Writing about Images

Borrowed from Bailey

Jennifer Nixon poses in a Canada Goose parka © J. Ashley Nixon


Growing up in Britain, as I did, everyone knew the name of at least one photographer and that name was David Bailey. Born and bred in the East End of London, he is now in his eighties, still working and influencing contemporary photographers both with his work, and his approach to portrait photography.

Bailey’s photographs for Vogue alongside his free-lance fashion and celebrity work featured prominently on magazine front covers, capturing the Swinging London culture of the 1960s. His own lifestyle, socializing with royalty, film stars and musicians, also showed up in the tabloid press. A fancy life, some would say; one that was borrowed in the flirtatious film Blowup (1966), directed by Michelangelo Antonioni, depicting the life of a London fashion photographer played by David Hemmings. But he never lost sight of his working-class roots and broke into the upper-class Gentleman’s Club that was photography in that era.

Little black dress

In Seven Photographs that Changed Fashion, a BBC television series released in 2009, Rankin (John Rankin Waddell) pays homage to the work of David Bailey and six other fashion photographers (Cecil Beaton, Erwin Blumenfeld, Richard Avedon, Helmut Newton, Herb Ritts, and Guy Bourdin) by recreating one of his iconic photographs.

The selected photograph was originally taken in 1963 for Vogue. The model was Jean Shrimpton, the face of the sixties, and Bailey’s muse and lover at that time. In the Rankin reproduction, made in 2008, Shrimpton is portrayed by Rankin’s partner, Tuuli Shipster.

Bailey was in the studio for the 2008 shoot, overseeing Rankin’s camera work using his own original medium format, twin lens reflex (TLR) Rolleiflex. Rankin confesses in the film that he has “no idea how to use it” and seeks help from Bailey, a fellow left-eyed shooter. The pair of photographers discuss how to get the studio set up just right to show the contrast between the light reflected off the model’s back in her gorgeous, elbow-angled pose against a plain, dark background. The movement in Shrimpton’s long hair in the original photograph was recreated with Shipster by an assistant waving a piece of cardboard off-camera, rather than a wind machine that Bailey said would have been too strong.

I talk to people more than take their pictures.

A box of pin-ups

As revealed in Rankin’s film for the BBC, Bailey is famous for his witty, yet good-natured banter: “I talk to people more than take their pictures. Probably an hour’s talking to ten minutes of shooting.” he told Chris Sullivan during an interview for The Independent in 2014 as Bailey prepared for an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery (NPG) in London.

Part of that NPG exhibition was Bailey’s Box of Pin-Ups, a series of black and white portraits he made after splitting up with Jean Shrimpton in 1964. Needing to take time out of fashion shooting, he produced this unbound set of 36, almost square silver gelatin prints (approximate size: 14.5 x 12.5 inches). The portfolio features photographers such as Terence Donovan and Lord Snowdon; musicians like John Lennon and Paul McCartney; the artist, David Hockney; and the actor, Michael Caine. Shrimpton was also included in the set, as was Mick Jagger. “They [the sitters] were mostly mates,” he explained to Sullivan in the interview. “They were the easiest to get to come to the studio.”

Framed by a fur fringe.

Jagger in a parka

Jagger’s portrait, like all the other ones in the box, used a simple, uncluttered white background. Nothing to distract from the rock star’s face, framed by a fur fringe. The story goes that it wasn’t Jagger’s coat. “Put this on.” said the photographer. Like the coat, I borrowed this one from Bailey.


With appreciation to David Bailey, and to Brikena Xhaferllari, a student of my Writing about Images course at Mount Royal University. Brikena was the first to tell me the story about Mick Jagger’s borrowed parka in a presentation for her final assignment about the work of David Bailey in the Fall semester of 2019. She inspired me to visualize the portrait shown above that I eventually got around to making in February 2020.

The image features my daughter and photographic assistant, Jennifer Nixon. Sadly, I don’t possess a Rolleiflex T like Bailey used. Maybe one day! Also, this is not a vintage fur coat, rather a Canada Goose coat I bought at the start of this millennium. It’s bright red and does a brilliant job at keeping me warm on really cold days in Canada. I shot this image in my studio using a Canon 1DX Mk II and EF 85mm f1.4 lens, Canon flash in a Speedbox 70-S softbox, and LED studio lighting. The original colour shot was converted to black and white in Lightroom.

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