or backgrounds to tell the story all he is left with is the pose and facial expression with some small aid from the wardrobe to tell the entire story, which in my opinion he does every time.

In this case that story is so eloquent that the picture has become one of the most iconic images of Michael Caine And as such is instantly recognizable.