It's not often that a leading institution allows an artist to curate his or her own retrospective, but it was the only way the National Portrait Gallery was ever going to get David Bailey to agree to what is an enormous, immersive show with more than 300 photographs occupying most of its ground-floor space. Not only has he chosen the exhibition's themes, the portraits and where they should hang, he's made new silver gelatin prints, designed the book that goes with the show, decided there should be a 20ft Michael Caine banner in the main entrance, and in one room decreed that visitors should listen to songs from the four volumes of Rod Stewart's Great American Songbook while they look at the works. "We had to relax," said the gallery's director, Sandy Nairne , admitting they did not normally give such free rein. "It became very clear that he did have a vision about this show. This is Bailey through and through." Bailey was given a doll's house-type model of the spaces about two and half years ago and the result, a four-month exhibition called Bailey's Stardust, opens to the public on Thursday. Bailey has been one of the world's best-known and distinctive photographers since he began capturing the swinging sixties. The NPG show has many fashion models, celebrities, artists and musicians and there is a lot of what you might expect: Terence Stamp , Mick Jagger and Johnny Depp smoulder while John Lennon is serene and Salvador Dali looks bananas. But there are surprises, including an intensely personal room named after his wife, Catherine, which includes photographs of her pregnant and giving birth. Nairne said he thought the Catherine Bailey room was "extraordinary – I think people will see it kind of quietly there, it is a very different kind of experience." There are also images that have not been seen publicly before, including a close-up silhouetted profile of Man Ray from 1968. The exhibition explores all sides of Bailey's work, and Nairne said there would be much that was not known to the public. Away from fashion and his close relationship with the Rolling Stones, there are documentary images from where he grew up, London's East End , and from his travels in Australia , Delhi and the Naga Hills , as well as a series of photographs from the 1985 famine in east Africa that he took in support of Band Aid. Four vitrines show archive material including a national service medical report from 1957 asking that Bailey, a vegetarian, not be forced to eat meat, and a school report from when he was 15 that would be a source of joy for anyone. "Bailey is a boy of considerable intelligence who does not make enough of his brains," it reads. "I feel quite certain that given a calling in which he is interested, he will give a good account of himself." Nairne said Bailey was "one of the world's greatest imagemakers" and clearly had a "fantastic skill" for getting the best out of people. "It's not quite to do with putting them at their ease and he has said it needs a lot of looking. It is that but it's more than that … he makes something happen between him and the sitter." The Bailey show is one of the largest photography exhibitions the NPG has staged, and after London it will travel to Les Recontres Arles in France and in 2015 to the Scottish National Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra . Bailey's Stardust sponsored by Hugo Boss runs at the NPG from 6 February to 1 June.
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