IF YOU’RE OVER 50 YOU PROBABLY KNOW DAVID BAILEY as one of the three photographers of the ’60s dubbed by ‘The Sunday Times’ as ‘The Black Trinity’. The other photographers were Brian Duffy and Terence Donovan.
There were numerous fine photographers redefining the art of image making during the ’60s. These included Lichfield, Newton, Swannell, and tribute must also be paid to those members of a previous generation who successfully made the transition into the psychedelic ’60s, such as Beaton and Parkinson.
If you think Bailey, like Duffy and Donovan, is dead then you are ‘dead wrong‘. Just take a look at this link from British Vogue and you’ll find that he barely sits down for a moment.
So what’s all this about Bailey’s lens?
The 40 mm Pancake lens
I found a reference to it in a book he wrote with George Hughes back in 1983.
To be fair to those who like different formats, focal lengths, and styles of photography Bailey and Hughes cover these fully in ‘Begin With Bailey’. Reproductions of prints made with large format cameras, as well as some made with a little 110 film camera appear. There’s even a few pictures made using quite wide angle lenses.
What intrigued me were the number of pictures Bailey made back then using a 40mm lens. Until recently I regarded the 40mm focal length as being a little wide and a little rakish for everyday photography. That changed around five years ago when I purchased a little Olympus Pen (EP-2) and put a 20mm Panasonic lens on it. It effectively emulates the angle of view of 40mm on a full frame 135mm camera.
Last year I returned to a 50mm, (equivalent) lens when switching to the Fujifilm X system, but now most days I’m using 27mm lens, which when the 1.6 crop factor is taken into account, works out at a 40mm equivalent.
Purists will argue here that when I write of a 27mm lens being equivalent to 40mm it’s not because the depth of field is shallower. I agree with them, but they and I, know that that’s simply being clever and we’re discussing the equivalent perspective taking into account the sensor’s crop factor.
Bailey liked using a 40mm lens for general photography and so, by and large, do I.
A 40mm lens will permit you to take a decent portrait, when you handle its capacity to create distortion with sensitivity. If you squeeze yourself into the corner of a room you’ll probably fit most of the walls into the frame and with less distortion than when using a wider angle lens. On the street the 40mm really comes into its own, as it’s possible to create solid images with upright vertical lines, or to inject drama and suggest movement by tilting your camera and producing converging lines on the vertical plane.
I suspect that one reason Bailey enjoyed the 40mm lens was that it was a standard focal length for small compact cameras back in the heady ’60s and ’70s. Such lenses are so much more pocketable than 50mm lenses, which was the standard focal length for 135 cameras back then. 40 mm equivalent lenses for digital cameras are also compact pancake lenses capable of producing good image quality.
Of course there’s more to a lens than glass and focal length. A lens can also refer to the way in which you view the world, your personal perspective or filters, if you like. The truth is that Bailey has an ‘eye’ and for this reason his images project style, even when the object being photographed is quite mundane.
Has his character mellowed as the years have passed? No, according to those who know him he’s always been a pussy-cat.