Exercise: Jack Nicholson by David Bailey

David Bailey

I confess I am not a huge fan of David Bailey’s ‘signature’ work. In 2014 I saw Bailey’s Stardust, a comprehensive retrospective of his career, and seeing dozens of his celebrity portraits together made me realise that I find his style a little too shallow and bombastic. To me a good portrait photograph (especially of famous people) can show you a side of the sitter that you don’t normally see – it’s revealing. Bailey, by comparison, comes across to me as doing something quite different – he identifies and amplifies what you already know about them, he maximises the recognition factor. It’s almost caricature more than portraiture.

Look © David Bailey

By way of balance, almost half of the Stardust exhibition was work that was not in his iconic style, and some of this was revelatory – one got a glimpse into alternative versions of Bailey’s career.

One of my favourite photographs by anyone – I have a framed print above my desk as a type – is the Look image used as part of the Stardust publicity. It’s just such a great shot, not typical Bailey at all but full of visual sparkle – the horizontal stripes on the wall, the vertical stripes on the waistcoat, the shapes, the text, the high contrast, the figure-to-ground of the head and shoulders positioned perfectly on the white arrow, the facial expression, the cheeky eyes looking in the opposite direction to the arrow, the jacket just being pulled down off the shoulders – it’s just perfect.

Jack Nicholson

Jack Nicholson by David Bailey.jpg
Jack Nicholson © David Bailey

jack-nicholson-1984-copyright-david-bailey_quer_article_landscapeBailey has photographed Nicholson several times over the decades, and although it’s not dated in the course notes, I estimate this may be from the 1990s or maybe 2000s.

I did wonder why this particular shot rather than the much more well-known 1984 shot pictured to the right, but OCA course notes move in mysterious ways.

Analysing it using the (slightly amended) checklist:

  • Face: mischievous – glint in eyes, arched eyebrows, broad grin; slightly unkempt hair – hint of wildness
  • Pose/gesture: solid, confident
  • Clothes: smart but leaning to informal (no tie), masculine; deep black to contrast against white background
  • Props: none
  • Lighting: strong light on right side, throwing left into deep shadow; emphasises texture of face (pores, wrinkles, light stubble); blown highlights on shirt collar
  • Background: plain and unobtrusive
  • Meaning: ‘Lock up your granddaughters, I’m still Jack the Lad’

As per my caricature theory noted above, it doesn’t tell you anything new about Jack Nicholson – it shows you a reassuringly Jack-Nicholsonesque Jack Nicholson, the Jack you know and love, doing that Jack Nicholson thing that Jack does, being Jack…

The mood it conveys is therefore something along the lines of ‘cheeky sexual predator‘ (or more harshly: ‘dirty old man‘). Is Jack Nicholson really like this? Who knows. Possibly. Probably. It’s certainly his public image.

In many ways it’s a classic Bailey shot. He tends to shoot men in quite strong directional lighting to exaggerate the ruggedness of their features. He also has a tendency to under-expose and/or really crank up the contrast to the point that detail its lost to pure black. To be fair, this is more noticeable on the earlier portrait included as the thumbnail above than in the main image under discussion.

I think Bailey’s intention was to shoot an image that reinforced the existing public perception of Nicholson, reassure viewers that he’s ‘still got it’.


Bailey, D. (2014) Bailey Exposed. London: National Portait Publications


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