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May 27 2012

Beneath the surface: Steve Bloom's portraits of Apartheid

In the 1970s Steve Bloom recorded the everyday inequities of apartheid. A new exhibition shows the day-to-day reality of this lost and unlamented world

The screams from my neighbour's flat woke me in the early hours. The sound I remember, intense today as it was 35 years ago, was a woman's shrill voice crying out, "Leave me alone! I'll do what I like with my body!" Through my kitchen window I saw two policemen dragging a black woman in nightclothes along the passageway, closely followed by my white neighbour who was frogmarched by the two remaining policemen. Under the apartheid system, interracial sex was illegal.

During the 1970s I worked for Nasionale Tydskrifte, which printed many of South Africa's top fashion magazines, and employed mixed-race people, who were obliged to enter the building through a separate doorway. I felt discomforted by the unearned rights assured by my white skin. I spent my weekends in the streets with my 35mm camera looking for something, though I never quite knew what: a confrontation with that particular time and place, an antidote to my working world of seamless commercial images. With no formal training, I approached the project as a fresh-faced amateur.

On my way home from work each day I passed a group of bergies – homeless street dwellers. Many were addicted to methylated spirits: cheap industrial alcohol that causes blindness and shortens life expectancy. Bergies were regarded as invisible by most people; stepped around, avoided at all costs. I photographed them, some very directly, trying to capture their sense of hopelessness. I visited Crossroads squatter camp, where thousands of families had set up home in defiance of the Group Areas Act forbidding migrant workers from living with their families. During the day, the authorities routinely demolished homes and terrorised the population.

It is impossible to escape the agenda of the photographer with an individual story to tell. I sought to capture a sense of alienation that may well have been a reflection of my own estrangement from the society in which I lived.

Beneath the Surface, an exhibition of Steve Bloom's photographs of mid-70s South Africa, is at the Guardian Gallery, Kings Place, London N1, 1-28 June ( © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

May 26 2012

The big picture: Salford, Manchester, June 1977

Next week will see thousands of royal jubilee street parties up and down the country. This is how they did it 35 years ago in Stowell Street…

For most of us, after a lifetime of being reigned over, monarchy means matriarchy. The Queen is supposed to be the mother of us all, although, not having done well with her personal brood, she has never seemed eager to clasp the rest of us to her bosom. Instead of a hug we have made do with the distant wave of a gloved hand and a grimly stoical smile. Here, on the day of an earlier jubilee in 1977, she has deputies who do the job more enthusiastically and demonstrate the truth of the metaphor on which the Queen's sovereignty depends. Yes, the nation truly is a family, presided over by a supply of mums as endless as the tapering perspective of that table in the street.

Aprons on, trays in hand, they perform their primal task, which is to serve up cakes and stand guard while they are eaten. Dads are not much in evidence: apart from a few stragglers they have no doubt taken cover in the pub on the corner. Seated at the table are the heirs apparent, mostly princesses, wearing temporary tiaras and crowns of paper. Freud spoke of "His Majesty the Child", a brat whose every screeching whim is catered to by sycophantic parents; here the scene is less neurotic, and the young absolutists, with grown-ups stationed behind their chairs like courtiers, gaze at the banquet without gobbling it up.

Perhaps it's the fixity of the photograph, which has stopped time and deferred the grubby business of eating, but it looks as solemnly ritualistic as any state occasion. The point is not the food; what matters is the long sacramental table with its pristine white cloth, connecting past, present and future as it stretches the length of the street. The contentment captured here is as dated as the clothes – bell-bottoms, over-decorated sweaters – and the floppy haircuts.

A street party will be happening outside my front door in London next weekend. The neighbours have laid on DJs and promise dance lessons; the invitation dismissively advises you to bring your own food. The idea seems to be to go clubbing in the daylight, so it will be noisy but not convivial. Those who live here are unneighbourly, unrooted strangers, not stable families, and any cakes consumed here are bought not home-made.

Instead, I'll probably go for an imaginary walk down this street in Salford, towards a vanishing point lost in the blitz of flapping flags. That is why photographs exist – to remind us that once upon a time we were happy. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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March 31 2012

Who Are You, Polly Maggoo? 1966

William Klein's first movie, a gleeful satire on the fashion industry, underlined his reputation as a brilliant, iconoclastic photographer

William Klein is one of the giants of post-war photography: his vibrant pictorial essays on cities like Rome, Tokyo and New York are among the most influential photobooks of the 20th century. Last week it was announced that he will be honoured as the recipient of the outstanding contribution to photography category in the 2012 Sony World Photography Awards.

Klein, 83, initially trained as a painter under Fernand Léger in Paris in the 1950s, before relocating to New York and, despite having no formal training, landed a job as a fashion photographer at American Vogue. There he earned a reputation as an iconoclast, using a wide-angled lens to often surreal effect and introducing movement and energy in the form of blurred motion into his street shoots.

His time at Vogue was the inspiration for his first feature film, Who Are You, Polly Maggoo? released in 1966, from which this still is taken. The film is a gleeful satire of the fashion industry starring Dorothy McGowan, a model who, legend has it, was discovered by a fashion scout among a crowd of teenagers awaiting the arrival of the Beatles at Kennedy Airport. Grayson Hall shines as the brilliantly bitchy Miss Maxwell, a magazine editor based on Diana Vreeland.

Other films followed, including the anti-imperialist Mr Freedom and an acclaimed documentary, Muhammad Ali, the Greatest. Klein returned to photography in the 1980s, but it is his earlier books, most notably Life is Good & Good For You In New York, that endure.

In October, there will be a chance to see his work in an exhibition at London's Tate Modern. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

'Another Marianne Faithfull lives inside my head'

The veteran singer on her new role as art curator, the Rolling Stones, and 'the Fabulous Beast'

You are curating an art exhibition at Tate Liverpool this month, DLA Piper Series: Innocence and Experience. Your connection with that city goes back to childhood?

I was there until I was six, so it was very formative, at least if you believe the Jesuits. I remember a lot of it, particularly my mother taking me to the docks to show me the big American liners; she would say to me: "That way is America." Which set something up for me for sure. I played Liverpool a lot as a performer on tour. And when I was there I would go to the Walker Art Gallery; I remember seeing Millais's wonderful Ophelia there [at an exhibition in 1967].

You put together the show with John Dunbar, your first husband, who ran the Indica gallery in Soho in the 60s…

The person who first showed me how to look at pictures was John, when he was at Cambridge and doing his degree. We went to Rome and Florence together. We spent a lot of afternoons in the Tate and the National back then. And so we had a fabulous time going through the Tate archives for this show.

The idea is that it almost becomes an autobiographical sketch of you?

What I hope people will be seeing is something like the inside of my head.

What will they see there? We have some wonderful William Blakes, Newton sitting on what looks like the moon. Blake was a guiding spirit for me for a long, long time. My father gave me Songs of Innocence and of Experience when I was a child, which gave me the title for one of my albums. I went on living by Blake.

I always liked that fragment of his : "What is the price of experience…?"

Yes, and, "The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom." I'm not sure if I believe that any more. Is it true? It might be. He had vision. I am not in any way a visionary like that. I'm more a channel.

The exhibition will also include Richard Hamilton's picture of Mick Jagger and Robert Fraser's 1967 drug bust, Swingeing London. You were there, of course. Does that feel like another life?

It is all very present. I look at the picture every day. I've been so glad Richard gave it to me. It has helped me a lot to see that period as art, rather than just personal trauma. I read a lot of books about those times, and these days they seem to be viewed as a disaster. I don't see it that way at all, though for me personally they were pretty rough.

Did you read Keith Richards's memoir?

I did. And I loved it. It rang true as Keith. Not that I agree with everything in it. Strangely, I am going to New York to do, among other things, a tribute show to the Rolling Stones at Carnegie Hall. With Ronnie Spector and Steve Earle and others. I will sing "Sister Morphine" at the very end.

Do you have any qualms about being in a Stones' tribute show?

Not really. There was a time I resented it because I felt I could have done anything, and just to be perceived as the creation of the Rolling Stones irritated me immensely. But there are worse things to be seen as, I suppose.

Things that seem tragic dramas when you are young seem less so when you look back?

Yes, you have to remember I was a completely insecure, self-centred, highly ambitious little girl.

Which period of your life do you think of as the happiest?

My childhood, and now. Because I have mastery. I am not drinking and not using drugs.

Do you have a religious impulse?

I do have a strong sense of God. It's impossible to explain what I mean when I say that, of course. I have to have a sense of something greater than myself to be able to stay sober. I have been in the programme for23 years but I am not 23 years sober. But I can't feel that it is all down to me, no.

You are a grandmother now?

I am. I'm 65. I have to take a lot more trouble physically. Before I spoke to you I did my 15 minutes on the treadmill. That's something I wouldn't have ever imagined. I do yoga. I do tai chi. I do a lot to keep my body and my spirit together so I can work. In the autumn I take up a position in Linz at the Opera House for three months, doing Brecht's Seven Deadly Sins, with full ballet costumes, everything.

Which of the sins do you feel you have explored most fully?

I've had a go at most, but in this piece Brecht turns them all upside down, so that lust becomes love. Pride becomes pride in your work. Envy is actually the hardest sin to make positive.

You have had more than your share of the male gaze over the years. Do you feel a bit liberated from that now?

I tried to ignore it most of the time. It's a mixed blessing but I do feel a bit liberated, although I make a great effort for my shows. A great effort to be Marianne Faithfull.

She's a creation as much as anything?

It is actually my name. It is me. But it hasn't felt like me for a long time. What has happened in the past 10 years or so, and what has been my goal for as long as I can remember, is to bring me and Marianne Faithfull into some semblance of harmony. It was her doing drugs and drinking, her inside my head, so it has been tough. The Fabulous Beast, that's what I call her.

Is that Fabulous Beast still whispering to you?

Less so. But she is very naughty. And doesn't believe anything of what I tell her is good for us. She just laughs at all that. She is not evil. She is naughty, and I shouldn't listen to her. I just have to be very careful all the time.

DLA Piper Series: Innocence and Experience – curated by Marianne Faithfull is at Tate Liverpool from 21 April to 2 September © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

December 11 2011

Tim Hetherington remembered by Idil Ibrahim

The Oscar-nominated film-maker and photojournalist was a noble, brilliant man who lived live to the full, writes his girlfriend, film-maker Idil Ibrahim

It is hard to believe just a few months ago, Tim and I were beaming with joy on the red carpet at the Oscars both in a state of awe. "Don't worry," Tim said, holding me closer after not winning his category for best documentary film, "I have my Oscar right here." These last few months have been a far cry from career highs and red carpet events and have been replaced by a whirlwind of honorary awards ceremonies, articles, and exhibitions in Tim's honour, all of which are very touching, but painful reminders of this new reality of a world without him.

Despite the fact that much of his work took him to risky places, Tim was no daredevil. He was very measured in his approach to work and always concerned for safety. He thought at worst he might get kidnapped just as his colleagues had months before. That's what we both thought. We never imagined death.

We met in late 2009 at a screening for a film I'd worked on as a producer, and we immediately connected as we both shared a passion for social issues. We started conversing and discovered that I'd seen some of his incredible footage from the Liberian civil war – I was incredulous and could not believe he'd filmed it. We shared an awkward laugh though the subject matter was far from comedic. We started as friends and started dating the following year. It was a beautiful romance. There is so much I miss, though I suppose I miss our shared laughter the most, far from any glitzy event or awards ceremony.

Tim was incredibly thoughtful. When travelling, he was always in constant contact through Skype, email or the photos he would send me from his iPhone. When he returned home to New York, where we both lived, he'd bring me gifts from around the world. Tim had a way of defying time and distance so that we never felt apart.

He was much more than a brilliant conflict photographer. He was an artist. He experimented with multimedia, wrote, and created provocative and gut-wrenching films such as Restrepo [an award-winning documentary about a US platoon in Afghanistan]. Incredibly well read, he was always thinking very creatively about different ways to approach his work.

He was tender and nurturing to those around him too. I remember a time when he was exhausted from weeks of travel for Restrepo and barely had time to eat or sleep. One day he had back-to-back interviews; however, he also promised to have a Skype call with a young photography student from Birmingham and agreed to participate in an interview for an online magazine. Tim worked his entire schedule so that he could fulfil both obligations.

I not only mourn the loss of Tim, but I mourn the loss of our future together. I mourn for the plans we had. I mourn for the children we will never have, the long list of places we will never visit together and the things we will never do. Although my heart is broken, I try to take some comfort in knowing that he was killed doing what he loved most, in a place he wanted to be.

Tim was incredibly honest, respectful and full of integrity. He believed in not compromising his ideals and in testing himself and his boundaries so that he could truly be free and live life to the fullest, and he encouraged me to do the same. He was by far the most brilliant person I have known. Tim's work is about trying to build bridges and understanding between people. In light of our current global social, political, environmental and economic climate, his death has caused me to pause and reflect on steps I can take to effect change in my own way, on any scale, to ease human suffering in the world. © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Lucian Freud remembered by Sally Clarke

For 15 years, the great artist took breakfast and lunch at Sally Clarke's cafe-restaurant. Here, she recalls the man she fed… and eventually sat for

Mr Freud started coming to the little cafe at the back of my shop about 15 years ago. I didn't know it then, but he worked close by in a studio in Holland Park, so we were quite convenient for him. Soon after this, he bought a house a few doors along the street from us and from then on became more and more of a regular. He would come for breakfast and lunch often, bringing with him whoever he was working with at the time – Leigh Bowery, Kate Moss, David Hockney.

There came a time, however, when I realised that there was a risk that he might be bothered in the cafe, so I decided to offer him a table in the restaurant, which was empty at that time of day, and at the same time I could make sure that he was somewhat "wrapped in cotton wool". I should say that he never asked for this special treatment.

If David Dawson, his studio assistant and model, was with him, breakfast tended to be centred around a pile of newspapers – but he would be perfectly happy by himself. What he ate for breakfast with us changed over the years, but it was Earl Grey tea in the beginning with milk and a huge pain aux raisins – the size of a saucer – which he devoured easily. As the years went on, he graduated to coffee, a sort of latte which we called a Mr Freud latte, being even milkier than normal.

Often, he would invite me to join him and David – I loved watching him enjoy the little Portuguese custard tarts that we make. He had a very sweet tooth. Sometimes, he would consume a whole bar of our homemade nougat – at breakfast time! Occasionally, I'd make him scrambled eggs with toast; at weekends, he would come in for brunch.

For lunch, he would always choose fish – whichever fish was on the menu. He was very interested in food and I think he was a good cook himself. He loved game and I remember one day Brigadier Parker Bowles brought him some partridge from the weekend shoot and he threw them straight into the oven and ate them the following day.

The first time we spoke properly was soon after he had moved house. He came to the restaurant one afternoon and asked to see me. He told me that he was having problems with his neighbours and wanted some planning permission advice. I'm not sure why he asked me, but what struck me more than anything, aside from just how charming, polite and lovely he was, was his German accent. It was dramatic – very guttural and individual.

I sat for him for three works. For the first painting, David Dawson asked to see me alone at my restaurant one morning. "Lucian is wondering if you would like to sit for him." This came as an enormous shock, but a few months later I was sitting in one of the most famous chairs in the world, looking through tall, wide French windows, into and over buddleia, bamboo hedges, a fig tree and bay trees. I had somehow imagined the house to be filled with music, but other than an abundance of sweet-smelling flowers, the house was filled with silence, concentration, thinking and looking – intent looking.

Within a short time, I learned the signals he gave; his hand moved to the top of his head equalled "move the top of your head over a fraction". His hand sweeping in front like an elegant tennis forehand meant "adjust the angle of your head very slightly". It was about detail, detail, detail. For such fine work, of face, hair or eyelid, the brush size seemed huge and yet the strokes on the canvas were light, delicate and few.

I had planned to spend my "sitting" time writing future menus in my head, checking my diary or making "to do" lists during the rest periods, but I soon realised that I was wishing to work as hard, and as intensely, as he was. This was a partnership: one giving and the other taking, but that taking was also giving – giving his all, and in return for the sitter's giving, a most special, unique and privileged experience was received.

The painting was finished three years ago, and very soon after this I sat for what was to be an etching, but he decided to keep drawing and drawing on the plate instead, so it was never etched. Then he started on another head and shoulder painting on canvas, which was about half finished, I think, when we stopped working, only a few weeks before his death.

Of course I miss him. I got very used to seeing him every day. Arriving in the morning, I would often walk past the restaurant and see him through the window, already sitting having breakfast and he would wave with his arms high above his head. © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

November 27 2011

Brian Sewell: 'You know you're queer at a very early age'

The art critic talks about his autobiography, modern artists and an incident in Salvador Dalí's garden

You have just written your memoir, Outsider, at the age of 80. What took you so long?

I thought at 60 it would have been impertinent. When 80 got into view, I thought: now is the time for it. It came fairly quickly. There's an awful lot there, although really it's only half an autobiography – it goes up to 1967 when I was 36.

Do you feel like an outsider?

Yes I do. The subtitle – Always Almost: Never Quite – really sums it up, but it's too long to go on the spine of a book. And every bit of my life, whether it's in the first half or the second, is precisely that: there is promise of something that I never quite achieve.

You were taught by the double agent Anthony Blunt at the Courtauld and later became his close friend but he isn't mentioned.

It's my biography. If I want to write a book about Anthony, I will write a book about Anthony but, you know, this is about me.

As art critic for the London Evening Standard, you're famed for your acerbic views. What is the worst piece of art you've ever seen?

Well, there's so much of it. It's when the definition of art runs out and there is still stuff being produced. When Tracey Emin makes a neon sign, that's not the "worst art", it just isn't art. When Anish Kapoor puts some wonky Meccano structure up at the expense of £16m for the Olympics, that's a joke, that isn't art.

When you write a scathing review, are you aware you might be hurting someone's feelings and do you mind?

I am and I don't. Hurting their feelings may be the only way in which they can be made to realise how preposterous they are and so I think that Tracey Emin and Grayson Perry and Damien Hirst and Anish Kapoor and whoever else, um, really deserve every cruelty because it's the only way. They are so accustomed to being told how wonderful they are and somehow it's impossible to get through the complacency that is engendered by that.

Can people hurt your feelings?



Oh, by mistaking what I do for some sort of pretence, some sort of show… I'm often accused by people who should know better of trying to be academically clever. To that the answer is that I think I am academically clever and I'm not trying. But if I see something which is intellectually uncomfortable of course I pick on it.

You are famed for your exquisite diction. Are you fed up with people saying you're posher than the Queen?

Yes, I think it's rather silly. It's the way I speak, it's the way I've always spoken, it's the way my mother spoke. It would have been totally unremarkable in the 1930s. It was until quite recently and then suddenly speaking as I do became unfashionable and the subject of mockery. What do they expect me to do – change?

Do you get recognised on public transport?

Yes. I got on a bus to get from Green Park to the Royal Academy, which is only one stop. Someone turned round and said: "What are you doing on a bus?" and it was so accusatory I felt quite guilty. Fortunately, I had to get off at once, so – fine.

Your book deals with your time in national service. Did you enjoy it?

I thoroughly enjoyed it. There were beastly episodes, but it was a very useful experience in terms of dealing with other people.

There's an awful lot of sex in your memoir…

It's disastrously frank. I'm toying with the idea of leaving the country. I have a clique of old ladies [laughs] and I hope to God that they don't read the book because I'm sure that they will all run away, horrified. But it did seem to me that if I was going to write the damn book, I should be absolutely, scrupulously honest. There are still hundreds and hundreds of young homosexuals saying: "I can't tell my mother." And I thought that talking about my own homosexuality, how it began and how it developed, might be useful to somebody.

When did you know you were gay?

It's been there all the time; you know you're queer at a very early age. I think I knew it when I was six. There was just a sort of awareness growing quite swiftly into a conviction.

Is it true Salvador Dalí once asked you to masturbate for him while he took photographs?

Yes it's absolutely true [laughs]. Well, you do things because you can. He took me into the garden at the house at Cadaqués. He said: "I want to show you my Christ [sculpture]." And his Christ is an extraordinary thing: 60 or 70ft long and it's made of bricks and broken rubble and motorcar tyres. It's really quite clever. Um, and you step over it and walk about in it and then he just said: "I want to take a photograph. Lie down." Which I did in all my clothes and he said: "It might be better if you took your clothes off." And from there… And you know, I'm convinced I wasn't the first. I certainly wasn't the last and there was no film in the camera but it seemed grudging to refuse.

That's quite an anecdote.

Yes but there are probably men of my age now all over Germany, Switzerland, Spain, America, Canada and God knows where all telling the same story. Wankers for Dalí.

In the past, you've stated that there are no great female artists. Do you honestly believe that?

Well, how many can you think of? None of them is the originator of anything. My argument about Frida Kahlo is that, had she been Fred Kahlo, she'd have been forgotten.

Are there great women in other fields?

Where is the female Mozart? Where's Mrs Shakespeare?

Perhaps she's raising William Shakespeare to be brilliant…

That may be the answer. But when you look at ministers – that poor, floundering home secretary! She is the necessary woman in the cabinet to keep the feminists quiet. She isn't any good.

I'm guessing you don't like Jane Austen then?

I don't. I think she's a terrible bore, writing about people I'm not remotely interested in. No, PD James I'll give you. © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

August 13 2011

The big picture: Woodstock festival, 1969

This quiet family scene marks the highpoint of the hippie era. But soon after, its peace and love ideal was fatally undermined

"I'm hippy and I'm trippy, I'm a gypsy on my own," sang Frank Zappa in 1967 and, two years later, this family group caught picnicking by the Merry Pranksters' psychedelically decorated bus at the Woodstock festival (or, to use its rather pompous full title, "An Aquarian Exposition: 3 Days of Peace & Music") enact late-60s white youth culture's great fantasy of pastoral retreat.

With the United States riven both by the Vietnam war and the civil-rights movement's increasingly confrontational mood, much of the hippie community opted for a stoned radical avoidance.

Michael Wadleigh's enormously successful documentary of the festival was released in 1970 and, in the wake of the Rolling Stones's catastrophic Altamont concert at which a young black man was beaten to death by Hells Angels, it emerged as more of a memorial than the manifesto as which it masqueraded. Judging by the movie, there were more "people of colour" on the stage – Jimi Hendrix, Sly Stone, Richie Havens – than in the audience: indeed, the cameras lingered longingly on any non-white punter they found.

From inside the bubble, few performers broke the covenant by alluding to the world outside. It was left to Hendrix to "bring the war home" with his epic deconstruction of "The Star-Spangled Banner": but since the festival had overrun, the performance that should have provided the Sunday-night climax took place on the Monday morning, after two-thirds of the audience had left for the "normal" worlds of work or school.

Woodstock demonstrated that half a million white hippies could all get along for three days provided that they stayed very stoned and other people took responsibility for keeping them entertained and fed. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

June 11 2011

The big picture: MGM studio portrait of Jean Harlow

George Hurrell's picture of the original platinum blonde perfectly captured her vulnerability and sex appeal

In the days when the screen was silver, hair was sometimes platinum and skin could be made to look like burnished gold. Eyebrows were refined to tensile wires and teeth resembled ivory piano keys. Only lips – parted, as here, to breathe scorching endearments – were allowed to be carnal, transformed by paint into ripe, bleeding meat, as if the body were turning itself inside out.

This is a face that has been sculpted, with a dimple in the chin that might have been chiselled. The Cupid's bow of the upper lip is not accidental: it defines the mouth as a potentially deadly weapon. Glamour – a word that is etymologically akin to grammar, since it refer to some occult lore or secret knowledge – means the casting of a spell, and George Hurrell presents Jean Harlow as a white witch, Circe in a satin negligee.

He gave credit for the enchantment to her: he said that she conspired with the camera, reducing him to an intrusive voyeur. But it was the photographer's positioning of the lights that gave Harlow's body its cool lunar glow, except for the incandescent highlights on her chin, cheeks and forehead – supplementary mounds of Venus, where the flesh suddenly seems white hot.

"I like to wake up each morning," Harlow supposedly once remarked, "feeling a new man." Here, in the absence of a male accomplice, she is manhandling herself. The grip of that hand on her own shoulder shows how roughly she expects to be dealt with and her hair, frizzed into curls by sexual electricity, spills out behind her as if on a pillow.

What Hurrell's voluptuous scenario doesn't show is her sassy, salty wit or the matey playfulness that made her MGM colleagues nickname her "Baby".

Nor is there any hint of how vulnerable this nubile body actually was. Four years later, she was dead, the victim of kidney failure and uremic poisoning that was caused, according to one rumour, by the platinum with which she dyed her luminous hair. She was only 26. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

May 28 2011

The big picture: the former Jackie Kennedy with new husband Aristotle Onassis at Heathrow

In 1968, JFK's widow united American glamour with European super-wealth when she wed a Greek shipping magnate – to the dismay of many

The world in 1968 was an innocent place, still liable to be shocked when celebrities abruptly tumbled from grace. A month before she was papped at Heathrow, Jackie Onassis scandalously cashed in the tragic mystique of the presidential widow and married Aristotle Onassis. Her piratical new husband had made his first fortune from smuggled tobacco, topped up his wealth by massacring infant whales to supply the Japanese market, doled out bribes to the Greek military junta, and was prosecuted for fraud by the US government. His trophy wife cost him $3 million; Jackie's brother-in-law Ted Kennedy negotiated the deal.

The match gave her the protection of a private island in the Ionian Sea and, when she needed to go shopping, free use of Olympic Airways, the company founded by Onassis. Her new husband seldom saw her, and already here he has chosen to doze in the front seat of the car beside the driver, leaving her to writhe and simper in a cocoon of fake fur. Her body is twisted like that of a doll, and her arms have disappeared, as if cuffed behind her back; her mouth is open, but not to smile, and her teeth resemble trinkets in a jeweller's window. All that matters is to manoeuvre her face into alignment with the cameras.

The symbol of the hide and seek Jackie played with photographers is her Ray-Ban sunglasses, which officially made her invisible but actually ensured that she was conspicuous, always recognisable. Blacking out her eyes, they dispensed her from having to reciprocate the world's interest. Here, however, the two pin-pricks of reflected light from the flashbulbs give her the beady gaze of a foraging fly or a predatory spider. The new bride is more like a black widow: behind the cover of those bullet-proof shades, has she set her sights on the reading of the next will? © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

March 06 2011

The big picture: Whitechapel 1972

Ian Berry's photograph, commissioned by the Whitechapel Gallery, captures a key moment of change in an area long used to a shifting population

In 1972, Ian Berry was commissioned by the Whitechapel Gallery to photograph the streets outside their door. "I had just returned to London after a few years working as a Magnum photographer out of their office in Paris," he recalls. "I had come back with a fresh eye and was just starting a new project when I got the call. It was too good an opportunity to turn down."

Now, almost 40 years later, the same show is being exhibited once again at the Whitechapel Gallery. Back then, Berry roamed Whitechapel with his camera for just two weeks, shooting on the streets, in shops, bars and restaurants as well as in schools and hospitals. "It was a different time and people were still not used to the notion of street photography. I just walked into schools with my camera, which you could certainly not do now. At the local hospital, they gave me a white coat, told me not to get in the way of the doctors, and just left me to get on with it. You had a freedom then that photographers no longer have."

What Berry remembers most of all about Whitechapel was "a certain palpable feeling of sadness that was in the air, the sense that one wave of immigrants were being supplanted by another. It was just becoming a multi-racial, but mainly Asian community, and the old Jewish community was in terminal decline. You could sense the sadness on their faces, in their demeanour. That's what I remember most."

This photograph, though, taken on Whitechapel Road, captures the emerging vibrancy of the area in the early 70s. It could almost be New York at the same time, the West Indian woman on the right vivacious in piled-high hair and wide-collared floral shirt, her friend just catching Berry's eye with an inquisitive, almost affronted look just as he shoots. They both have their mouths open as if in mid-song, as they negotiate the traffic, the front of what looks like a London taxi just veering into the frame. In the background, an Asian man waits to cross in the opposite direction. A snapshot of a time and place long gone, but oddly familiar. Whitechapel, this image tells us, is one of those London neighbourhoods where everything changes, but everything stays somehow the same.

"It s not my favourite photograph and it did not make it into the original show," says Berry, who, back then, worked mainly in colour and often for the fledgling Observer magazine. "The ladies make a great shape but it just misses being great because of that white car. Had I printed it myself, which I didn't have time to, I would have darkened that bloody car." © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

February 13 2011

The big picture: Julie Christie and Dirk Bogarde film Darling, 1964

As the Baftas approach, we look back to a past winner. British comedy-drama Darling earned its stars best actor and best actress awards in 1966

Photographs are time capsules, histories that compress information about more than the single moment when the shutter blinked. This one ranges across two centuries before settling on one charmed decade.

The water fountain, propped on a pedestal and topped by an officious obelisk, is a relic of Victorian philanthropy, catering to the thirst of the itinerant poor. The passing matrons could be Edwardian, wearing a genteel uniform – funereal hat and oppressively long coat, gloved hands and festoons of pearls round the neck – for a promenade to the shops. The young couple holding hands belong in a later, more relaxed era. She, idly dangling her bag from her hand rather than holding it protectively in front of her, wears a dress that could be by Mary Quant with a collar that makes her look like a sunflower. The old women are dressed for wintry old age; this sprightly pair – both with sunglasses, he with no tie and carrying a jacket he doesn't need – bask in the springtime of the body.

Time, like this north London thoroughfare, is a one-way street. The sun is behind all these people, and the shadows cast by bodies, slanting trees and the upright lamp-post are long. But the figure sitting down on the pavement, with a suppliant crouching beside her, is exempt from the flow; she has parked herself in a deckchair as if she were at the beach, not in a harried place of transit. For her it will always be 1965, and she will always – thanks to John Schlesinger's film – be beautiful.

The character played by Julie Christie in Darling is a go-getting model and sexual careerist; Dirk Bogarde is the television journalist who tracks her social rise. Almost 50 years later, the fable about vacuous, ephemeral celebrity remains tartly relevant. The photograph, however, is not satirical. Despite the Op Art glasses and the winklepicker shoes, Christie transcends fashion. Wearing a schoolboy's cap at a rakish angle while exhibiting – if you look very closely – a stocking top that marks the border beyond which the eye can't trespass, she also bestraddles the sexes. She bites her lip to signal a delicious, teasing indecision; Bogarde's bristling quiff alerts us to the urgency of his whispered appeal.

The overdressed frumps still plod through the dowdy, monochrome 1950s. But for me, Christie's shock of hair is as golden as the afternoon sun, her blazer dazzlingly candy-striped: in a black and white world, she radiates colour. Obelisks represent solar rays that were symbolically petrified, and the one at the kerb should be pointing its chiselled tip at her. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

December 12 2010

The Louise Bourgeois I knew

Artist Louise Bourgeois died on 31 May, aged 98. Her assistant and longtime friend Jerry Gorovoy recalls her brilliance and extraordinary sensitivity

When I was 16 a psychic named Frank Andrews who lived on Mulberry Street in New York City read my fortune and told my mother: "Your son will be involved with a much older woman."

Eleven years later, in March 1980, a tiny 68-year-old woman with intense blue eyes and a strong French accent came into the SoHo gallery where I was working and started screaming that she didn't like the way I had installed her sculpture – one of 10 abstract sculptures in a group show that was my curatorial debut – and wanted it removed. We went for a cup of coffee to try to work things out. On the way back she slipped and fell on the cobblestone street and I realised how vulnerable she was. Years later, I understood that this woman who had behaved so aggressively towards me was simply afraid of showing her work.

A few weeks later she invited me to her Chelsea home and showed me some early paintings and drawings. I knew right away that she was the real McCoy. The way she spoke, lived and worked were all of a piece, inextricably linked together. She was extremely well read and highly intelligent, having received a classical French education and studied mathematics at the Sorbonne, and yet she existed primarily in a world of emotions. I had never encountered anyone who talked about her art – its motivations, symbolism, forms and themes – in such psychological terms, and I was hooked.

It was not so much that she had met everyone – Francis Bacon, Marcel Duchamp, Joan Miró, Willem de Kooning, Lionel Trilling, Clement Greenberg, David Sylvester – but that her interpretations of their work were completely original and revelatory to me. I learned from her that art history and art making were really two separate things. Certain works of art are important historically but no longer offer an experiential quality.Like most of the art that matters to me, Louise's art affected me emotionally and transformed me. Though her work was raw self-expression, it was also her way of understanding herself. It has a timeless dynamic that goes way beyond the visual: a profound capacity to awaken in others a heightened consciousness of what it is to be alive.

One encounter followed another. Louise was a complex puzzle of a thousand pieces, and although in the 30 years I knew her I filled in many sections, some regions remained unknowable. The visual world that she invented for herself was pathological down to the last detail. There was a split in her psyche, as if her past with all its demons kept returning to invade the present. Sometimes I was with a mature intelligent woman, flirtatious and fond of black humour, and sometimes with a 12-year-old girl. These two personas, which operated in a sexualised world, are present in the work.

Her affectivity and sensitivity were extraordinary, often painful. If someone wore a green shirt she would ask him to change it or she would refuse to look at him. If someone's voice reminded her of her father, she might turn on the unwitting victim and viciously attack him. She suffered like a beast from jealousy. Anyone who got too close to me was put on warning. Her fear of abandonment was intense. At a certain point she stopped travelling for her exhibitions. Whenever I left for an installation of her work she would fall apart, and when I returned I had to be punished for making her suffer. It got to the point that I felt guilty every time I left.

It took the art world a long time to digest her output, with its lack of a signature style. Her range of formal invention, and her ability to handle any material and express her emotions, were a gift from the gods. I'm not sure people realise that she saw the artist as a poor tormented figure. Believe me, Louise was a tormented woman. Like a sufferer of Tourette's syndrome, she always felt that she had to confess everything, which could be uncomfortable for others, and once called herself the woman without secrets. She really believed in the old French saying "tout comprendre, c'est tout pardonner". In her art she was utterly fearless and in real life she said she was the mouse behind the radiator.

Late in life her agoraphobia returned and Louise no longer left the house. She asked me to tell anyone who wondered why she wasn't at her shows that she no longer travelled in space, only in time. You tell them, she said, that the work is more myself than my physical presence. But it's not true for me. Louise Bourgeois passed away on 31 May 2010, and I miss her presence. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

November 21 2010

Q&A: Carmen Herrera

The abstract artist on the man who saved her paintings from the bin, and being discovered at the age of 89

When did you decide you were an artist?

You don't decide to be an artist, art gets inside of you. Before you know it you're painting, before you know it you're an artist. You're so surprised. It's like falling in love.

When you began painting you made representational work. How did you make the leap to abstraction?

I was in Paris at the time. I was walking around and I found something called Nouvelles Réalités [a salon of artists focusing on abstract art]. And that was an eye-opener. I thought this is what I want to do. I went to the studio and I worked and worked and worked and worked. I was angry that I didn't know about this before.

What was Paris like then, in the 1940s?

It was a curious time. From all over Europe people came, and some from the United States, and we all showed [Herrera was born in Cuba but moved to New York in 1939]. And we were all crazy, abnormal. I had the privilege of being in France at that time. I consider those my best years. Of course it was right after the war and a lot of things were lacking. There was no coffee, there was no this, there was no that. But little by little it improved. One day we went to the opera and in the intermission a woman came out beautifully dressed, in one of the big couture houses, and everybody went like that [applauds] – it was the beginning, it was like resurrection.

You were discovered aged 89 after painting full-time for more than 60 years. Why do you think it took so long for your work to be recognised?

Things happen in a funny way. I mean you have to be in the right place at the right time, which I always managed not to be. But at the same time, people were not ready to receive my work. Years ago somebody called Rose Fried had a very avant garde gallery in New York and said she was thinking of giving me a show. Then I went back to the gallery and she said, you know, Carmen, you can paint circles around the men artists that I have but I'm not going to give you a show because you're a woman. I felt as if someone had slapped me on the face. I felt for the first time what discrimination was. It's a terrible thing. I just walked out. But anyhow, she's dead now.

Are there advantages to not having had much recognition for so long?

Yes, yes, yes. Because when you're known you want to do the same thing again to please people. And, as nobody wanted what I did, I was pleasing myself, and that's the answer.

Is it at all destabilising having this sudden renown?

I love it – I'm lapping it up. What do you want me to say – that I'm sorry about it? But every time they say something about me they say, "she's 95". I mean – really! They don't go round saying how old the other artists are – so why pick on me?

What is your productivity like now?

Pretty good, considering I'm 95 years old.

Now you're talking about your age!

So you wouldn't – I did it first!

Has the way you approach a composition changed over the years?

I think really every painting has been a fight between the painting and me. I tend to win. But you know how many paintings I threw in the garbage? I wouldn't have anything were it not for my husband. I was stupid.

Your agent joked to me that maybe your late husband had a hand in your success - that he's pulled some strings from the afterlife.

He didn't have a hand in anything! But no, they say that behind every great man there is always a woman. Well, behind a great woman there is always a man. You need it. I was very lucky. God, I was lucky.

What are the good things about being the age you are?

Not too many, my dear, not too many! There are too many physical difficulties. I do not advise it. But you have to take life the way it comes. There's nothing you can do about it. Write that down for yourself.

What advice would you give your 20-year-old self?

"Don't hurry up, just take your 20s as long as you can." But the 20s is not an easy time. A lot of things are coming to you that you're not ready to absorb. You have to get old and wrinkled and grey-haired before you know what they're talking about.

So what do you know now?

Everything! I knew nothing then. But I was very bold, I thought I knew everything. Emotionally, politically, about art – I was learning. I always used to say: my husband, he likes to teach and I like to learn. That's an enormous difference.

Are you still learning now?

Yes, I am. I'm more dedicated to my art now and I'm more watchful. Anything – a piece of paper that's folded in a funny way – I think, "ah, I can use that". I feel much more aware now.

Any regrets?

My only regret is that I didn't study architecture, which is what I really wanted to do. But to be an architect you have to depend on the client and play up to the client. I couldn't do that.

Have you found it exciting watching New York change architecturally, and in other ways, over the last 50 years?

Yes, I feel very comfortable in New York. It's my home, my country. I won't say "America" – New York is my country.

You don't feel Cuban?

I feel Cuban, but I can't function in Cuba. I would never have been an artist if I'd stayed in Cuba.

Are you religious?

Very. I was born a Catholic, I hope to die a Catholic. A lot of things I question in my mind but I keep my mouth shut. But it has been a great help to me through my life. I'm not a saint. Not a sinner either. I'm in between. And I don't think I was born like that, I think life made me like that. Life is interesting if you let it be. Isn't that so?

Carmen Herrera will be showing alongside Peter Joseph at Lisson Gallery, London NW1 from 23 November to 29 January 2011 © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

October 16 2010

Is creative fashion photography a thing of the past?

Katharine Hamnett, fashion designer, and Lorraine Candy, editor-in-chief of Elle, consider photographer Ellen von Unwerth's complaint that too much work is being censored by advertisers

YES: Katherine Hamnett

Personally, I can't stand fashion mags – I pick up the New Scientist about 600 times to every time I pick up a fashion magazine. I can definitely live without 300 pages of copy facing advertising.

Many fashion magazines are dinosaurs from another age that have lost their relevance. I'd only agree to look at some of them if you put me in a half nelson. Often the ads are more offensive than the editorial – the Tom Ford one where the model holds the perfume bottle between her legs was absolutely disgusting – maybe there should be more censorship. I would be a lot happier not to have seen that.

You could argue that civilisation is in decline and imagery everywhere – fine art and fashion photography – reflects this, and that it's a lot less interesting than it used to be. Vogue in the 1950s and 1960s was breaking completely new ground, commissioning photographers like Erwin Blumenfeld or David Bailey – new, great strides were being taken not just in terms of fashion but in terms of photographic imagery as well. The covers alone were marvellous. Maybe that was the golden age, and, sadly, it's long gone.

People are buying fewer fashion magazines these days so maybe they should strive to be more exciting to bump up their sales. The magazines are playing it too safe. They should be commissioning creative work rather than irrelevant garbage. A lot of magazines are chained and bound to whatever their advertisers appreciate. If a designer label is going to book 10 or 15 pages of advertising it follows that the magazine will be featuring their products heavily, so it's a fairly corrupted environment.

Dealing with advertisers is very difficult. We launched a magazine called Tomorrow in the 1980s and I said we weren't going to take any advertising – it lasted two issues. Advertising revenue is part of the magazine business model; it's very difficult to publish a magazine that pays for itself with the cover price alone. It would be fantastic to be freed from the pressure of advertisers – you could feature all sorts of exciting things. But advertisers dictate you must do pages and pages of boring handbags – how many bags do you need in a year?

Digital photography has revolutionised fashion photography, although I think film is still superior. There's too much obsession with the technical side of things rather than creativity and ideas. People go on about technical qualities far too much. Look at a Charlie Chaplin or a Hitchcock film – they are brilliant pieces of art despite not reaching the technical levels we expect today. You wonder, how much technical quality do we actually need?

There's no doubt in my mind that content should overrule everything – photographers and editors have become too obsessed with form. They talk about the quality of this or that, but the public don't notice, they are oblivious to that – what they want is an incredible, powerful image. It's the actual concept of the image that's the most important thing rather than technical perfection. If you look at Vogue magazines from the 1950s and 1960s there are some incredible photographs that people today would complain are grainy or something, but they are iconic images.

In the 1980s Ellen Von Unwerth's campaigns changed everything, turned everything on its head. She refreshed the whole idiom. Ellen is a fantastic photographer – if she is grumbling about something maybe the magazines should listen.

Katharine Hamnett is a fashion designer

NO: Lorraine Candy

The battle of art versus commerce is an age-old story but when recession hit and dawn rose on the powerful new digital age we were warned that commerce may have won. Creativity, the money men hinted, was to be tossed aside like a crumpled Warhol print because we'd be so desperate for advertisers' cash we'd bow down to their demands. As it turns out, the opposite has happened. Having worked in the world of glossy magazines for 20 years I've never encountered a more creatively fulfilling time, especially where fashion photography is concerned. The lust for any kind of bespoke individuality (or just something visually new) has prompted fashion magazines to embrace a fertile new era of creativity. "Give us something different" the readers, viewers, users and advertisers seem to be asking.

The inspirational fantasy world of shoots by photography's leading lights: Tim Walker, Steven Klein, Juergen Teller, Terry Richardson and Nick Knight has fulfilled this raging demand for brave visual content both online and in print.

In W magazine this month Walker has created an elaborate fashion shoot featuring a full-size straw house and a 10ft Humpty Dumpty to show off this season's couture gowns.

And Steven Klein's sometimes shocking, but always thought-provoking, work for Italian Vogue keeps the spirit of pioneering photographers like Helmut Newton alive – for one shoot Klein depicted the models as if they were in a plastic surgery clinic to show off the new season's clothes, and the pictures were beautiful and disturbing. Mert Alas and Marcus Piggott's shoot of Beth Ditto naked on the launch issue of Love magazine caused controversy when it came out as no one had dared to show a body that wasn't a supermodel nude before on a news stand title.

Last year Rankin, whose work has dominated style magazines for nearly two decades, shot Lily Allen to showcase the clothes of young British designers for me in a blonde wig. I asked Pete Doherty, a formidable artist, to illustrate this shoot which he did (using his own blood). This project won a coveted yellow pencil D&AD design award, a first for a monthly as commercial as Elle, whose main job is to show the reader the clothes. This shoot made us more attractive to advertisers, not less. Advertising itself became brave too: Teller's arresting images of Dame Vivienne Westwood, who is in her late sixties, in her own provocative ad campaign (I particularly like the one with a wheelie bin) are testament to this thirst for something original and unusual.

Of course editors don't want to scare readers but fashion boundaries are there to be pushed. The great thing about this desire to explore the visual world, especially through new technology like the iPad, is that it has thrown creative people together: artists work with photographers to create images which become prints which designers then use (the London-based designer Richard Nicoll has worked with artist Linder Sterling and created collections based around her striking photography collages). Online there's a new kind of fashion photographer: bloggers like the Sartorialist's Scott Schumann and Garance Doré have created stunning but simple images of real people that are addictive to look at. So Ellen von Unwerth is wrong when she says we have been gagged. We haven't, we've have been given a bigger, more creative voice.

Lorraine Candy is editor-in-chief of Elle © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

October 09 2010

Ai Weiwei: The rebel who has suffered for his art | The Observer profile

His installations have led to beatings by the Chinese police. Now the provocative artist is holding his first London exhibition at Tate Modern

As crowds converged for the opening of the Beijing Olympics, their expectation turned into a collective gasp as a red glow appeared from within the stadium known universally as the Bird's Nest. The building was the showpiece of the Games – and therefore of modern China. Entwining momentum with sturdiness, chaos with order, its vortex of 42,000 tonnes of steel latticework is a marvel of imagination and engineering, one of the great new buildings in the world.

How strange, then, that when it came to meeting Ai Weiwei, the man who designed it, he turned out to be a gentle, thoughtful, but bear-like man. The architects of the stadium, Herzog & de Meuron of Switzerland, called him the project's "creative consultant", but Ai said, characteristically, of his role: "I don't need a title – I would prefer 'the Untitled'."

Ai is China's leading artist, one of the most remarkable in the world, and on Tuesday, his work arrives for the first time in Britain, perhaps the most awaited event yet to be unveiled in Tate Modern's Turbine Hall.

The timing of Ai exhibiting in London could not be more fortuitous: his installation opens four days after the Nobel peace prize committee in Stockholm had shown itself less enamoured of China's regime than politicians and businessmen when awarding the prize to imprisoned dissident Liu Xiaobo.

Ai is based in a studio complex in a peculiar and intriguing corner of Beijing. 798 Arts Zone and the series of studios beyond it constitute a cranny where old streets and buildings have been spared by the bulldozer and turned into a kind of trendy theme park in which the authorities seem not only to permit but – unusually for them – encourage cultural activity.

This is where the pavement cafes are found, along with art galleries and boutiques that sell Mao chic clothing (silk dressing gowns printed with pictures of the Red Guard).

His father was Ai Qing, a painter and China's leading poet, who had worked in Paris and was influenced by Gogol and Dostoevsky. He was first imprisoned – as a communist – by the nationalist regime and then as a dissident during Chairman Mao's cultural revolution.

In 1967, when Ai was 10, Ai Qing and his family were exiled to a hard labour camp in a remote village at Xinjiang, in the Gobi desert. "There," says Ai, "my father was punished by being made to clean the public toilets for five years. He was beaten and kept in very severe physical deprivation." Ai Qing died in 1996.

Such an upbringing obviously moulded the artist Ai became. "I know what I know," Ai says, "because, as a child, I have seen the opposite of freedom. I have seen many people killed, the results of stupidity and cruelty, and the results of courage."

In 1978, Ai enrolled in the Beijing Film Academy, before founding an avant garde circle called the Stars. In his third year, in 1981, Ai won a scholarship to go to the US, working in New York's East Village, where he lived for 12 years and, he says, "found myself among friends, artistically – I wanted to stay forever".

But in 1993, when his father fell ill, Ai returned to China despite his green card, establishing a studio called East Village, then his current one, Real/Fake – an oblique pun on the name of an exhibition he staged in Shanghai called Fuck Off . There, his  installations included painting a Coca-Cola label on to an ancient Han vase and dropping another to smash it, a photograph of which featured on the cover of a book entitled So Sorry.

Another part of the studio's programme involved Ai's wife, Lu Qing, lifting up her skirt and showing her knickers to the portrait of Chairman Mao that presides over Tiananmen Square along with modern China's other icons, Nike and Valentino.  These antics were not to the taste of every artist on the Chinese fringe, some now seeking to acknowledge and explain, rather than challenge, the new economic order.

One critic, Xu Bing, told the New Yorker: "These things [Ai's installations] are not without value", but although China "still has a lot of problems, like the disparity between rich and poor… it really has solved many problems. China's economy is developing so quickly – I'm interested in why this has happened. Not everyone can be like Ai Weiwei, because then China wouldn't be able to develop, right?"

It was a fine stroke by Herzog & de Meuron to turn Ai from rascal of the Chinese alternative into the muse for China's second most recognisable monument after the Great Wall. It meant Ai could do what most Chinese cannot: speak his mind about the regime. On the eve of the Olympics, he said: "I feel outraged at the Chinese government and I am disgusted by the way power is abused in this country." But the Olympics, he said, were "a good opportunity for greater transparency in China".

Ai's problems with the regime continued, ironically, because of his greatest gift to Chinese prowess, the Bird's Nest. He's never visited the building he inspired: "I have never been in a stadium in my life," Ai says. "I doubt I will ever go into the Bird's Nest."

He left Beijing for the Olympics, "not as a boycott – as some have said," he explained. "I don't want to have to talk about it all the time. I am much more interested in what is going to happen to [the stadium] after the Games. I would like it to become a place where people like to go, bring their children or can come for mass weddings, or maybe mass divorces or, best of all, to have barbecues together.'

But his critique goes much deeper than either slogans or subversive barbecues and is not restricted to China.  It is in the stadium design itself: one of the most striking things about the Bird's Nest is the way the latticework makes the arena open to the exterior. Many observed that this was a way of keeping the smog from settling, by admitting a breeze.

But there was another reason, too, Ai says. "It is intended to be a statement about the need for a more open society, open discussion, greater transparency. I don't believe you can relate architecture to political statements, but architecture will always relate to ideology. And I do not see ideology as a matter of left and right, or east and west, any more. I see the tension in ideology," he says, "as being between a more interesting state of mind and a more dreadful state of mind. The artist should be for the interesting against the dreadful."

Thinking of this kind makes Ai not only a great artist, but a thinker of the world's next political and intellectual phase, beyond the turgid babble of contemporary politics. One of his recent tweets to 48,000 followers read: "One day people will wake up and find themselves unable to believe that we have been through an age of stupidity and humiliation".  His recent Study of Perspective features Ai's middle finger stuck up at the White House and Tiananmen Square.

The Chinese authorities remain acutely aware of Ai's complex and innovative heresy and in China, an "edgy" artist has to face greater challenges than mockery or dismissive critics. While he was exhibiting in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, in August 2009, Ai's hotel door was kicked down in the early hours by police goons who then beat him about the head.

Ai's "installation" in the province was a public list of more than 5,000 schoolchildren killed by the 2008 earthquake, based on door-to-door inquiries (the regime steadfastly refused to disclose how many lives were lost; it is a "national secret").

A month later, in Munich, Ai suffered a haemorrhage as a result of the blow. He was in the Bavarian capital to cover the walls of the Haus der Kunst with thousands of brightly coloured school backpacks spelling out Chinese characters quoting the lament of a mother of a dead child in Sichaun interviewed as part of Ai's project: "She lived happily for seven years in this world."

When we finished our conversation in 2008, Ai said he would next have to choose between taking a nap and playing with his beloved cat, whose name is Come Over. And 18 months ago, Ai broke his resolution never to sire a child under the present Chinese regime – Lu Qing bore him a son.

This week, this kind of man, this kind of artist, unveils what he has to say in London, and whatever it is, may we take note. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

September 25 2010

Damien Hirst

The provocative artist on the end of his feud with Charles Saatchi, and the sons following in his footsteps

Your new exhibition features 120 framed butterfly prints. Are you a butterfly obsessive?

I've always liked that kind of natural history. I'm interested, first of all, in the fact they all look alive when they're dead. They represent the soul.

The writer Michael Bracewell has said that you are "primarily a great religious artist". Do you agree?

Did he say that? Erm, I wouldn't say that, no. I think I like big issues, but I don't believe in God or religion. Having said that, I was brought up Catholic till I was 12 – basically indoctrinated – so there are lots of things in there that can't come out. My dad wasn't religious but mum was. Dad wouldn't go to church. They divorced when I was 12 and you can't carry on being Catholic if you're divorced so that's when I began thinking, "That's a pile of crap."

I mean, religion is serious shit, isn't it? We're all trying to find our way through the darkness in our lives. Religion can be one part of that. For me, I like a bit of everything: a bit of art, science and religion.

As an adolescent, you were arrested for shoplifting and went through a rebellious phase. Was that related to abandoning Catholicism?

No. Crime is creative. Or it can be.

A lot of your work features images of death. Are you morbid?

I don't think so. I was taught to confront things you can't avoid. Death is one of those things. To live in a society where you're trying not to look at it is stupid because looking at death throws us back into life with more vigour and energy. The fact that flowers don't last for ever makes them beautiful.

Is it true you had a job as a mortuary assistant?

No, it was an anatomy museum. I just got a letter from art school telling me to go along and draw some bodies. The corpses don't look like dead bodies because they've been preserved in formaldehyde and all their heads have been shaved. I was very nervous about seeing them but when I actually went, it was quite hard to believe they were bodies. There was no blood, no hair and no personality – it wasn't like someone you knew had died.

Are you drawn to art because it holds out the possibility of immortality: the idea that you will live on through your work?

It's quite a strange thought. When you start off, you wish you were successful and well known. Then you get to the point where enough people have bought your art to realise that it's going to last longer than you do. We're all looking for a type of permanence but I think I'd like to live longer than the work, actually – don't tell anyone that. There's no way I can. I've done some work in bronze and that can survive 6,000 years.

Is great art more about conception or execution?

Great art – or good art – is when you look at it, experience it and it stays in your mind. I don't think conceptual art and traditional art are all that different. There's boring conceptual art and there's boring traditional art. Great art is if you can't stop thinking about it, then it becomes a memory.

You have repeatedly been accused of plagiarism. Is there any truth to the claims?

It's just gibberish, isn't it? Just ridiculous. It's nothing really.

So is it ever possible to have a truly original idea?

As an artist, you make a comment about what it is to be alive today. Van Gogh can't do that because he's dead. You look at movies or any kind of art form, there's influence, isn't there? That movie, The Cell, it came out a few years ago and they had a piece of "my" art in there that was a sliced-up horse. It's a tribute apparently.

An auction of your work two years ago bypassed galleries and sold directly to the public, raising a record-breaking £111m. Is money important to you?

I think money is important for everyone, because the lack of it is so painful. I worked very hard to make sure that money was not my goal but a by-product of what I was doing. I had a very good manager who told me to use the money to chase the art, rather than the art to chase the money.

You once said: "I can't wait to get into a position to make really bad art and get away with it." Have you got there yet?

I don't think that really happens. Even a bad idea becomes a good idea. I believe in freedom and I wanted to be able to do anything, that's what that quote is about. Although I did have an idea to do a huge bronze human shit, 40ft long, and call it "Untitled – No 2".

Does it ever get boring painting spots?

Yeah, I only painted the first five [spot paintings], then I hired other people to do them.

Do your children [Connor, 15, Cassius, 10, and Cyrus, five] like your work?

Yeah, they love it. I've always tried to build in a "wow" factor, because when I was growing up I remember being blown away by the natural history museum in Leeds. There were these stuffed Bengal tigers and tanks with fish in them, and I wanted to make art like that. Art is childish and childlike. Brancusi said: "When we are no longer children we are already dead."

Are they any good?

Yeah, they're brilliant. One of them got a TV box the other day and a coloured umbrella, tied it round a chair, put his picture in the box and said: "I've got a studio now." I wanted to use it as a sculpture but he wouldn't let me.

Have you made up with Charles Saatchi after calling him "childish" and saying "he only recognises art with his wallet"?

Yes, we're good. I had dinner with him a while ago with Martin Amis. He was disappointed that I'd stopped smoking.

Do you own a Nigella cookbook?

I don't think I do. Maybe I should?

They're half-price at the moment in Waterstone's...

I'll do that then. I'll get one.

Interview by Elizabeth Day

Damien Hirst: The Souls is at Paul Stolper gallery (in collaboration with Other Criteria), London WC1 from 7 Oct–13 Nov © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

June 19 2010

How the National Gallery uses science to spot fakes and masterpieces

Infrared and electron microscopes help determine a genuine Raphael, as new exhibition shows

On a lower floor of the National Gallery, at the heart of the museum's magnificent Italian collection, there is a small picture of a mother who is handing carnations to the baby on her lap. The colours of the painting, although more than 500 years old, are rich and luminous. The fabrics of the woman's dress are meticulously folded while the tracery of veil around her head is depicted with breathtaking skill.

This is Raphael's The Madonna of the Pinks, which is not only one of the gallery's finest works – a painting of "concentrated magnetism", according to the historian Lisa Jardine – but one with an unexpected provenance. For years, the original was thought to have been lost until Nicholas Penny, at the time a curator, but now the director of the National Gallery, visited Alnwick castle in Northumberland in 1991 and noticed what was presumed to be a copy of the painting but which was mounted in an expensive, ornate frame. Why give such a lavish setting to a mere copy? he wondered.

Penny had the picture taken to the gallery's conservation department where infrared images revealed a superbly executed drawing of the Madonna and child beneath its layers of paint. The impact of this discovery was profound, as will be revealed with the opening of the National's exhibition, Close Examination: Fakes, Mistakes & Discoveries. The show celebrates the groundbreaking work of the gallery's scientific department with The Madonna of the Pinks forming a key part of the exhibition.

"Infrared images of the Alnwick painting showed the wood panel of this small, devotional work had first been covered with a plaster-like substance called gesso and then coated in a quite thick layer of off-white oil paint," says Dr Ashok Roy, director of scientific research at the gallery. "Using a metal point, the artist had then drawn lines on the surface, including elaborate hatchings, to create a detailed drawing of the Madonna and her child. Then he painted over it, following the outlines carefully."

The metal point, on its own, was brilliantly crafted though it contained occasional tell-tale differences – in the costume and background landscape – from the picture that the artist eventually painted over it. This was no copy, Penny concluded, for no painter would devote such attention and care if he was merely making a likeness of another painting. This had to be a genuine Raphael.

Further research vindicated this interpretation. The painting's under-drawing was compared with one discovered beneath an authenticated picture by Raphael, a work known as The Small Cowper Madonna, in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, and was found to be very similar in style. For good measure, it was discovered that powdered bismuth, an unusual pigment favoured by Raphael, had been used in the Alnwick painting, adding further proof of its authenticity. (The Madonna of the Pinks, thought to have been painted in 1507, gets its title from the flowers that the mother and child are handing each other: these are pinks, symbols of marriage. Thus the picture is depicting the Virgin Mary as not only the mother but the bride of Christ.)

After a huge public appeal, the picture was eventually bought for £35m in 2004 from the Duke of Northumberland, though the purchase would never have happened had it not been for Penny's inspired detective work. Equally, without the work of the gallery's scientists to back him, the Alnwick painting's true origin would have remained in doubt and the crowds that now flock to the National would be deprived of a sight of the painting.

Today, techniques involving infrared imaging, as well as x-ray photography, electron microscopy and mass spectrometry, many of them pioneered by the National Gallery, are mainstays in the business of art curation. And occasionally their use makes headlines, as was the case with The Madonna of the Pinks. Indeed, there have been one or two extraordinary fakes and many flawed attributions exposed by the gallery's scientists over the decades, as the Close Examination exhibition will demonstrate.

Consider The Virgin and Child With an Angel, which was acquired by the gallery in 1924 and which was supposedly the work of the Renaissance painter Francesco Francia. It was eventually shown, thanks to paint analysis and infrared photography, to be a late 19th-century forgery. Similarly, in 1874, the gallery bought two Botticelli paintings – Venus and Mars and An Allegory – at an auction of works collected by Alexander Barker. The more costly of the two, An Allegory, was subsequently revealed to be a contemporary imitation of Botticelli's work. Both will be shown at the exhibition in a display about taste and connoisseurship.

However, it would be a mistake to view the work of the gallery's scientists as being primarily concerned with the exposure of fakes, says Ashok Roy. "It would be completely incidental if a painting was found to be a fake during the course of our investigations. We are primarily concerned with helping conservation, understanding how a picture was made, revealing what techniques were used in its painting and explaining why those techniques were employed in the first place."

A slightly built, dapper figure, dressed in a neatly pressed blue shirt, dark tie and black trousers, Roy is crisply articulate about the use of technology to explore great art. He presides over a suite of rooms at the top of the National Gallery where he and his colleagues are now painstakingly analysing the gallery's entire collection of paintings to reveal the secrets of their creation. One room is dominated by a powerful research microscope while a computer screen displays a red-and-blue cross-section of a sliver of paint. You can see, precisely, from images of the pigment layers how the artist first painted his canvas dark blue and then added an overlay of crimson. The benches nearby are strewn with sample phials with minute flecks of paint in them.

The department also has a large electron microscope, a mass spectrometer and a library devoted to art conservation and the technical study of paintings. It is a thoroughly impressive set-up, though Roy acknowledges that its most important feature is not the equipment but the gallery itself. "Of the great collections of the world, the National Gallery is, effectively, the most comprehensive," he says. There are 2,400 paintings in the gallery and more than 80 per cent are on display. Unlike many other museums or art galleries, few works are kept in stores out of public sight.

The crucial point is that the National Gallery collection, although not vast like that of the Louvre, has got tremendous breadth. All European schools are represented. "Here you see the true span of European painting which is possible at only three or four other, far larger collections, including the Louvre and the Prado. By contrast, a gallery like the Uffizi in Florence, although a wonderful collection, is really only concerned with Italian painting from the early 14th century to the 16th century. It tells us nothing about Rembrandt, for example."

Set up in 1934, the gallery's science department is one of the oldest in the world and its staff have acquired a high reputation for their investigations of Europe's great paintings and painters. Take the example of the work that has been done there on Raphael. Along with Vermeer, Van Eyck, Leonardo and others, he has emerged – from scientific scrutiny – as an exponent of the precise, restrained application of paint, an artist who worked up absolutely everything with his drawings – a hand here, a little sketch of the Virgin and child there, a bit of architecture on the side – before he got round to the actual business of painting.

By contrast, the works of one of Raphael's immediate successors, Titian, when screened in infrared, turn out to have been created in a very different manner. As Roy points out, there are no signs of detailed metal point or drawing underneath his paintings (though Titian was also a master when it came to drawing, as can be seen at the current British Museum exhibition, Italian Renaissance Drawings). "There is a bit of sketching on the back of a picture and then clearly Titian just goes for it. Indeed, he was very proud of this ability to work without first doing careful drawing. He wanted to show those who commissioned his work, patrons such as the Duke of Ferrara, that he did not need a lot of fussy design."

To study how artists have applied paint on to a canvas or panel, scientists use another, standard technology: x-rays. These display the extraordinary layers that some artists build up when beginning their work, with the 18th-century English portrait painter Joshua Reynolds winning Roy's all-time prize for pigment pile-up. "We have got a cross-section taken from the background of one Reynolds picture which is just a dull, greyish-green colour, yet it holds the record for having the largest number of paint layers on it. It has got 27 original paint layers, just to create a dull grey background."

Reynolds turns out to be a bit of challenge for the curation business. Obsessed with the work of the great Venetian artists, he is known to have taken one of their works and scraped it down layer by layer to see how it had been painted. He was also a committed experimentalist and used a range of painting materials that today bring curators close to apoplexy.

"Reynolds was a very good painter, but he often used unstable materials and added things to his paints which made them very vulnerable to cleaning," says Roy. "We have an important Reynolds portrait of Lord Heathfield, which is one of the pictures in the gallery's founding collection. The picture is very dirty today and has a horrid cracked background. But when we examined it before beginning conservation treatment, we discovered Reynolds had used a varnish that was very similar in chemical composition to some of the paint's components.

"As a result, a chemical bond has been created between the portrait's varnish and paint which means you simply cannot remove the varnish – the first act of conservation – without affecting the paint underneath." For this reason, Lord Heathfield remains uncleaned on the wall in Room 34 of the National, a grubby but nevertheless still superbly executed testament to the vision of Joshua Reynolds.

Not that Reynolds was on his own when it came to experimenting with the composition of his paints. His contemporary, George Stubbs, who is best remembered for his paintings of horses, was also prone to adding odd substances to his palette. One of his works, A Gentleman Driving a Lady in a Phaeton, was being prepared for cleaning when it was discovered that Stubbs had mixed non-drying materials in his layers of paints. These included wax and an odd material known as bog-butter, a fatty substance found in peat bogs which is associated with buried human remains. Why Stubbs added this to his paint is a mystery, Roy admits. "Perhaps he was just trying to give it a little body."

The late 18th century was the heyday of artistic experiment, at least when it came to pigments. In the early 19th century, the developing chemical and dye industries in Britain, France and Germany began to provide artists with revolutionary new types of paint, though the process was not always successful. For example, Turner, who was obsessed with depicting spectacular sunsets, began using a vivid red pigment called pure scarlet, an iodide of mercury, at the suggestion of the chemist Sir Humphrey Davy. Turner used the pigment in several works including The Fighting Temeraire (1839), which won a 2005 BBC poll to find the nation's most popular picture. (Turner loved it himself. He called it his "darling" and refused to sell it.) The crucial point is this pigment has now decayed and changed, says Roy. "The Fighting Temeraire has this pigment in its sunset and it has vanished. We know from our analysis that it was once there but has now gone. Luckily, it is in only quite small parts of the picture that this highly unstable pure scarlet was used. It has faded and other bits have turned brown. So the painting has therefore changed, slightly, from the one painted by Turner."

And that is the real value of work by scientists such as Roy. It can tell us how a painting has altered over the centuries and how it would once have appeared, critical knowledge when trying to understanding the motivation behind the creation of a work of art and in trying to save it for future generations.

"If you are going to restore or conserve pictures, you have to know how they were painted and with what materials," says Roy. "You need to know what their true condition is and you need to know how the picture is going to behave towards any conservation treatment that is proposed. You also need to know in what conditions it is safe to show them – light levels and so forth. Art depends a great deal on good science these days." © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

June 05 2010

Mark Wallinger: interview

The Turner prize-winning artist's latest exhibition is a playful subversion of traditional portraiture

Mark Wallinger is dressed in black on a sweltering morning in Soho. He is owlish, shambling and immediately likeable – an unconventional, fiftysomething Essex man and one of Britain's most invigorating artists. He is also exactly the same height as the capital letter "I", in black metal, on a plinth – entitled Self (Times New Roman) – that is the first of two playful self-portraits which make up his new exhibition at the Anthony Reynolds gallery, his first solo show in the UK since 2007 when he won the Turner prize. Visual wit is his forte. "I like my work to be clear, open, laid bare," he explains. But does he mind talking about it? "Not at all – I am used to it – although it must be able to speak for itself."

He is sceptical about traditional portraiture because it often pretends to a "truth" that is "sleight of hand". And his second "self-portrait" is even more teasing than his first. It is a copy of Velázquez's portrait of Pope Innocent X (which he reveres) and appears on two sides of a rotating canvas. Its title is I Am Innocent. But it could equally be "I Am Guilty" – the revolving pope looks so shifty. Wallinger encourages us to examine the "extreme authority" of the painting from several new angles. But where is he in it? He does not say.

Wallinger is a self-confessed horse fanatic and in February last year was chosen to make Britain's largest public sculpture – of a magnificent white horse, which will be seen from the A2 in Kent (exactly when is still dependent on fundraising). But he is elated to have received recently an official thumbs-up from locals: "I went to the planning meeting at Gravesend town hall and first on the agenda was a small care home – there were 18 objectors. The white horse had one objector but was then passed unanimously."

The horse will take 18 months to build. Its shape is likely to be modelled on Riviera Red, the racehorse of which Wallinger owns "half a leg". And how many hands will the white horse measure? Uncertain, he decides it is time to find out. He produces a calculator and there is a long pause. "Four hundred and ninety-two hands," he says with satisfaction.

Mark Wallinger: New Work opens on Wednesday at the Anthony Reynolds gallery, London W1, and runs until 17 July © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

May 01 2010

The oldest living organisms: ancient survivors with a fragile future

Photographer Rachel Sussman has embarked on an epic journey to track down the world's oldest living things

It all began with a trip to Japan. Rachel Sussman, a photographer from New York, had flown over to take pictures of different landscapes, but during her visit she heard the same thing time and again. Go and see Jomon Sugi, people said. The name belonged to a mysterious cedar tree that grew on the island of Yakushima off the southern tip of Kyushu. It was said to be thousands of years old.

And so one trip turned into another. Sussman found the ferry port and made her way to the island, only to hear the tree was a two-day hike into the mountainous interior. A local family took her in, lent her walking gear and even agreed to hike with her. Days later they arrived. The tree, singular and gnarled, was captivating.

When the 35-year-old Sussman returned to the US, the trip to Yakushima took on new meaning. It became the kernel of an arts project that melded photography and science. Since the idea crystallised five years ago, Sussman has been travelling the globe with one aim in mind: to photograph the oldest living things in the world.

Sussman has only two criteria that organisms must meet before they become one of her prized subjects. They must be more than 2,000 years old (an arbitrary figure, she says) and the organism must have lived continuously for the period. So far she has photographed more than 20 life forms, from shrubs and predatory fungi to Siberian bacteria and domed corals that look like giant brains.

The collection offers a rare perspective of life on Earth. Some of the organisms Sussman has captured look alien. Many were alive in the bronze age. Others were eking out an existence long before modern humans rose up and migrated out of Africa.

Sussman, who grew up in Baltimore, has travelled to the high Andes to photograph the 3,000-year-old llareta plant, an extraordinary relative of parsley that looks like moss growing on smooth, round boulders. The shrub is a dense mass of thousands of tiny branches, each ending in a bud with tiny green leaves. It is so hard you can stand on top of it.

On a road trip from Cape Town to Namibia, she tracked down a 2,000-year-old welwitschia plant, a variety of conifer that grows only two leaves, which get shredded into a mass of ribbons in sand storms. At the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen, she photographed 500,000-year-old actinobacteria gathered from the Siberian permafrost.

Sussman says the project has a twofold message. First, there is a humble, existential aspect in which the entirety of human history feels dwarfed by the longevity of life around us. Second is an environmental caution. "We have these organisms that have quietly persevered for an unfathomable amount of time but which are now in jeopardy," she tells me. "The Siberian actinobacteria are half a million years old and live in the permafrost. If the permafrost isn't permanent, the oldest living things on the planet will die."

Sussman has worked closely with biologists throughout the project. Behind each trip is an exhaustive search of academic journals to identify groups who are studying aged organisms. In most cases, she makes contact and arranges to visit the scientists in the field.

Things don't always go to plan. Sussman ended up stranded in southern Greenland without any means of calling for help when her arrangements to meet researchers in a shack near a fjord went awry. "For the first time in my life I knew what it meant to be completely disconnected. I'm glad I had the experience, but I'm also glad it wasn't any more dramatic," she says.

For her latest shots, Sussman had to overcome her fear of open water. She began diving lessons in a swimming pool in New York and flew to Tobago to get her scuba licence and learn how to wield her camera underwater. She came home with some rare shots of an 18ft-wide, 2,000-year-old brain coral taken off the shore on the east coast of the island. "Every time I saw it, I caught my breath. There's something about the size of it," says Sussman.

The project is expected to take two more years to complete. In that time, Sussman plans to photograph 5,000-year-old moss in Antarctica; a 10,000-year-old shrub in Tasmania and a 2,300-year-old fig tree in Sri Lanka. To finance her work, she has signed up with a microfinancing website, Kickstarter, which collects donations from anyone interested in funding such projects. Pledge $10 for a "thank you" on her website, $50 to receive an Oldest Living Things in the World keychain and sticker or $1,000 to get a signed, limited edition print and an invitation to a cocktail reception at her Brooklyn studio.

Her hope is to bring her pictures together in a book that covers the project in its entirety. "By the time I'm finished, I should have been to every continent on the planet. But this will probably be an ongoing thing for me. I'll do it for the rest of my life," she says.

Rachel Sussman's website


NAMIBIA: Welwitschia mirabilis The 2,000-year-old welwitschia plant found in the Namib-Naukluft desert is an unlikely-looking conifer that produces only two leaves in its lifetime – the longest in the plant kingdom. Over its long life, these leaves are shredded by sandstorms into a tangled mass of ribbons.

SIBERIA: Actinobacteria At 500,000 years old, and long predating modern humans, these bacteria embody the existential philosophy behind Sussman's project, and the environmental caution that her work sounds. This specimen had been gathered from the permafrost and was being kept in Copenhagen, where she photographed it. "The Siberian actinobacteria are half a million years old and live in the permafrost. If the permafrost isn't permanent, the oldest living things on the planet will die," she says.

TOBAGO: Brain coral This 18ft-wide brain coral off the shore of Speyside on the east coast of Tobago in the Caribbean is 2,000 years old. To take the shot, Sussman had to overcome her fear of open water, take diving lessons and learn how to use her camera underwater. The result is a rare shot of unique marine life in Tobago's fragile reef, which is among the world's most diverse ecosystems. "Every time I saw it, I caught my breath. There's something about the size of it," says Sussman.

SOUTH AFRICA: Underground forest Botanists believe the 13,000-year-old underground forest in Pretoria evolved to survive forest fires. All that is visible are the tips of the branches poking out of the soil. But beneath the ground is a mass of branches and roots. "If a fire roars through, only the tips are burnt. It's the equivalent of getting your eyebrows singed." says Sussman.

SWEDEN: Gran Picea This spruce, photographed by Sussman near Fulufjället mountain in Sweden, is 9,500 years old. It survives in a landscape dominated by lichen, bare mountains and valleys with dense, ancient forests. It was in such a northern environment that the photographer had one of her hairiest experiences. Sussman ended up stranded in southern Greenland without any means of calling for help when arrangements to meet researchers near a fjord went wrong.

CHILE: Llareta plant The extraordinary 3,000-year-old relative of parsley that looks like moss but is a shrub grows in the Atacama desert in the high Andes at an altitude of 15,000ft. Measuring 8-10ft across, it inhabits the surface of smooth, round boulders. It is a dense mass of thousands of tiny branches, each ending in a bud with tiny green leaves, and is so tough you can stand on top of it. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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