Sunday 22 April 2018

The perfectly simple art of the iconic election poster

1990 election poster
1990 election poster
Proinsias De Rossa election poster
Eoghan Harris
Mannix Flynn's election poster. Ronan Lang
Eoghan Harris

Eoghan Harris

What makes a good political poster? A good candidate, with good politics, pointed up by a good slogan. Only then are you ready to commission a photo for the poster. At least that's how I go about it.

In 1989 I was media advisor on Proinsias De Rossa's successful European campaign, whose slogan was: "A Breath of Fresh Air."

In 1990, I was the media advisor on Mary Robinson's equally successful presidential campaign, whose slogan was: "A President with a Purpose."

Both campaigns were politically and visually connected by my use of severe black-and-white photographs. This was an innovation at a time when garish colour was all the rage. And I was given generous credit for these innovations in Emily O Reilly's book Candidate and in Mary Robinson's memoir Everybody Matters.

So I was somewhat taken aback by remarks in last weeks Review by visual arts lecturer Dr Ciaran Swan and Fergus Finlay, a former Labour spin doctor.

Both men pontificated on the De Rossa and Robinson posters, but I was never given primary credit. Both men are on the left (Dr Swan works with the Dail Technical group) and may not approve of my conservative politics.

Dr Swan, knows better than most that I was the conceptual author of the Breath of Fresh Air poster. In a 2008 article for the Design Research website he refers to an interview he did with me a few days after the 1989 election. This confirms that back in 1989 he accepted that my concept of the poster preceded the commissioning of the Mike Bunn photograph.

Proinsias De Rossa election poster


"Eoghan Harris, who advised on the campaign, proposed in an interview with this author, that the Pigeon House was chosen because it combined the image of industry (electricity) with environmentalism (the chimneys emit water vapour)."

Actually, Dr Swan has it the wrong way around. The slogan, "A Breath of Fresh Air", was meant to widen the appeal of the Workers Party by combining industrial and environmental images.

I wanted De Rossa to be seen walking against the 'industrial' background of the Pigeon House, but with an 'environmental' dimension supplied by a wind-blown Sandymount strand.

What baffled me was how to get a windy sand-blown effect without a wind machine. But I had a hunch that a certain famous fashion photographer could figure it out. So we blew the budget to hire Mike Bunn. He was worth it.

He gave us the powerful photo for the iconic Breath of Fresh Air poster, which people still remember although no good copy seems to have survived.

But Dr Swan might note that it was the political concept which produced the photo, not the other way around.

There was a third subtext too, which I had been reluctant to reveal to hard-nosed WP comrades at the time.

Shane Coleman recently discussed the poster on Newstalk with political columnist Victoria White. She acutely pointed out that Rossa's long black coat conveyed an image of strong but protective masculinity, which appealed to women voters.

The lessons of the De Rossa poster lay behind the lengthy blueprint I presented to Mary Robinson in April 1990 when offering to act as her (unpaid) media advisor. She backed my belief that her image should be ''dialectical", that is have a subtext combining masculine authority with feminine compassion.

That is why Robinson's campaign poster, "A President with a Purpose", featured a serious black and white photo of Robinson softened by single splash of colour in the form of a stylised red rose in a terracotta tone. But this colour scheme contained a political message too. To widen her appeal, Robinson could not be too closely linked to Labour. Hence the stylised terracotta rose rather than Labour's realistic blood-red rose.

Last week, confirming that his role was reactive, Fergus Finlay boasted that Labour had sent back the first rose because they didn't think it was red enough!

Actually, we did not alter it by much. The stylised soft red rose of the final version is far from Labour's garish and pseudo-revolutionary red rose, which always looks so ridiculous on 'socialist' fatcats drawing down generous salaries and pensions.

The current campaign has no poster that packs the punch of the De Rossa and Robinson posters. But Mannix Flynn comes close.

Mannix Flynn's election poster. Ronan Lang


He gazes out, without wheedling, in severe black and white. But his masculine vibe is softened by almost girlish neon-pink lettering.

The poster says: Mannix Flynn is strong but sensitive. That is how he is in real life too. As I said: a good poster starts with a good candidate.

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