When One of Vogue’s Fashion Photographers Took a Holiday With a Cannibal Tribe
The chances are, you know David Bailey’s photographs very well, you just don’t know that you do. The man behind pretty much every major photo shoot by fashion giant Vogue is not so much the elephant in the room of which no one speaks- but the elephant lurking, unremarked upon, in the magazine pages.
Since he first picked up a camera in the fifties, the East London artist has graced the pages of British, American, French and Italian Vogue. He is renowned for his strikingly simple black and white images of glamorous icons such as Warhol and, now in his seventies, shoots edgy covers for alternative magazines such as ID.
However, since his days as a fashion photographer, Bailey has shocked many by admitting that his Vogue career was a mere day job carried out to support a much more complex passion. This passion was for much more unusual and exciting images. He proved these claims, unseen until recently, when he swapped ball gowns and corsets for bayonets and cannibals.
In 1974 on the Oceanic island of Papua New Guinea, Bailey stayed for two weeks with local tribes people. He lived with, learnt from and, of course, photographed his adopted community. He explained how the trip came to be,
I was going to shoot a story for British Vogue in Australia. So I said to the rest of the team, ‘I’ll meet you there’ and I went to New Guinea by myself…They eat people. They have Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease there [a form of brain damage that leads to a rapid decrease of mental function and movement], named after the doctor who discovered it, because of eating humans.
Not quite your typical Vogue fashion story. I can definitely see why the magazine house chose to run with the fashion flurry Bailey recorded with his team at the shoot at which he eventually arrived (unscathed).
His polaroid closeups of the community’s various members seem oddly reminiscent of the stock model shots distributed by model agencies throughout the fashion capitals of the world. And yet these hold the gaze so much more intensely and offer so much more beauty. They are often much more human too.
Following his trip, Bailey stashed the polaroids away in a box in which they remained untouched in his attic until they caught the eye of an art dealer on a studio visit some thirty years later. Last year they were first revealed to the public in exhibit in the David Blau Gallery in Hoxton Square.
The images are undoubtedly beautiful. They flit from the startling, to the disturbing, the familiar and the cute. Looking at such beautiful images, it is immensely frustrating that this style of photography was only ever a side line by Bailey due to practical concerns over producing commercial photographs.
Unlike the clothes in his fashion stories which will be by now long out of date, the Papua Polaroids show a infinitely interesting face of human nature. Whilst fashions fade and fabric rips, these images will certainly haunt and linger in my own memory and, no doubt, those of many others who view them.