Painted photographs

Painting or drawing on a photograph might seem like an act of vandalism, and yet a new show at the Open Eye Gallery in Liverpool celebrates a collection of pictures that are all marked or defaced in some way.

Painted Photographs is drawn from the collection of photographer Martin Parr who is well known for his avid collecting of all things photographic. The pictures on show are press prints and publicity shots which have been prepared for use in a publication or possibly for broadcast.

A picture of John Lennon and Yoko Ono shows how the picture editor was only interested in a tight crop of Lennon's head, another shows James Dean with a fake leg, and another reduces boxing's greatest champ, Muhammad Ali, to a close-up.

Image copyright Other
Image caption John Lennon and Yoko Ono, from the private collection of Martin Parr

The collection struck a chord with me as the BBC News photographic archive in the basement of Television Centre holds a number of "painted photographs", as this was the way in which all pictures were prepared for broadcast on the news before electronic graphics entered the arena.

So what is special about them? Surely they are just a good photograph ruined. Well no. They are no longer just a photograph, but a unique object. The print itself has taken on the value and interest rather than the image alone, making them something more than one of many reproductions from a single negative.

"They are remnants of the old analogue world," says Martin Parr, "so this type of thing is redundant. It is the surreal nature of them, where bits of the photos have been printed out and the fact that we show the whole photographs, that is the thing that is exciting."

Image copyright Other
Image caption James Dean, from the private collection of Martin Parr

These pictures have a history, they have been part of a production process, from the first crop of the world through the lens of the photographer to the mark-up by the editor. The chinagraph markings that signal where the edit should be made for reproduction are now the evidence, or trace, of how this picture was used and displayed in the media.

"Most of the ones that I show here came from the States," said Parr. "There was a particular period where the flea markets of New York were very rich with them and I found 150 or so on two or three visits."

What about the UK? "I haven't particularly looked here to be honest," said Martin, "I mean you showed me the ones the other day, but they are in the BBC collection so I can't go out and buy them."

Image copyright Other
Image caption Marilyn Monroe with glasses, from the private collection of Martin Parr
Image copyright Other
Image caption Muhammad Ali, from the private collection of Martin Parr
Image copyright Other
Image caption Marlene Dietrich, from the private collection of Martin Parr

The BBC connection

Throughout the years I have stumbled upon many of these "painted photographs" in the BBC archive. They were created by graphic designers for output on the news of the day and this may have involved painting in extra parts of the photograph so it would fit the format for transmission. or knocking back a section so a chart or bullet points could be overlaid.

This is of course way back. For example the picture of Ian Smith tolling the Independence Bell in Rhodesia was taken in 1966 and first broadcast by the BBC on 11 November that year, and again on 10 November in 1976, that time from two different news studios, N1 and N2 at Television Centre.

Image copyright AP

The picture is of an historic moment, but it is the item that is now of interest as well. The copyright belongs to the Associated Press, but the print has a history attached to it and the markings on the reverse are part of that. Right down to the cost of reproduction back in 1966.

Image copyright AP

I shall endeavour to seek out others like this in the archive, though it's a time consuming job as you simply have to wade through the files one by one, and there are a fair few. For now, here are a couple more drawn from the BBC Photo Archive and not part of the exhibition.

Image copyright AP
Image caption US President Carter chats with Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere at the White House, 1977
Image copyright AP
Image caption James Callaghan, Harold Wilson, Gerald Ford and Henry Kissinger, note the added detail at the bottom of the photograph

Martin Parr's Painted Photographs is on show at the Open Eye Gallery in Liverpool 13 January - 18 March 2012.