A less posh King’s Cross
Photographer David Bailey has captured the sights and faces of pre-gentrified King’s Cross in a new book. Dan Carrier reports
03 November, 2017 — By Dan Carrier
Images from David Bailey’s book, King’s X
IT was while on an assignment for The Big Issue that photographer David Bailey met a man and his dog living on the streets of King’s Cross – and was to discover, just a fortnight after he had taken a picture of them, that his subject had been murdered.
The photographer recounts this tragic fact in a new book of work that feature the area.
Stepping outside his King’s Cross studio, he had plenty of subject matter on his doorstep to turn his lens towards, and in the 1990s Bailey took a series of images of both homeless people and the architectural fabric of the neighbourhood. He captured buildings that the new-look King’s Cross rising from the sprawling Railway Lands have long consumed – and a plethora of people he met who lived on the streets of the area.
He moved to the area in the early 1990s.
“It was more or less the same as it was after the Second World War,” he recalls. “Just like pictures I did in the 60s of the East End.”
And of all the many, many faces he has seen through his work, two stand out – and they are not of the great and the good.
“Two men haunt me, for different reasons,” he says. “The first was an old, ex-army man who lay dying in Mother Teresa’s hospice in 1960s Calcutta. I did not take his picture. I did not talk to him. I feared his situation, dying with nobody in his life except the nuns. How would I approach him? Should I give him some money for his fare back to the UK? He was beyond that so I took the coward’s way out and avoided him. Who was he? A hero in the army or a deserter maybe? I will never know, but he has never left me.”
Then there was the man he met on Camden’s streets. “He oozed charm, with the most wonderful smile,” he recalls. “His dog seemed to smile, too. He changed my attitude to the pictures of homelessness I had been shooting. The people somehow adopted a happier attitude. That’s the direction I took. The guy with the dog set the tone with his beautiful smile.”
He says through their conversations he recognised the huge diversity of people with varying reasons for living on the street – and then received news about his subject.
“Two weeks after the shoot I had a phone call informing me the guy had been murdered,” he writes.
“I tried to find out what happened to his dog. Nobody seemed to know. Life moves on, but his smile is still with us.”
The book includes a critique by Brighton University Professor of Photography Francis Hodgson. He says the work is not the sort of pictures traditionally associated with David Bailey.
“When you look at a more usual Bailey portrait, you are freighted with a lot of baggage about the sitter,” he writes. “Politician or entertainer, businesswoman or actress-model-whatever – you may not even recognise them, but the fact of being photographed by Bailey is itself a way of signalling that they are a ‘certain kind of person’.”
And it is this that gives these images greater power, he believes. This collection shows he doesn’t only photograph front-cover stars.
“It is not the case that Bailey only photographs the top one per cent of the society he lives in,” adds Professor Hodgson.
“We know nothing about these people beyond the fact of their living, at least for a time, on the streets. To us they have no backstory, no baggage.”
Above all, Professor Hodgson says Bailey’s skill is to capture the person’s humanity, to find out what makes them tick and dismiss labels easily attached.
“Homelessness happens to all kinds of people,” he says. “What Bailey’s pictures do is to strip away the obvious signs of downfall. You don’t have Tourette’s in a photograph or stink of how long it was since you had a wash. There’s hard-living on some of them – teeth missing or a battered face from being too drunk and falling over. Yet the even London light shines on them just as equably as it does on you today.”
And as with his images of people on the streets, he also found the buildings had chiselled characters of their own and were pockmarked and battered from their environment.
“Today, I pass a new building and try to remember what was there before,” Bailey writes.
“In a Proustian way, my mission is to record the fading memories of a building – it does not have to be of any architectural importance.”
He says the daily wear and tear tells a story that means the photographer has a narrative to work with.
“A building’s face is like a human face, it takes a beating, which is enough to make the image,” he adds.
“Everything you want is already there, you just have to see it.”
• King’s X. By David Bailey, Heni Publishing, £225. For every copy sold, £10 will go to a homeless charity.