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Last Updated: Friday, 19 January 2007, 11:34 GMT
Poster boy
Man and Baby

By Claire Heald
BBC News Magazine

Each decade has its iconic poster. Man and Baby, which sold at auction for thousands this week, was the defining image of the 1980s, capturing the then nascent New Man and making fortunes in the process.

By the photographer Spencer Rowell's own admission, Man and Baby, or L'Enfant, is "a bit cheesy". There's a cute baby, but the eye is drawn to the buffed and muscular male specimen cradling said infant in his lap.

It made model Adam Perry a hit with the ladies, and a fortune for the photographer and the poster shop Athena, selling more than five million copies.

Twenty-one years after its release, at auction on Thursday, a print of the image went for 2,400 - considerably more than the price paid in the late 1980s by scores of students and young professionals keen to brighten up rented walls.

Breakfast at Tiffany's
Classic film posters remain popular
Today, pinning up posters remains a way to make a rented house a home. At Exeter student Simon Manning's flat, classic images - Audrey Hepburn and co - jostle alongside posters for bands.

The Blu tac ban familiar to many is still in place. But in a world of house makeovers, framed prints from homeware shops are also present.

The original Athena chain has folded, but a newer purveyor of pictures operates under that name on many a High St. For many of the chain's customers, the medium matters as much as the image, with large, chunky, frameless canvases popular sellers, typically of sunsets and seascapes.

Also popular with today's poster buyers are iconic images from the 90s, such as the Gallagher brothers and Pulp Fiction. Then there's the growing trend for DIY artwork - well, enlargements of our own digital photos.

But in past decades there were defining images - how and why were they so iconic?

THE 1960S: HENDRIX ET AL

Woman looking at Jimi Hendrix poster
Hendrix - everything a rebel wanted
Marianne Faithful in unzipped tight leathers for the poster promoting Girl on a Motorcycle summed up the music and film zeitgeist of 60s posters.

But the ultimate image was a monochrome Jimi Hendrix headshot, "because it's everything your parents didn't want you to have anything to do with," says David Lee, editor of art paper The Jackdaw.

"The long hair, spaced-out expression, the fag. Youth culture was about identifying with something your parents thought ridiculous."

This was the first generation to put the blown-up poster of his face on student walls and squatters digs - alongside other prominent rock and roll images, such as The Who guitarist Pete Townshend, arm aloft, about to windmill into a guitar chord. Or the psychedelic pink, yellow and green of Cream's Disraeli Gears album.

This was about more than simply expressing a preference for a rock band, says Mr Lee.

"It was nothing to do with rock 'n' roll. It was something new, because prior to that, everyone had been very polite, and in Pete Townshend, here was a guy who was about to smash his guitar to pieces."

THE 1970S: TENNIS'S SOFT SIDE

Tennis Girl
Enter the 70s, and walking away from the camera is a teenage model, tennis dress hitched up as she scratches her knickerless bottom. Tennis Girl by Martin Elliot is an image recalled by critics and public alike.

But experts find little to recommend such a popular image. Of those contacted, some refused to discuss the image - one dismisses it as "mere masturbation material" and another derides it as "of an unreconstructed time".

For Howard Sounes, the author of Seventies: The Sights, Sounds and Ideas of a Brilliant Decade, it is "just soft porn". And its massive sales can be attributed to "teenage boys who had it on their bedroom walls - if your mum would let you - or at public school, where they encourage that kind of thing.

"I don't imagine any girls bought it; I can't imagine any adult having it. It is the equivalent of a picture today of Kelly Brook in a playboy bunny outfit."

It has of-the-decade soft focus and muted colours. Dated it may be, yet its huge sales have made a lasting impression. Both Kylie and tennis player Anna Kournikova have recreated the image in photo shoots.

Mr Elliot admits his poster is "not a picture I would buy", but puts its appeal down to the seaside postcard spirit of the image, coupled with "one of the world's fantasies that you are going to see up a woman's skirt".

But for Mr Sounes, the defining images of the decade should be David Hockney's paintings, the Pompidou Centre, David Bowie, Joni Mitchell, above the "naff, nasty stuff" recalled by children of that decade.

THE 1980S: NEW MAN BARED

Man and Baby

Three factors led Man and Baby selling by the truckload, says Andrew Renton, curating director at Goldsmiths, University of London and a Turner Prize judge.

The image of a smooth-chested hunk, skin to skin with a baby boy subverts more than 1,000 years of art history, replacing the Madonna and child. "The bloke is left holding the baby, and art history never did that before," says Mr Renton.

The 1986 image perfectly depicts the era's ideal of a caring, sharing New Man. A man toned, but not bulging; caring, not aggressive; "an impossible vision" of manhood.

Where young males bought Tennis Girl, young women plumped for Man and Baby - not just for eye-candy, but because of the message it gives off.

"It's not just 'phwoar', it's a much deeper rooted fantasy. It says 'I want this man and I want babies'. It's a complex fantasy that combines sexuality and a nurturing desire - but one wouldn't normally mean to be so public about it."

Today, it looks dated - the square-jawed model, the airbrushing, stonewash jeans, the Chippendale-esque pectorals, the man holding the baby while the power-suited woman goes off to run the company.

"It's definitely the 80s equivalent of the 70s Tennis Girl scratching her bum. It told us how reconstructed we had all become."


Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

What about the Che Guevara poster? I can hardly remember any student room or bedsit in the late 60s and early 70s that did not have one of those on display.
Richard, Rochdale

I guess the 1990s equivalent was Kurt Cobain.
Josh, London, UK

The picture of the Tennis Girl is fun (porn???) and is best described as "cheeky"; the picture of Man and Baby is the closest any of us will get to being God and holding life in our hands. If you have never experienced holding a baby like that, whether it is yours or not, then you haven't lived.
James, Edinburgh, but currently in Japan

The ultimate student poster is the iconic Che Guevara. Everybody has seen the poster, even if they don't know who he is, and can recall the defining poster of the 20th Century.
Kashif , Birmingham

I'm at university now and most of the posters hanging in our house are cartoon ones - Family Guy, Dangermouse and Finding Nemo. I wonder what that says about the quality of university graduates today?
Chris Plant, Lancaster

What about the Betty Blue poster? That was everywhere too, and far more appealing.
Melanie, Reading

Brings back memories. When this came out I had a 24 year old husband and a new baby. Loved the poster but decided I would rather have my own husband and baby, so took a picture in same pose in black and white then had it blown up poster size. Still have the daughter, no longer have the husband but he has the poster on his wall in his flat.
Suzannah Osborne, Manchester

I have four posters up in my room: Mohammed Ali knocking out Sonny Liston, the album cover of Wu Tang Forever, the sleeve of Fools Gold by the Stone Roses and a picture of the rat pack playing pool. I also have a print of Bosch's El Inferno. What does this say about me "experts"? In the 90s when I was a teenager most of the lads had posters of Oasis and Jennifer Aniston
Phil Harrington, Newport, S Wales

I still think this is a great picture. As a teenager in the 80s it was how I wanted to be. I'm more realistic nowadays about how I look without a shirt on, but it's still not a bad thing to want to be: a caring bloke who looks after himself and his child. I really can't think what the equivalent iconic image would be today; probably a computer game nerd with his jeans slung around the tops of his thighs (blimey, I feel old).
JA Booth, North Yorkshire

Funny, I always imagined that the baby might be thinking "You haven't got a clue what to do with me, have you?"
Danny, London

The 90s equivalent must surely be the poster for 1995 Brit flick Trainspotting. As a teenager at the time, the image was omnipresent - a favourite in bedrooms, common rooms and gig foyers alike. It invokes the time of Britpop, when the UK made an essential contribution to music, art and movies, and for just a short while, truly was the capital of a world obsessed with modern culture. Just a few years later Cool Britannia spawned and the whole affair was ruined, leaving just a few dodgy albums and Blu tac marks to show for it.
Gavin Cowell, Hayes, Middlesex

I was one of the millions that bought this in the 1980s. I can't believe that it was that long ago. It is really cheesy now but the guy still has the kind of looks that most women like. I wonder what ever happened to the baby
Siobhan Devlin, Belfast

My bedroom, and later college room, walls were somewhat atypically adorned with pictures of the Moon taken from the Apollo programme. And a picture of Skylab on the ceiling which fell down with regular monotony!
Megan, Cheshire

Who could forget the prism from Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon?
Robert Hammond, Milton Keynes

I remember this poster very well from the 1980s. I'm now 32 and recently became the father of twin girls, and one question now comes to mind: Just when did this New Man get the time to do so much as a single push up to get those muscles? My experience of fatherhood is bad food, bad skin, no sleep, and certainly no time for exercise. My guess is he was off to the gym as soon as the partner came home - not such a caring guy after all!
Paul Curran, Tameside, UK

In my student halls, the film poster for Scarface seems to don every other wall.
James, Bristol UK

The iconic posters of my schooldays (1970's) were anything by MC Escher, Peter Max, a psychedelic concert poster for Fillmore East, Dali or the Woodstock poster. Rarely was it photography.
Nick, Washington, DC

I have admired the 1980s poster, Man and Baby for many years, although at the time I was a very young father. It summed up how I felt - pride, achievement, humbling and protective urges. Sad, thirty-plus years later that focus of attention wants nothing to do with me. However, showing that poster again proves that I am the loser in that I still have the same feelings. My love has never faltered.
Tim McMahon, Pennar, Wales

It's surprising to me that printed posters are still selling, given most people's ready access now to digital cameras and editing software, and colour printers. Maybe this is why it's so hard to define an iconic image for now: we are each able to pick our own favourite pictures from a world of niche offerings, and a single image can no longer capture everyone's imagination.
Selina, UK

Is it just me, or did anyone else grow up thinking that the poster of the tennis player was of our very own Sue Barker? After all these years I now find out that it wasn't her!
Jimmy McLean, London

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