Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Bailey's Democracy

An Introduction by Desmond Morris

Despite it's title, this is not a book about politicians. It is much more important than that - it is about the nature of the human species. The democratic process that gives the volume its title is photographic, not political.

Every one of the people portrayed here was treated in an identical way, regardless of who they were. Over a period of three years, individuals visiting David Bailey's studio were asked if they would agree to be photographed naked. None refused, and none was rejected with the result that this fascinating collection is a random sample of humanity as it exists at the start of the 21st century - and it presents us with a unique portrait of our remarkable species. 

Bailey's self-imposed restrictions were severe. Each person was asked to remove their clothing and stand on a mark on the floor of the studio. The removal of make-up and jewellery was also requested, but not insisted upon. A large 10x8 plate camera was positioned about six feet in front of the subject. A single light was placed just above the camera, always in the exactly the same position, and an evenly lit, white screen was set up about twelve feet behind the subject. The framing was always identical and there was no enlargement or reduction, no trimming, retouching or editing of the shots. The photographic paper used was always the same. Crucially, the only variation was in the subjects themselves.

That was what Bailey referred to as his 'imposed democracy'. It forces the viewer of these photographs to confront the human form in the most direct and searingly honest way imaginable. There is no artifice, no computer enhancement, no fancy technical wizardry to make people look more glamourous than they really are, no smoothing of skin surfaces, no soft focussing or subtle shadowing. What you see here is the stark reality of the human conditon. 

The only element of artistic interference that Bailey allowed himself was the selection of the final print. During each ten-minute session, the subject was photographed six times, in varying poses, and Bailey then chose the example that he preferred. Even the poses were not controlled by him. Each person was asked simply to 'be themselves' and to adopt any posture they liked. The result is a compelling document of the human body in contemporary times.

When viewing these portraits it is important to make a distinction between nudity and nakedness. To me, these are naked bodies but they are not nudes. Traditionally the nude has one of two agendas - the aesthetic and the erotic. Nudes have their clothes removed to make them more beautiful or more sexy. The reason for stripping away the concealing layers of clothing is either to reveal the glory of human musculature or to expose the more private parts. To these ends, nude models are usually carefully selected to offer us the idealised human body as we would like to see it, rather than as it really is, in Bailey's book this bias is rigorously avoided. These are not nudes, they are naked people and, as such, they tell us so much more about the species to which we all belong.

David Bailey - Bailey's Democracy

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