It is just too easy to be shocked by David Bailey’s Nudes 1981–1984. Good God, splutters the feminist version of Colonel Blimp, the women are all blinded, bags over their heads, anonymous, subhuman! Indeed, Bailey’s nudes are as usual women, or rather girls, splayed, draped, laid out in Ansel Adams landscapes and interiors by Helmut Newton, turned to stone or metal by long exposures, small apertures and Bailey’s lapidary printing. Some of the negatives are defaced with gashed black lines, heads scribbled out with lacerations, the whole plate scorched and scarred with acid. The camera eye seems hypnotised by the mons veneris, thrust into high relief so that each hair is engraved on the print like barbed wire on the Ypres salient. Once Bailey mocks the parallel by binding shiny new barbed wire around his model’s thigh, so tightly that the barbs dent the unblemished skin, and again he cuts a trench in the satiny flesh with a thin rubber ligature. The bodies are made to a pattern, long, gracile, square-shouldered, high-breasted and shallow in the pelvis; although the pattern comes in different colourways the virtuoso sepia printing subjugates the differences. We are in the land of the stereotype, or, some might say, the ideal, deliberately replicated in paired images, sometimes on the page, sometimes facing each other across the opening, sometimes of different models made identical by Bailey’s art. The obliteration of personality and individuality is a fundamental clement of the art nude photography tradition, but usually the end is accomplished simply by keeping the face turned away or the head out of shot altogether. The fact that Bailey uses shocking methods, bandages, blindfolds and Hallowe’en masks, is a commercial bonus.
In the middle opening of the third gathering (for this more artistic book has neither pagination nor signatures), a model girl twice displays her fragile body swollen to bursting by late pregnancy. On the left, she is shown wearing a chicken head, holding two large plastic eggs, whose outline mocks the painful curve where the amniotic sac bulges beyond her narrow iliac crest. Opposite, the same body is shown contraluce, but this time her head is a rubbery mask of a grinning skull. There is no more point letting yourself be shocked by this deliberate naughtiness than in being sent into nightmares by the neighbourhood flasher. The superficial shockery is only a masking sauce after all, but, as is usually the case with masking sauces, what lies underneath is neither nourishing nor palatable.
Most people will probably see Bailey’s work in terms of what the photographs are pictures of, eg woman with feet bound by electric flex shown against splattered surface, and will react by enunciating their opinion of the presumed subject matter – sadism dreadful. They are quite right to do so, but their point is not Bailey’s point. The question is not what the pictures are pictures of, but what kinds of pictures they are. The victims of sadism can be shown in such a way as to excite pity and terror or voyeurism and lust or simply as a record of an event. Bailey’s photographs record mildly macabre games played by a celebrity image maker and a gaggle of model girls. If we look closer at the model bound with flex, we see that she is slippery with baby oil, relaxed in the foetal position, the electric flex sitting round her slim ankles like a jewelled anklet. The spatters are anything but blood.
Each game is meticulously staged by the photographer. The models are mostly inert, submissive, simply laid or propped immobile before the lens. The veiling of their heads ought to free the innocence of their bodies from the coy games that model girls play with cameras, but, if Bailey wishes to treat the bodies of his models as natural phenomena menaced by something more germane than the self-seeking of the photographer, he is prevented from realising his aim. Even with bags over their heads his models are models; we have been as desensitised to their extraordinary clothes-hanger bodies as to their painted faces.
To assume that Bailey has constructed these images for his own erotic gratification and must be an invert of a peculiarly sinister order, lying in wait for model girls with a dilly-bag full of crepe bandages and barbed wire, fried eggs and dildoes, is tacitly to accept his assumption that the viewer is essentially a voyeur. His own preoccupations are different. Erotic photography manipulates fantasy by elaborate imagery involving all kinds of fetishes, principally clothes; the surface of the photograph is subordinated to the impact of the image itself. As in the case of Helmut Newton’s self-indulgences the art is carefully hidden; in Nudes 1981–1984 Bailey shows again and again that he is overwhelmingly involved with the photograph itself. This is not to say that Bailey is innocent of perversion or paraphilia. The phone freak rings you up and talks dirty on the telephone not because he is turned on by you but because he is turned on by the intrusive power of the telephone; likewise the camera freak is intoxicated by the power of the camera over the raw material.
In the case of Bailey’s nudes, the static poses he has used have the effect of subordinating the female bodies to elements of the backgrounds which are almost without exception more resonant and more alive than the truncated female form. For example, in one of a pair of stupendous shots, the model lies, her head hidden by a newspaper, on a surging slope of pocked volcanic rock, a streak of smooth against its rough, the sepia black of her pubic hair echoed in the tool-smooth shadows on the mirror pools in the rock. The degree of definition achieved in both negative and print is staggering; the richness and density of the entire image subdues the female figure until it is like one of the tiny human outlines used by architects to indicate scale. On the opposite page, a blandly pretty body is used to dramatise the marvellous complexity of the surface of what seems to be a huge anthill; the body’s smoothness is everyday luscious but the anthill is fascinating.
If Bailey’s attention has been to ‘valorise’ the female body by placing it among natural monuments and showing it rising from the sea, or emerging from bandages like Michelangelo’s slave from the stone, he has signally failed. The very wallpapers and brocades of the hotel rooms are more alive than the glossy limbs displayed against them. The purpose in spraying the model with latex, which is then torn and split so that the skin shows through the tatters would seem to be to enhance the elasticity and beauty of the forms beneath the rigid applied skin, but again the surface of the print denies the elasticity, being cold, sharp, incised. The model is frozen by a medium that refuses to massage.
Bailey is well aware of the hushed reverence of the art nude tradition and explicitly mocks it by choosing highly significant and disturbing accessories to provide his aesthetic counterpoint. The decorative use of fetish objects is, in other words, completely cynical. He is no more moved or titillated by them than he is by the religious symbolism of the crown of thorns which he renders as a bandeau of barbed wire disappearing into the thick hair of a model girl who has rolled her eyeballs up so that the pupils have disappeared and she seems blind or dead. Such a photograph is Bailey’s version of Edwina Sandys’ Christa, a bronze crucifix featuring a pneumatic female form in place of Christ’s body, which convulsed New York when it was exposed in a church last Easter. As a piece of self- promotion Christa was brilliantly conceived, if rather brutishly executed. Bailey is Sandys’ equal in self promotion, but he is immeasurably more gifted a photographer than Sandys is a sculptor.
The technical achievement of Nudes 1981–1984 is staggering. Indeed, it is hard to believe that gravure of such quality was produced in England or that it can be put on the market profitably at a mere £15. The fact that the book has no words whatsoever and can be sold world-wide exactly as it is may have something to do with it. It is a triumph of the technology that engrosses Bailey. The surface of the plate excites him more than skin could ever do. The sensibility that emerges from Nudes 1981–1984 is neither gross, nor sensualist nor perverse, but jaded, aloof, calculating and inhuman. Bailey’s world of jet-set glitz is seen the same way that the punks who wear T-shirts patterned with their own skeletons see themselves, as the exhumed dead, a nation of zombies. By projecting this truly shocking vision through the debased medium of nubile female bodies, Bailey actually blunts its impact and shrouds it in feminist uproar. If he had been really game for a barf he would have used children.