David Bailey, the East End lad whose photographs captured the 60s, is celebrating 40 years behind the camera. He talks to JOHN WALSH.

Dyvid Bylie -'Oo's 'e?" the ridiculous wedding guest asked in a British TV commercial some years ago. It was taken for granted that only a philistine could not know the name, the work and the life story of the legendary photographer.

These days, his fame may have declined among the under-35s but his international status among baby-boomers is unshakeable.

Depending on whom you believe, he was either the man who invented the 1960s by memorialising its most vivid characters - especially the Kray twins and the Beatles - in democratic, monochrome close-up, or he was the man who embodied the 1960s, by being the class-warrior-turned-style-commissar - the handsome working-class kid from East Ham who stormed the lofty bastions of fashion using only a camera and a beautiful girlfriend.

He was the scowling, socially mobile rude boy who, as chief photographer for Vogue, captured the new world order and made it look good.

He was the chap who had sex with absolutely everyone - all his models, Jean Shrimpton, and actresses including Catherine Deneuve.

"Do I speak badly?" he asks. "I thought I just speak normal. Mind you, journalists always have me saying 'cos' and 'wiv' - especially women."

He is wary of the modern fondness for fake-geezer chic ("Madonna's husband, he's completely middle class. I knew his dad when he was MD of Collett Dickinson Pearce, the ad agency. We called him Tin Eyes. Why? Because he was effing blind. He couldn't see a good ad if it hit him right between them"). But he loves telling little stories about his role as the East End kid who made it.

"Photography in them days was called smudging. Being on the smudge. Doing smudgy pictures on Southend Pier. I remember, about 10 years after I'd been successful, I met one of my old mates from the East End. He said, 'Hi Dave, still on the smudge mate'?" He laughs fit to bust, lips gleefully parted. "I'd been on Vogue for years. I said, 'Yeah, sort of'."

Or stories about the run-ins he had with the managing editor of Conde Nast, owners of Vogue. "He was an RAF man and I'd done my National Service at the RAF, though I didn't want to do National Service. For a moment he thought we had something in common, but soon realised we didn't.

"He was old-fashioned, blazer-wearing, an awful man. His desk was always tidy and when I used to meet him, I'd gradually make it untidy and he'd concentrate so much on tidying his desk he'd forget what we were talking about."

At 63, the scowling, saturnine, leather-clad ex-smudger has been replaced by a portly, luxuriantly shaggy-chinned, jungly eyebrowed bon vivant in a green T-shirt, blue shirt and mail-order olive corduroys.

He holds court in a huge, airy first-floor studio off Grays Inn Rd in London, presided over by two lordly parrots in a cage. Bailey has a male secretary and a young Australian gofer, who is dispatched to find his favourite lighter, the better to spark up his 22cm Corona y Corona.

Once he was so trendy the ground shook at his approach. Now he is a comfortable Establishment figure - the day before we met, he'd been to the Palace to pick up a CBE. There he met the Prince of Wales, "and I said to Charles, 'About time too'."

Did he hang out with the other Companions of the British Empire? "Nah. I was the only one there from the arts world. I suppose they needed some arty and working-class people to, you know, balance it out." Bailey goes off into his trademark high-pitched giggle, a weird noise that punctuates his discourse.

The occasion for our meeting is the publication of Chasing Rainbows, a lush 40-year compilation of fashion photographs, paintings, tribal portraits and unclassifiably weird studies of beautiful women in mud casts, eye patches and Hannibal Lecter masks in various exotic variants of the altogether.

His former wife, Marie Helvin, turns up everywhere, her flawless skin caressed by the grainy textures of Bailey's developing room, her Hawaiian eyes dreamy with post-coital languor.

So is the current Mrs B, Catherine, whose gamine face is used in a variety of experiments involving poster paints and dead fish. Among the supporting cast are Anjelica Huston, Boy George, Oliviero Toscani, Jerry Hall, Tina Chow and the Shrimp herself .

If you think this sounds a bit stuck in the 1960s and 1970s, you're dead right. It's an oddly retro collection but it shows the mature artist collecting together his various musings and assaults on the concept of beauty.

"No, the book is not meant to be Bailey's beauties," he says crossly. "The guiding principle is to explore the masks of beauty, if you want to be profound, which I find it very difficult to be. It's about the tribalism of beauty."

So, rather than trying to capture female beauty here, he was re-casting them, re-contextualising them? "That's absolutely right," says Bailey. "I'm different from 'fashion photographers' in that I've always had my own idea of what the picture should be. I wasn't influenced by fashion editors or makeup people.

"In all modesty - and I'm not very modest because I know I'm quite good - my pictures don't date because I was influenced by the person I was photographing. I always liked peculiar beauties as well, like Marisa Berenson or Anjelica or Penelope Tree. I never went for the dumb, generic, Scandinavian model."

Given the inclusion of so many women from his past, I wondered why he'd included no images of Catherine Deneuve, whom he married in 1967 after divorcing his first wife, Rosemary Bramble.

"But this isn't a book about beautiful women, it's about Beauty," he insists. "If you photograph Catherine, she'd have to look like Catherine. She wasn't a model you could do things to, like the girls in the book - the point is they become different in different contexts."

That also explains the absence of any of the 1990s supermodels. Bailey knows them all (he made a documentary about the industry and its follies) but doesn't use them.

His paintings, also included in the book, are often montages. There seem to be a lot of wild, randomly flung-about bits and pieces in his imagination.

"Do you know why? The first thing I ever saw that made an impression on me was the bombed-out buildings after the war - you know, when a building's half fallen down and you get the peeling wallpaper, the door leading nowhere.

"When I was a kid, you could see it everywhere, the peeling wallpaper. I always liked that montage of images, and that's where it all comes from."

Another place it comes from is the movies he saw in his youth. You cannot discuss Bailey's work for long without getting a flood of movie name-drops. He alludes with studied familiarity to classic novels, all of which he has read despite the early handicap of dyslexia.

Their influence pervades his images. A moody 1961 study for Vogue of Tania Mallet encased in a voluptuous white fur, for instance, with its symphony of coarse and classy textures (wood grain, fur coat, leather gloves, peasant bread, soup) prompts the memory that he'd just read Tolstoy's The Cossacks.

"I thought it would make a great movie because the Cossacks were a bit like East End gangs, they had their own rules - the way the Krays wouldn't deal in drugs and prostitution because they thought it was immoral, though they didn't mind shooting someone."

Or take the shot of Huston and Toscani in a chandeliered ballroom, he burying his snout in her neck, she apparently pitched between flight and capitulation. It looks like a still from an art-house film.

"Yeah, that was my Visconti influence ... I loved Death in Venice. The earrings in this shot weren't my idea, they was the stylist's, but the feel of it, the deep focus was mine.

"Anjelica was a big model at the time. She'd just made a film with her father, John, a terrible movie called A Walk with Love and Death, John Huston's only bad movie."

David, I ask, how come you talk about films so much? "But in the East End that was the only cultural outlet," he says with an indignant squeak. "There weren't any books - well, my mother used to read detective books, but that was it.

"We used to go to the cinema a lot because it was cheaper than putting money in the gas heater. It was fun. We used to take bread and jam sandwiches and condensed orange juice and go to the Odeon at Upton Park."

This frustrated art-house auteur has made films himself - two notable documentaries about Warhol and the modelling industry - but it's a sore subject.

His full-length feature, The Intruder, went straight to video last year. What went wrong with it? His saturnine look returns, alarmingly. "What went wrong was Canada, mainly - don't ever shoot a film in Montreal if you can help it.

"But everything was bad - the producers were awful. The actresses - well, you couldn't have had a bigger contrast. Charlotte Gainsbourg was absolutely marvellous, word perfect, so professional. Nastassja Kinski, on the other hand, was a nightmare. The whole experience - have you seen Swimming with Sharks? It was just like that."

He is strangely ambivalent about the bodies he photographs. For a man who was criticised by no less than Germaine Greer for caring more about the surface of the shot than the human flesh, he is keen to link sexuality to artistry.

"I think the male body is more beautiful than the female body," he says bluntly. "It's just that I'm heterosexual. If I was homosexual, I'd photograph men. I'd be Herb Ritts. Conversely, if I'd been Michelangelo, David would have been Diana or somebody."

In what way did he find the male form more beautiful? "It's better formed in many ways, it's easier to light. If I was absolutely honest about doing naked people, I'd probably do more men, but I've no interest in men sexually. It's not for any moral reasons. It's just I don't fancy them."

How strange that Bailey should hold such a view when much of his response to female beauty is to depersonalise it, to cover it in mud, to make it part of a construct.

"I'm always on the woman's side," he protests. "I prefer women to men anyway." You don't like the company of lads, then? "Hate them," he says shortly. "Hate them. My idea of hell is a small car with four men in it, farting and talking about football."

Even now he travels a lot, since most of his commissions are abroad. He's doing a lot of work for the Minister of Culture in Qatar. Bailey has been taking pictures of artists, architects and photographers for the minister, who is also an avid collector of Islamic art. "It's one of the black areas of my knowledge," says Bailey, "though I've learned a lot about it in the past year."

A big kid, cheeking his elders, getting the prettiest girl in town and making his mates watch as he climbs into the flash car and drives off with her, that's been David Bailey's life.

And the East End rude boy is still in there as he sucks his big cigar and recommends his tailor. "He makes poncy suits for Tim Jeffries and people like that, but he makes you look thin, so he's worth knowing for that."

Is that a problem for you, David? "Well," - he contemplates his 116cm waist - "I'd rather look like Johnny Depp than Moby Dick." And the connoisseur of male and female beauty, goes off into a tirade of giggles about the folly of it all.

- INDEPENDENT

* David Bailey's Chasing Rainbows, published by Thames & Hudson, is available by order. RRP $NZ190.