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July 21 2012

Up and Down Peachtree: Photographs of Atlanta by Martin Parr – review

Martin Parr has long walked a fine line between sympathetic portraits of everyday life and voyeurism. Now he trains his English eye on main-street America

At home and abroad, Martin Parr is one of Britain's most famous photographers. He has chronicled our everyday life since the 1970s, turning his relentlessly curious eye on the eccentricities and vulgarities of every class and every corner of Britain.

When his first book of colour photographs, The Last Resort, was published in 1986, his detractors accused him of exaggeration and patronisation, claiming that he portrayed the New Brighton seaside town as a kind of working-class hell of junk food, ugly people and litter-strewn streets, made all the more nightmarish by Parr's use of close-up and garish colours. Time changes everything and, today, The Last Resort is considered an important document, unflinching in its gaze and heightened in its atmosphere, but neither cynical nor exploitative.

Parr's vision has deepened and widened since 1986, while somehow staying essentially the same. His signature is as recognisable as any in the contemporary art world and his energy – for collecting photographs, photo books and photographic ephemera, as well as for curating festivals and championing the form – seems at times superhuman. In Europe, he is viewed with a mixture of fascination and admiration, as a kind of archetypal Englishman, despite the fact that his Englishness is of the wilfully old-fashioned socks-with-sandals variety. At home, he continues to divide opinion like few other photographers.

Having recently turned his relentlessly curious eye on globalisation (he photographed the vast Beijing car show for the Observer in 2008), Parr now gives us his photographic portrait of Atlanta, Georgia, "the symbolic capital of the American south". Up and Down Peachtree (the title refers to the city's main thoroughfare, Peachtree Street) is an intriguing book, not least because, apart from the odd up close and garish image – mustard- and ketchup-splashed hotdogs on a red plastic plate, a cross-section of a layered, multicoloured cake, grease-stained mouths devouring greasy snacks – it is somewhat restrained in its depiction of everyday American excess. There are several pictures here that are intimate but not intrusive, many of them depicting people deep in quiet or animated conversation at religious or social gatherings. Here and there, Parr nods to the master of the American quotidian sublime, William Eggleston: the open boot and chrome tailfins of a rusting vintage car; the mundane Sunday school noticeboard – "Attendance last Sunday 9".

Several images suggest the various conflicting narratives of American political life as they are played out in a major city: a smiling, middle-aged woman holds a placard that reads "I Heart My Gay Sons", while on the opposite page a man holds a banner protesting against gay marriage – "I now pronounce you pervert and pervert".

Parr photographs in churches, bars, supermarkets and fast-food joints, but it is on the streets that the myriad small dramas he captures seem most alive, even when their meaning remains elusive. Sometimes, the people in these public vignettes seem like actors in a strange, dreamlike drama: a trio of stationary women caught at a bus stop or at a traffic light might be listening to a funeral service, so stern and contemplative are their expressions.

For all that, the Atlanta depicted here is still a version of Parrworld, that now-familiar place that may still put off as many viewers as it intrigues.


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January 22 2012

Richard & Famous; Painted Photographs

Open Eye gallery, Liverpool

Richard & Famous is a show that touches on celebrity culture and its psychic fallout. It takes its punning title from the photographs of Richard Simpkin, an obsessive fan turned self-styled artist. His work, which covers the walls of Open Eye's main space, consists of snapshots of himself alongside an array of more than 2,000 celebrities, many of whom seem palpably uncomfortable in his presence.

Richard & Famous echoes the obsessions and dedication of another celebrity stalker, Gary Lee Boas, whose 1999 book Starstruck set the bar for celebrity-stalking with a camera. Simpkin's work is more straightforward in a way – less blurry and so less predatory-seeming. It consists, in effect, of the same tropes over and over: the same pose, the same smile, the same look of bemused patience from the object of his attention. The photographer Martin Parr, who curated this celebrity-themed show, makes big claims on Simpkin's behalf, drawing our attention to the difficulty of getting access to the famous, and suggesting that his achievement is "to turn his whole game into a compelling piece of art". Maybe so, but I felt curiously empty when faced with a gallery full of these snapshots. That, perhaps, is their whole – Warholian – point.

Next door, in a big, brightly lit room, the Los Angeles-based artist Simone Lueck approaches celebrity in a more knowing, and, indeed, telling fashion. To create her series The Once and Future Queens she placed an advertisement on the website Craigslist, "seeking fabulous, striking, interesting older woman to pose as glamorous movie star". The word "interesting" is perhaps key here. Many of the 150 older women who answered the ad, and subsequently posed for her in scenarios of their own making, gravitated to Los Angeles during the old Hollywood era of starlets and bombshells. Mara, the blond woman who appears in several shots, is actually the daughter of a Warner Brothers starlet called Mae Madison. Though Mara, like the others photographed, never made it in Hollywood, she is given licence by Lueck's camera to behave as if she did, mimicking the likes of Brigitte Bardot and Ingrid Bergman in her languorous, exaggeratedly sexy poses. The photographs manage to be at once affectionate and parodic.

Lueck calls her large-scale portraits "collaborations", and a sense of knowing playfulness undercuts the mood of desperation in her work. A woman called Francine dresses up in a gold dress once worn by Linda Evans, star of the 80s TV series Dynasty, a celebration of a certain kind of impossibly gilded – and bitchily cut-throat – celebrity lifestyle. Vintage film buffs will pick up on the references to Bardot and Bergman, and to the ageing Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard, the ultimate self-referential movie about the cost of Hollywood stardom.

This is a series about ageing and mortality as well as celebrity and its dark aura. Lueck's use of bright colour tones, elaborate settings and exaggerated poses made me think of the more whacked-out portraits in Katy Grannan's series The Westerns. But Lueck's gaze is more sympathetic. The sense of unreality in her photographs suggests both the skewed reality of Hollywood stardom and of the lives lived in thrall to it.

Upstairs in the Archive Gallery, Parr is showing what he calls Painted Photographs, images he has amassed over the years from flea markets and second-hand shops. 'Painted' is perhaps not the right word since most of these old film stills and publicity shots have been marked in what looks like Tippex and chinagraph pencil by newspaper and magazine picture editors or printers. As time has gone by, these functional photographs, taken between the 1930s and the 1970s and often used time and again as press shots, have attained a new life as a kind of found art.

There is an old-fashioned charm to these portraits of the likes of Marilyn Monroe and Muhammad Ali, and the markings add a layer of unintended artiness that looks primitive in the era of Photoshop. Most intriguing of all, though, is the subtext: how collectors can turn almost any artefact into art, and, in doing so, alter the meaning – and the financial value – of objects that once were purely functional or even throw-away. The fetishisation of the object seems to have grown in tandem with the burgeoning of celebrity culture, and both seem to point to our increasing need to inflate the significance of the trivial and the ephemeral.


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November 11 2011

The month in photography

Audio slideshow: Our guide to the month's best photo exhibitions and books – featuring Walker Evans, Terry Richardson, Bruce Davidson and Diane Arbus



July 30 2011

Blackpool Through the Camera

Grundy Art Gallery, Blackpool

Humphrey Spender and Julian Trevelyan were among the millions of visitors to Blackpool in the summer of 1937. They were not there, though, to partake of the myriad diversions on offer along Blackpool's fabled Golden Mile, but to observe ordinary Britons at play. Spender, a documentary film-maker, and Trevelyan, a collagist, were part of a team dispatched to Blackpool by the Mass Observation project, a social research organisation set up that year by three young men, which hoped, through its many volunteers, to create, in words, photography and film, "an anthropology of ourselves".

The Mass Observation team were drawn to Blackpool because it represented an ideal of the English working class at play. As early as 1920, Blackpool was by far the most popular British seaside resort, drawing eight million people annually in the summer months. It had a famous tower, three piers, an extra-long promenade, spectacular illuminations, all manner of amusements – from fortune-tellers to fairground attractions to tattooists – as well as the country's first Pleasure Beach. It also, crucially, had the railway, which brought the holidaying hordes from the prosperous industrial towns of east Lancashire and West Yorkshire.

By the late 1950s, Blackpool was attracting an estimated 17 million visitors a year, but, as the Beatles signalled the birth of the modern pop era and swept away the last vestiges of Victorian Britain, Blackpool began its long fall from grace. The decline of traditional industries and the birth of the package tour put paid to Blackpool's long pre-eminence as Britain's most popular holiday destination.

This week, the Grundy Art Gallery in Blackpool is hosting a group photography show entitled Mass Photography: Blackpool Through the Camera. The exhibition's title, and much of its observational reportage, nods towards Spender and Trevelyan and their fly-on-the wall approach, but it adds up to nothing less than a potted social history of Blackpool though the lens of some of Britain's greatest documentary photographers, including Bert Hardy, Tony Ray-Jones, Homer Sykes, Chris Steele-Perkins and Martin Parr.

The curator of the exhibition is a German video artist, Nina Könnemann, who previously edited a catalogue about Mass Observation and became intrigued by Spender and Trevelyan's Blackpool photographs. "What they actually did was walk around a bit like a tourist and photograph and observe what they saw, rather than, say, delving behind the scenes or going a bit deeper," she says. "Their photographs are literally observational and it made me start looking at similar approaches." This, then, is Blackpool as an idea and then a brand, a place that changes but somehow stays the same, that grapples with the weight of its own – and England's – former glory.

Though the show includes some Victorian photographs, its thrust is 20th-century Blackpool. Perhaps the most absorbing set of photographs come from the collection of ephemera amassed by the late Cyril Critchlow, a magician and founder of the "Witches Kitchen", a museum-cum-theatre where he performed in the years leading up to his death, at the age of 85, in 2008. (He was celebrated in the Blackpool Gazette as "the world's oldest magician".) The photographs he collected, or possibly even took, of Blackpool in the 1970s, are extraordinary for their faded colours and sense of the town's hustle and bustle. "They were a real find," says Könnemann. "Some are almost like William Eggleston's work in their composition."

I was taken too by local photographer Geoff Buono's series about the box office on Blackpool's south pier, all of which were taken from over the shoulder of the ticket seller inside the booth who, one suspects, is a man of infinite patience. Elsewhere, the gaze is more contemplative: the greatly underrated Homer Sykes, who is best known for his often witty images of Britain's more esoteric folk traditions, catches a glum girl eating ketchup-drenched chips outside a burger stall. She is wearing a hat that says "Sex Appeal" but she exudes that almost tangible sense of stoicism that a British seaside resort on a grey day instils in even the most optimistic souls.

What emerges from most of these images, which Könnemann has chosen not to display chronologically or even thematically, is the sense that Blackpool is a place forever in thrall to its own semi-mythical past. Here, the nostalgic and the brashly new constantly collide, yet there will always be plastic bowler hats and candyfloss on sale as well as somewhere to have your fortune told.

Könnemann's own video installation, which forms a kind of contemporary coda to the exhibition, plays with Blackpool's ongoing identity crisis in the form of a film comprising edited footage culled from VHS tapes of the annual illuminations event.

"Every year the local shops sell VHS cassettes and, more recently, DVDs, of the same footage with extra material." She elaborates: "In my installation, there is a sense of this continuous, cyclical loop that suggests this strange thing that is Blackpool time. It really is a place that relies on the past so much even as it tries to reinvent and remarket itself. You sense that same feeling in the photographs, too."

The most dramatic picture of Blackpool life on display is also the most contemporary, the least nostalgic. Maciej Dakowicz is a Polish photographer best known for his garish, colour photographs of Cardiff at closing time, wherein all human life in extremis is on display. Here, he turns his outsider's eye on contemporary Blackpool in a single startling image entitled simply A Saturday Night Out in Blackpool, 2010. Freeze-framed in the pink and orange hues of the city's streetlights, four lads seem lost in some grotesque, alcohol-fuelled mime show that is both disturbing and hilarious. Here, for perhaps the only time in this illuminating show, Blackpool could be any town in Britain today. It is like a slap in the face from the present – Mass Observation with attitude.


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July 22 2011

Photobooks – affordable collectibles that are soaring in value

Rare editions now sell for tens of thousands, but collectors on a limited budget can invest in emerging photographers

At first glance they may look like overpriced coffee-table books, but photobooks are highly collectible works of art. In recent years, a boom in the market has seen prices skyrocket. At a dedicated auction at Christie's in London last year, signed early editions of influential photobooks such as Robert Frank's The Americans and Henri Cartier-Bresson's The Decisive Moment sold for £43,250 and £13,750 respectively.

The sudden surge in prices is thought to have begun with the publication of Martin Parr and Gerry Badger's lushly illustrated two-volume retrospective The Photobook: A History, in 2004. These books, along with Andrew Roth's 2001 work, The Book of 101 Books: Seminal Photographic Books of the Twentieth Century, attempted to reveal what Parr described as "the final frontier of the undiscovered". As a result, a canon of sorts was established and the values of the featured books soared.

According to Sven Becker of Christie's Books and Manuscripts, prices have risen so quickly in the last five years that values put on the more famous books have stalled. Higher prices will only be attained, he says, when the "books or copies are in perfect condition" or where they have "extraordinary things attached such as signatures and inscriptions".

Despite the scarcity of signed or inscribed books and the high plateau in prices on the seminal works, there is hope for the average collector with a modest budget. In fact, even if you're a complete novice, there is a good opportunity to combine learning about the art form with a sound piece of investing by collecting new editions.

Photobooks are expensive to produce and, while demand is too small to warrant long print runs or multiple reprints, it is large enough that the books remain desirable, soon become scarce and can eventually be very valuable. This means new editions costing between £20 and £60 can double or triple in price in as little as two to five years. In 10 or 20 years – and if the work of the photographer becomes particularly fashionable – the price may increase even more.

Jeff Ladd of the photobook blog 5B4, cites the example of John Gossage's book of gritty landscapes, The Pond. When the groundbreaking work was published in 1985, you could pick up a copy for about £20-£30, but it soon went out of print and became very scarce. Today it sells for £500-£600 via rare book trader Vincent Borrelli.

Similarly, photobooks by Bruce Davidson have become very valuable. Reprinted 2003 editions of his 1980s book Subway (see below) cost £40 on release but now sell for anywhere between £200 and £300.

If you want to pick up some books currently on the shelves that might follow this trend, William Eggleston's For Now (Twin Palms, 2010) and Before Color (Steidl, 2010) can still be found for around the £30-£40 mark; they are expected to double in value relatively quickly and perhaps even increase beyond that in years to come.

You need to look after anything you buy very carefully. Martin Amis of photobookstore.co.uk, which sells rare and limited-edition books, says books must be in perfect condition. "Blemishes or damage can knock as much as 40% of the price," he says, "which is why you have to be careful with places like Amazon who don't always package books as well as they might."

Amis, a collector himself, recommends buying from stores that specialise, straight from the publisher or from dealers you know. Other online specialists include the excellent photo-eye.com, based in Santa Fe. If you prefer to buy from a physical bookshop and can get to London, Photobooks International in Bloomsbury is a good place to rummage for used editions.

But one of the great things about photobook collecting is discovering the work of emerging photographers whose early books may become sought after. A good place to look is among the current boom in self-published titles.

Self-publishing in photography has a fine pedigree. Perhaps the greatest example is Ed Ruscha's 1963 work Twentysix Gasoline Stations (see below). More recently, Ryan McGinley's self-published 2000 debut The Kids Are Alright sold for £3,528 at Swann Galleries in New York.

"You can't go wrong if you are paying £7-£10 for something you like," says Becker, who believes these self-published books are "guaranteed to be collectible in the future".

To help you navigate the bewildering array, look at websites that collate the best of self-publishing, such as theindependentphotobook.blogspot.com, indiephotobooklibrary.org and selfpublishbehappy.com. Also, many established photographers, such as Stephen Gill, sell through their own sites. His Book of Birds, £19, or Hackney Flowers, £28, are available through Gill's own imprint Nobody and are worth a look for their uncommon detail as well as their potential collectability.

Finally, to make the most of collecting you will need to stay in the know and – most importantly – get to know what you like. Luckily, there are some excellent resources at hand. As well as Ladd's 5B4, there are blogs such as Marc Feustel's eyecurious.com, Nathalie Belayche's foodforyoureyes and the Guardian's own photo blog by Sean O'Hagan, all of which cover in depth what's new, where to go and what to see. Add to this magazines such as the British Journal of Photography, Photoworks, and Foto8 and galleries such as the Photographers' Gallery in London and the Redeye network in the north-west and you will find many opportunities to learn.

Collecting photobooks is a wonderful way to discover more about photography and build a small alternative nest egg at the same time. The only downside is that you might incur the cost of installing a sturdy set of shelves.

Where to start

The Photobook: A History Volumes 1 and 2 by Martin Parr & Gerry Badger £49.95, Phaidon; £30.40, Amazon

Published in 2001 and 2004, Martin Parr and Gerry Badger's retrospective of the history of photobooks has become hugely influential in the used photobook market. It's a good place to start learning and may even become a collectors' item itself.

New editions and reprints likely to go up

William Eggleston – Before Color £40, Steidl; £28, Amazon

Elegant edition of the eccentric American photographer's early work in black and white before he dazzled in colour. Small run and sure to be worth more than the cut-price £27.66 on Amazon in years to come, a good place to start and a unique introduction to the work of Eggleston.

Bruce Davidson – Subway £40, Aperture; £35, Amazon

Previous editions of Bruce Davidson's study of the New York subway system and its passengers have shot up in price. Gritty yet human, the highly anticipated Aperture Foundation reprint due in September is sure to fly off the shelves.

Ones to covet

Ed Ruscha – Twentysix Gasoline Stations £23,800, signed first edition, abebooks.co.uk

Regarded by some as the first "modern artist's book", pop artist Ruscha's self-published photobook consists of pictures of 26 gasoline stations taken on a trip from Los Angeles to Oklahoma. First editions in a run of 500 sold for $3.50 in 1962. At the time the minimalist imagery was shocking, but it is perhaps the price that raises eyebrows now – it can fetch between £6,000 and £12,000.

Alexey Brodovitch – Ballet £6,460, first edition, alibris.com

Legendary photobook by Harper's Bazaar designer Brodovitch whose backstage pictures of the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo, taken with limited equipment, became famous for their radical challenging of technique and powerful depiction of movement. If you can't afford the original, Errata Editions does a fantastic 2011 version for about £25.


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June 12 2011

Martin Parr's Bristol photographs to go on show in city

Insights will be highlight of first exhibition at M-Shed museum, which is based in converted 1950s goods shed

His intense, illuminating depictions of everyday life have been shown in galleries from Manhattan to Melbourne.

Now, finally, Martin Parr is exhibiting his photographs in Bristol for the first time since he moved to the city a quarter of a century ago.

A retrospective of Parr's insights into the city and surrounding areas will be a highlight of the opening season at Bristol's newest museum, M-Shed.

Based in a converted 1950s goods shed, the museum is to tell the life of the city and its people, both the world-renowned and the "ordinary" when it opens next weekend. Parr's collection of 60 photographs, shown from 31 August to 27 November, will focus on the latter category.

They include residents of prefabs, community gardeners, revellers at the St Paul's Carnival, above, Bristol's annual Caribbean street party, and swimmers plunging into the chilly waters off nearby Clevedon in Somerset.

Parr moved to Bristol in the late 1980s and began taking pictures for his collection, The Cost of Living, in which he studied the middle classes. Since then he and his camera have travelled widely but he has also continued to document life in the city, from football supporters watching last summer's World Cup on a big screen in a city square to renovation work at St Mary Redcliffe secondary school.

Parr said he was delighted that his "celebration of ordinary life" would be shown at M-Shed. An exhibition of his work was held at Bristol's Arnolfini arts centre in 1974 – but has not been on view in the city since.

"It's strange because I've had shows in perhaps 30 different countries but not in Bristol. It's nice to finally have the opportunity," he said.

Parr likes the variety to be found in Bristol, from the upmarket hilltop community of Clifton where he lives to more bohemian outposts like Stokes Croft, the scene of riots over the opening of a new Tesco in April. "I think there's a nice mix," said Parr.


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October 15 2010

Off with their heads!

Harry is a crocheted baboon, Charles is pixelated and the Queen is deep-fat fried. The palace would never commission a royal portrait from these contemporary artists, so we did the job for them ...



July 28 2010

My best shot

Celebrated photographer Martin Parr describes shooting Russia's nouveau riche at the Moscow Millionaire Fair



May 08 2010

April 27 2010

Poster politics

Artists including Richard Wentworth, Maggi Hambling and Mark Wallinger offer alternative poster designs for the general election 2010



The art of the political poster

Unimpressed by the few political posters around, we asked leading British artists to inspire us and to come up with their own creations. Jonathan Jones introduces their work

View a gallery of the artists' posters

I feel a warm, or perhaps it's a hellish-hot, nostalgia looking at the election posters designed by artists for G2. They all seem steeped in memories of Labour publicity in the 1970s and 80s, in its age of defeat. These are anti-posters, which aspire to be honest rather than glib. The tradition of the poster as contemporary art is, in fact, not Labour but Tory: it was the Saatchi & Saatchi poster "Labour isn't working" that created the whole idea of stylish, eye-catching campaigning.

There is, of course, a far older tradition of beautiful and inspiring political poster art; but there is no point here in raking over the history of the Soviet avant-garde, or of Aleksander Rodchenko's photomontages. This is a British election and these are British artists, who have rejected the Saatchi tendency towards killer publicity in favour of recapturing the intense emotions of us-and-them, of anger and loyalty, that Labour adverts inspired 25 years ago.

Back then, Labour was a tribe, and nothing captures the tribal feelings it must now fall back on better than David Shrigley's brilliant drawing of Gordon Brown: not so much a caricature as a delve into the primitive roots of political loyalty. As for the alternative, Jeremy Deller has portrayed a Conservative vote with the caustic accuracy that does what a campaigning poster should – it campaigns. But are there really no Tory artists? Tracey Emin, who has made positive noises about Cameron and shadow arts minister Ed Vaizey, has not yet launched a Tory manifesto policy, but you'd think she could at least do a slogan for them: "Labour isn't fucking working", perhaps. Nor is there a strong Liberal sentiment –unless Goshka Macuga is sending us a subliminal Clegg message.

These posters are the only things I have seen in the course of this entire election that capture the way I feel. Most of the artists are of my generation, in their 40s, and remember the reality of Tory rule. Shrigley speaks viscerally for the tribe: re-elect our leader Gordon Brown.

Martin Parr

I took this photograph at the St Pauls carnival in Bristol last summer, which is like a mini-version of the Notting Hill carnival. In a picture as busy as this, there will often be somebody or something that doesn't quite work: I like the fact that all the people are there and it works. The crowd is predominantly African-Caribbean, with a few white English people watching with their cameras, as I was, so it's almost like a self-portrait without me in it.

I chose "Vote for Britain" rather than any particular party because that's the whole point. This is neutral and ambiguous and loaded. What does it mean to me? Well, I quite like Britain, of course, and one of the reasons I like taking photographs in Britain is that it challenges my own feelings about it: it's not all good and not all bad; there are things I like and things I don't. I'm soft left and I live in a marginal seat, Bristol West. I vote tactically, so I'll probably vote Lib Dem.

Mark Wallinger

We have been through quite a few campaigns without memorable slogans now. Everyone harks back to the Saatchis' "Labour isn't working", but that was 1978. As a lifelong Labour person, through all the party's vicissitudes and disappointments, I was intrigued by the possibility of a campaign that revealed some of the bigger fault lines between the parties, beyond the not-very-galvanising debate over national insurance and VAT. I came up with two other slogans apart from this: "What school did you go to?" and "Who can afford to go private?"

I admit this isn't the most sophisticated, but it does go to the heart of the credibility of the man. Cameron reminds me of a bar of soap. He has been leader for a long time now and I have no idea what he stands for. I hope that the idea of the emperor's new clothes and all his empty rhetoric is implicit. The colours are those of the two main parties, and the union flag; I wanted it to be punchy.

I hope people look at this and see that there are real choices. I'm sick of people saying, "Oh, they're all the same." They're not, and it's up to us to see the differences. Labour is the party for equality and for reform in the Lords. Like most people I feel a little jaded after the banking crisis, but I will vote Labour and hope for the best.

They're a po-faced lot, though, aren't they? Let's hope someone in the campaign discovers a bit of wit: a good joke does hit home. Roy Hattersley was a wit, Robin Cook, Tony Benn – the people on the old left who can see the bigger picture. Though I did like Ken Clarke's description of the Hoon/Hewitt attempted leadership coup earlier this year: hiding behind the dagger and stabbing with the cloak. That was very good.

David Shrigley

When I'm drawing people, I tend to do it really quickly – sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. Nick Clegg is not easy to draw because you'd be hard pushed to think of anything physically defining about him. The only one I seem to be able to draw is David Cameron: I trace his face, then I make his features smaller in Photoshop and that seems to work. I drew Gordon Brown and it started to look like him the more I looked at it.

Historically I have voted Labour, but not since the Iraq war – I couldn't countenance that. I would never vote Conservative. This poster doesn't express my strong personal support, although of the three of them, I would like Brown to win. Originally the background was yellow, because I like black on yellow, but then I realised yellow was the Lib Dem colour. So I've gone for a rosy red, a kind of New New Labour red. The words say "re-elect", although he wasn't elected as leader, as such. I like the ambiguity.

Bob and Roberta Smith

I don't want to tell people how to vote. The important thing is just to get involved in the whole jamboree – by voting, yes, but also by finding satirical messages to deface posters with, like the person who turned David Cameron into Elvis. If my own poster goes viral, so much the better. It's made up of four timber panels. On the upper panels are pictures of some of my Labour heroes: Clement Attlee, Tony Benn, Glenda Jackson, Bernie Grant – people with extraordinary vision. I put them there to remind me why I'm a Labour supporter. I stopped voting Labour after the Iraq war, and started voting Green. But I'm going to vote Labour in this election. I'm particularly impressed with Ed Miliband's stand on green issues: he could turn out to be in the same category as these heroes. Cameron just reminds me of a disappointed school master, lecturing his students about their stupid antics.

Gerald Scarfe

They're both crap, I suppose that's what I'm saying. If you go to the extreme and call them shits, that's probably not so nice. But I'm saying, really, voters have a crap choice. You would assume Cameron would be ahead, because he is new, and a change, and hasn't made all the mistakes Brown has, but he isn't and the election is very close. The caricature must come from the character of the person. I wasn't a supporter of Margaret Thatcher but she was good material, because she had such a strong personality. I could portray her as a knife or an axe; I couldn't do that with John Major or Iain Duncan Smith. I used to find drawing Brown quite dull because he's a dour personality – a big blob with ears. I draw Cameron in his Bullingdon outfit, because he's so desperate not to appear to be a toff. How daft does he think we are? My position as a cartoonist/journalist for all these years has been to try to remain neutral and to attack all sides, because they are all capable of fallibility. I know this is a bit of a cop out but here I'm saying, I don't know who to vote for. Like I say, it's a crap choice.

Richard Wentworth

There are people who are obsessive about being born under a certain star sign, and those who believe you can only be born when you're born: that that was your time, that only those people could be your parents. I didn't want to leave people with the cheesiness of a bad joke about "labour", but I did want to remind people that they are born into a political space. I worked with some lovely designers who made this look as if it has been around for ever. The font is reminiscent of those Keep Calm and Carry On posters – it's of that period. The red wasn't a conscious decision in terms of "Labour red", just a happy accident; red goes in the eye quickly. I would love to see it reproduced very big. If people look at it and go "What does that mean?", that's good.

Jeremy Deller

This poster is anti-Conservative rather than pro-Labour. Rupert Murdoch is the most powerful lobbyist there is in this country, so I'm drawing attention to the fact that a vote for the Tories is a vote for him. If I'd made a poster for the last election, it would have looked almost the same, except it would have said "Vote Labour" next to a picture of George Bush – Bush was so close to Blair. This time around, it's Murdoch who counts for the Tories, even more than David Cameron or any other Tory politician. It's a small poster, so it could be used as a bumper sticker on a car. But I'd love to see it blown up on a massive billboard. The posters and adverts Labour are using for this election are terrible; it's as if they haven't put any thought into them at all, just sent them to the newspapers to grab that day's headlines.

Yinka Shonibare

This slogan doesn't refer to politicians: I want people to vote for me. My party is the Me party. It's not registered yet, though. I'm just celebrating the fact that, in this democratic system, anyone can stand. I like me, you see, so I assume everyone else will. People think politicians like to be the centre of attention, but artists are worse. So I'm poking fun at artists, too. They are not rosettes – they are flowers made from African textiles, in the colours of the three main parties. Flowers are attractive, whereas political posters are rarely well done. And even when they are, they're still knocking or negative. I think politicians are only interested in power and lining their own pockets. But I have always voted; who for is my own business. When I was a child in Nigeria, a military regime was in charge. There were soldiers everywhere and there was no question of voting. It started to feel normal. That's why I value the vote.

Goshka Macuga

I made this with the designer Fraser Muggeridge. It's double-sided: the "Left Right Forward" panel is the front, and the blue side is the reverse, printed on the kind of thin, textured underlay that is used underneath billboard posters to make them look opaque. I wanted to think about a political poster as a physical object, rather than just an image.

The front reflects the confused picture we have of UK politics right now. I have mixed feelings about Labour, especially regarding the war in Iraq, and the fact that what people really felt about it wasn't taken into consideration. But I'm also concerned about what a Conservative government would mean for arts funding. It seems like the two parties have merged into one: whether you vote for the left or the right adds up to much the same thing.

But without voting, you have no control. So the quote on the back of the poster is to remind us about the roots of democracy. It's from a speech Pericles made to the Athenians during the Peloponnesian wars. He's speaking about the impossibility of doing justice to the brave men who have lost their lives in the war – something that resonates with the war in Iraq. But he's also reminding us of the respect given in Athens to those involved in politics, something that today we have all but lost.

Maggi Hambling

Every morning I paint the sea, and I am always reminded of how remarkably small I am. It is a very humbling experience, and I think a bit of humility wouldn't go amiss with our politicians. So I've chosen the sea to remind politicans about the bigger picture: nature, and the way it is taking its revenge – through climate change, through volcanic eruptions, through coastal erosion. They could all do with thinking more about that, and less about political bitching and wrangling. All artists are anarchists at heart – at least, they are if they're any good. So I've chosen red – the colour of anarchy, along with black – for the quotation, which curves and curls across the sea picture like a wave. It's from Julius Caesar, one of Shakespeare's most political plays, and seems particularly appropriate at this moment. It reminds us that everything is about timing: the Falklands war was crucial to Mrs Thatcher's success, and now the changes in nature and climate are defining the issues for this election.

I vote in London, where my MP is Labour's wonderful Kate Hoey. She is pro-hunting, as am I, so she'll be getting my vote.

Maggi Hambling: New Sea Sculpture, Paintings and Etchings is at Marlborough Fine Art, London W1, from 5 May to 5 June.

Liam Gillick

As with all my art, I went back to the source: in this case, the Labour party's own website. "The democratic socialist party" is the phrase it still uses to describe itself, though you'd be hard pushed to recognise that in the way the party talks about itself today.

I find it perverse that Labour is shying away from its own legacy. There are lots of aspects of its current policies – the new tax rate, the investment in public spending – that fit with these core values. I hope my poster reminds politicians and voters alike of that.

With its strong Helvetica font, the poster is nostalgic: it reminds me of growing up in the 1970s, when Labour was in crisis, and you could recognise every Labour family in the street from their bold posters: they really stood out. Campaign posters have become nasty and cynical, taking their cue from the Saatchis' for the Tories, which were more about people than policies. Ironic, postmodern posters are not what we need: the most important thing is to remind voters what the party stands for, and to encourage them to vote.

Alison Jackson

I've been shooting a whole series of photographs, and working on some web video clips, during this election. Nick Clegg wasn't hard to cast: he's quite a normal-looking guy and there are quite a few people who can look like him. But a good Gordon Brown has been impossible to find: I held casting sessions all over England and Scotland, scouring areas where there might be someone who looked like him. He's a big man, so I focused on places where people eat a lot, in Scotland particularly, but no one wanted to put themselves forward. I put five casting directors on it, and they were practically in tears: they had never experienced anything like it. I've found one, and he's reasonably good in profile, but there's only one side that works. Cameron I'm still working on: in his case, there are lots who will put themselves forward, but I'm still looking for the perfect one.

During the first TV debate it was striking how much Brown was trying to align himself with Clegg. I wondered what might be happening behind the scenes, and came up with these scenarios: Clegg and Brown celebrating, Brown letting Clegg try out the prime minister's chair. And I'm very interested in Mandelson and his role: what a comeback, having parted ways with Brown – now he's here to help. You just never know what people are planning.

The works by Bob and Roberta Smith, Antony Gormley, Jeremy Deller, Mark Wallinger, Liam Gillick and Richard Wentworth form part of the Make a Mark project in aid of the Labour Party. For more details and to download your own copies visit makeamark.org.uk


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April 05 2010

The Polaroid revival

Thanks to the Impossible Project, run by three Polaroid enthusiastists, the beauty and banality of film that 'develops in the palm of your hand' is being kept alive

The Impossible Project took its name from a quote by Edwin Land, the man credited with the invention of instant photography. "Don't undertake a project", Land once said, "unless it is manifestly important and nearly impossible".

Land co-founded the Polaroid Corporation in 1937 and his film became so successful that by the 1960s, it was estimated that about half of all American households owned a Polaroid camera. In 2007, though, when digital technology had made the mobile phone most people's instant camera of choice, the Polaroid Corporation announced that it had stopped manufacturing instant cameras. The following year, it stopped producing instant film. The final batch expired in November of last year and it seemed as if Polaroid film had finally gone the way of the cassette tape and the seven-inch single.

Enter the Impossible Project. Founded by Florian Kaps, an Austrian businessman, and Andre Bosman, the former head engineer of a large Polaroid plant in the Netherlands. When I spoke to Marlene Kelnreiter, the spokeswoman for the Impossible Project on behalf of the Observer in September, she pointed out that annual sales of Polaroid film were around the 10m mark when the company ended production, and that the project would be reinventing instant film for an existing "huge global niche market". It still sounded like a tall order, though.

A couple of weeks ago, a package from the Impossible Project landed on my desk. It contained the first two Impossible instant films: the extravagantly named PX 100 Silver Shade/First Flush and the PX 600 Silver Shade/First Flush. They certainly looked good in their minimal and stylish packaging.

The accompanying press release says: "Impossible's new PX Instant Films are dedicated to all the people who feel a similar passion for the magic of analog Instant Photography as we do. Carefully manufactured to develop slowly in the palm of the hand, PX Silver Shade Films are monochromatic Instant Films that are designed for usage with traditional Polaroid cameras." Initial reactions to the quality of the film that develops slowly in the palm of your hand have been mixed, though, with many bloggers noting that its does not perform well in cold weather and that the end results look, as one user put it, even more "old-timey" than the Polaroid film. Gone are the telltale yellow tones of the old film, replaced by a silvery sepia hue that looks darkly opaque to the point of ghostly.

Given the right kind of marketing – "The film that develops in the palm of your hand!" – the Impossible instant film will probably succeed, but the bigger question underlying all this techo-primitive innovation is, why do so many of us long for the Polaroid in all its clunky, clumsy, grainy old-fashionedness? Is it, as Martin Parr has suggested, just another kind of "processed nostalgia" and, if so, why do we not settle for the online digital trickery of Poladroid.net, where you can turn your digital images into "Polaroid-like pictures", or the iPhone Hipstamatic App – "Digital Photography Never Looked So Analog".

The answer, I suspect, is to do with the kind of demands a Polaroid camera makes on the user, which are manifestly not the same kind of demands a digital camera makes. One is big, hands-on, clunky, somewhat difficult and, even in an expert's hands, can be hit-and-miss. The other is streamlined, compact, easy, and relatively fail-safe in terms of the end results – you shoot and delete until you capture the image you want. One is somehow "authentic", the other is arguably even more so but does not carry the weight of the relatively recent, thus overly fetishised, pop-cultural past. (Apple understand this but overstate it with their too-knowing Hipstamatic pitch: "Mod Out Your Camera at the HipstaMart." Puh-lease!)

Much, too has been made of what Kelnreiter termed "the beautiful and poetic" nature of the Polaroid image that seems suited to capturing the overlooked beauty and poetry of the everyday, even the banal. Great photographers, from Robert Frank to Robert Mapplethorpe, have made Polaroid pictures that have utilised the limits of the form as a discipline in itself. (Frank famously scratched and wrote over the images in an attempt to capture what he felt, rather than what he saw.)

Interestingly, too, Andy Warhol and Andrei Tarkovsky used Polaroids, one to capture celebrity in all its hollow, brash, trashy transience, the other to convey the intimacy and melancholy beauty of things; what you might call the being thereness that the best Polaroid pictures capture. The Polarioid was all things to all photographers.

Then again, even the most basic mobile phone camera can do something similar with the right light and shade. Indeed, Joel Sternfeld's latest book echoes the Polaroid books of old in so far as it comprises his mobile phone shots of the shopping malls and consumers of Dubai. It is called iDubai and announces the coming of the phoneur – the photographer as flaneur, forever walking and shooting and, if he has time, daydreaming.

Meanwhile, Polaroid recently announced its onward march into the digitalised future by hiring the ubiquitous Lady Gaga as a "creative director". She has, in her own words, "been developing prototypes in the vein of fashion/technology/photography innovation, blending the iconic history of Polaroid and instant film with the digital era". What that means is anyone's guess but Gaga also posted a photograph of herself on Twitter holding up a Polaroid business card bearing her new title. Compositionally, it looked like an old-fashioned, swiftly taken Polaroid self-portrait – the card obscured the top half of her face – but it was too sharp, too artfully rough and ready to be the real thing. It made me wonder who the Impossible Project could hire as the face of their new analog instant photograph range? Fleet Foxes? Bonnie Prince Billy? Laura Marling? Or, maybe a still-influential cult figure from the not-too-distant past – Alex Chilton, Laura Nyro, Nick Drake …?

Now see this

Robert Adams describes himself as "a palmist" rather than a prophet. He has been photographing America's disappearing wildernesses for several decades. In his new book, Gone? (Steidl £44) he revisits with his camera the rural walks he took as a boy. The result, as ever, is a series of understated and compelling black and white landscapes where the destructive presence of destructive humans is hinted at rather than spelt out.


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January 09 2010

How the other half lives

As a photographer, Martin Parr has been criticised for mocking the working classes. Here, he turns his camera on the filthy rich



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