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Going Poster

June 13, 2017

What’s the difference between a photo and a poster? A poster is a photo that’s been cropped, edited, blown up, edited, mass-produced on cheap paper…and purchased by millions. Here’s a look behind some of the most famous and best-selling posters of all time. (This story is a sneak peek from our 30th annual edition, Uncle John’s Old Faithful Bathroom Reader, available November 2017.)

Pink Floyd


In 1996 graphic designer Storm Thorgerson and his design firm, Hipgnosis, were hired to make a TV commercial to advertise the re-release of the back catalog of British rock band Pink Floyd, including Atom Heart Mother, Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here, Animals, and The Wall. When Thorgerson suggested to the band’s label, EMI, that he wanted to take the suggestion literally—and film a bunch of young women with their bare backs painted with the cover art of a different Pink Floyd album—the executives loved it. But they thought it would be better as a promotional poster for record stores than as TV commercial. A body painter named Phyllis Cohen actually painted the images on the models—and the women had to stay perfectly still for five or six hours while she worked. The finished product by photographer Tony May was so striking that EMI decided to not distribute the poster for free to record stores, but to sell it directly to fans.


In March 1960, leftist revolutionary Che Guevara, clad in a black beret, briefly joined Fidel Castro onstage at a memorial for those who lost their lives in the explosion of the munitions ship La Coubre when it was docked in Havana’s harbor. While Castro delivered a eulogy, Guevara stood off to the side, which is when photographer Alberto Korda took his picture. It was later published under the title Guerrillero Heroico, or “Heroic Guerrilla.” The simple, black-and-white photo became a poster eight years later when Irish artist Jim Fitzpatrick applied a two-tone treatment to make a striking, contrasting image of Guevara’s face, and he placed it against a red background. Fitzpatrick initially allowed his work to be distributed without a copyright to encourage its spread and the “power to the people” message of Guevara…but it was also widely reproduced by capitalists on T-shirts, postcards, coffee mugs…and posters. In 2011 Fiztpatrick told reporters that he wanted to copyright the image. Reason: he wants to give Guevara’s family control of its usage and reproduction.


The influential physicist Albert Einstein was being honored at an event at Princeton University in 1951 to mark his 72nd birthday. United Press International photographer Arthur Sasse tried but couldn’t get Einstein to smile for a photograph—the scientist said he’d been smiling for photographers all day and he was tired of it. But Sasse (and other photographers) kept insisting Einstein give them a grin. Annoyed, he stuck out his tongue instead, and Sasse caught the image of Einstein, along with scientist Dr. Frank Aydelotte and his wife. Ironically, the grouchy Einstein later found Sasse’s picture to be his favorite photo of himself. He contacted UPI and ordered reproductions of it, with the Aydelottes and everything that wasn’t his face and tongue cut out. Then he sent them as greeting cards to his friends. Knowing they had a good thing going, UPI then licensed the photo for use as a poster.


Before she became the star of Charlie’s Angels, Fawcett was doing mostly TV commercials and modeling work. Her management team thought she might get the attention of more casting agents if her résumé included a picture of the blonde bombshell in a bikini, so in 1975 they hired photographer Bruce McBroom to take one. McBroom went to Fawcett’s house (where she lived with her husband, Lee Majors, star of The Six-Million Dollar Man), and had her pose by the pool in front of an old Southwestern-style blanket that McBroom had been using to cover the back seat of his car. Fawcett tried a number of swimsuits before deciding on a red one-piece because it covered a scar on her stomach. A year later, Fawcett landed the role on Charlie’s Angels, and the humble picture of Fawcett in a swimsuit was licensed out to poster publishers. It went on to sell 12 million copies—still a record for the best-selling poster of all time.

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