The curse of 'Man and baby': Athena, and the birth of a legend

It took only 20 minutes to shoot, and became the biggest selling poster in British history. This week, a print comes to auction 21 years after the original negative was created. Behind the image is a tale of excess, addiction and tragedy

Twenty one years ago, Paul Rodriguez, the artistic director of the Athena poster shop chain, had a brain wave. He called one of his regular photographers and said: "I think a shot of a man holding a baby would sell really well."

It did. The monochrome image that was shot in a London studio on 26 May 1986 of a male model cradling a newborn boy became the biggest-selling poster in British history.

The five million copies of Man and Baby (or L'Enfant) that were sold in Athena's stores and elsewhere made Rodriguez and the photographer, Spencer Rowell, substantial fortunes. Among other items, Rowell bought himself an aircraft.

Adam Perry, the model, shot to a sort of fame and notoriety, using his good looks to boast that he had slept with 3,000 women as a result of the poster.

Even today, the picture of a rippling torso, snow-washed jeans and cute infant continues to sell well and has assumed the status of an ironic collectable. This week, a limited-edition print from the original negative will be sold at the auction house Bonhams with an estimate of £2,000 to £3,000.

But as Man and Baby heads towards its 21st anniversary, the long-term legacy for its creators has been decidedly less glamorous. Within a decade of the poster's arrival in Athena stores, one of its creators had died from Aids, another entered voluntary insolvency and rehabilitation for a costly cocaine addiction and the other had fallen into obscurity, complaining bitterly that he had been ripped off.

For better or worse, Man and Baby was a defining image of the 1980s that found its way on to a million bedroom walls and made Athena the nation's poster vendor of choice with images from Che Guevara to the soft-focus raunch of The Tennis Girl.

Man and Baby's heartstring-twanging appeal to the emotions was considered by many, including Rowell, to be too cheesy and obvious to allow it to be considered high art.

To others, in particular teenage girls and young women, its juxtaposition of a rugged male and helpless infant had instant appeal and was held as presaging the arrival of the sensitive but sexy "New Man".

Yet, the creation of the image that made millions of pounds took a total of 20 minutes on a busy day of studio shoots involving a sunburnt model and three babies, one of whom briefly interrupted proceedings by urinating on Perry.

At the time, Rowell was a successful young photographer, rapidly gathering a reputation for producing artistic images of the human body. He had already worked with Mr Rodriguez, who had been recruited to revive the fortunes of Athena after its initial success in the late 1960s and 1970s, when the call came suggesting the project that would define his early career.

Mr Rowell said yesterday: "Paul said to me that he had had an idea and that he thought a shot of man holding a baby would sell really well. He chose the model but the rest was up to me in terms of how the picture was posed.

"To be honest, it was just another job of work. We spent about a couple of hours in studio getting things ready with the babies and make-up for Adam. We then spent about 20 minutes doing the pictures.

"As with all successful pictures, there was an element of luck. I only took about two rolls of film when normally I would shoot 40 or 50. There was only one frame which really succeeded and I didn't even know I had taken it.

"It was a very spontaneous moment. The frames either side of the one we used didn't really do the job. But I certainly didn't expect it to be as successful as it was."

Fortunately, the photographer had opted to take a 10 per cent royalty rather than a lump sum payment for the picture that was soon flying out of Athena shops.

Soon cheques for £10,000 and £20,000 were arriving through the letter box, providing Mr Rowell with the means to fund a fast and furious lifestyle, complete with a four-seater aircraft and a burgeoning cocaine habit.

By 1994, the photographer had, in his own words, "put most of the money up my nose" and declared himself insolvent due to massive debts.

Mr Rowell said: "It's not something I'm proud of. It was ridiculous behaviour at the time. But the idea that Man and Baby made me millions and millions is just wrong. I did well but not that well. In today's money, it made me about a million pounds and I blew it all."

The photographer admitted that he never had any delusions about the artistic merit of the picture that brought him financial success. He said: "I never believed the hype. I thought at the time that it was a bit cheesy and for a long time I considered it to be a millstone around my neck.

"The whole New Man thing wasn't a factor we were trying to create. But you just don't know when a photograph is going to capture the mood of the moment."

Indeed, the then 23-year-old model at the centre of the photograph would also have had difficulty reconciling the idea of being the first New Man with the reality of his lifestyle.

Mr Perry, now 42 and a carpenter on building sites in south London, boasted how he had slept with more than 3,000 women after the poster turned him into a prototype male supermodel, modelling underwear for Marks & Spencer and making him a regular on London's celebrity party circuit in the 1980s.

He was once described as "the world's most promiscuous man" by GQ and, aptly, also appeared in a condom commercial.

He said in a recent interview: "Girls would just come up to me asking to be 3,001 or 3,002 and so on. I was sleeping with different girls every day of the week. Sometimes two or three a day a few times, two at a time or more."

But the model, whose story of the alleged sexual conquest of several celebrities has been offered to several red top newspapers, saw little financial success from Man and Baby and has complained he feels ripped off.

He was meant to have been paid £250 for the photo shoot but, in the end, was paid only £100.

Mr Rowell said: "When he arrived on the set, he had horrendous sunburn on his chest. He said he had been on a sunbed the night before and sort of fallen asleep. There was a bit of a fuss and I was told the agent was dropping his fee because the pictures would have to be retouched."

Others point out that Mr Perry continued to receive fees for the photograph every time it was reproduced in new formats.

Perhaps the saddest outcome for those involved in Man and Baby was that of Mr Rodriguez, who was credited with bringing Athena to the peak of its fortunes during the late 1980s.

The gay art director, who continued to order more black and white photographs of semi-nude men and women from Mr Rowell, became HIV positive and died from Aids in 1993. Whether by coincidence or not, Athena's fortunes began to decline after the death of its creative director.

The once all-conquering source of mass-market artwork began to rely on licensing deals with Hollywood studios such as Warner or Disney and, by the first half of 1994, it was making losses of £5m. It eventually went into receivership and closed all but a handful of its 157 stores.

Amid such ill fortune, at least one of the key figures involved in the poster has managed to avoid the so-called "curse" of Man and Baby - the baby himself.

After 17 years of obscurity, Stelios Havatzias was tracked down to his family home in Cyprus in 2004 by the makers of a documentary and found to be a happy, well-adjusted teenager.

Were it not for the fact that he picked up a copy of the London Evening Standard carrying an advert asking for the child in the poster to get in touch, he would have remained anonymous.

The suitably handsome former infant model said: "I was paid £32. My family wasn't even given a copy of the poster, we had to buy it."

Some two decades after melting the hearts of millions, it seems those involved with Man and Baby have finally moved on.

Mr Rowell, who now runs a successful picture library company, said: "It used to be a bit of an embarrassment. But now I'm actually quite proud to have produced something that will outlast me."

The stories behind Athena's hits

By Camilla Bjorkman

The Tennis Girl, by Martin Elliot

One of the most famous Athena photos of all time. The picture, featuring a young woman lifting her sports dress to scratch her bottom, became an instant best-seller with two million copies sold. The photographer Martin Elliott took the photo at Birmingham University's tennis courts and used his 18-year old girlfriend at the time, Fiona Butler, as his model. The couple broke up a year after the shot was taken but the picture remained an iconic poster for, as Elliott put it, its "schoolboy appeal". There have been several photographic tributes to the picture, including Anna Kournikova on the cover of a tennis magazine and Kylie Minogue posing for GQ.

Beyond City Limits, by Alwyn R Coates

The black and white photograph of a man in leather jacket, with his hand on the leg of the blonde woman sitting behind him on a motorcycle, became a best-seller. Alwyn R Coates, a UK-based photographer, took the photo in Surrey and superimposed a dramatic fake sky.

The Blackpool Belles, by Bert Hardy

The photographer Bert Hardy was strolling along the Blackpool beach in 1951 when he spotted two young women sitting on the railings of the beach promenade, chatting. The women, Norma Edmondson, 19, and Alice Sumner, 21, were both wearing summer dresses which slightly rose in the wind. Although the photograph of them became a huge success, Edmondson and Sumner knew nothing about it until 50 years later when the photo was published in the Blackpool Gazette.

Le Baiser de L'Hotel de Ville (The Kiss), by Robert Doisneau

In 1950, Robert Doisneau was illustrating a romantic love story for Life magazine in Paris when he spotted a young couple, Jacques Carteaud, 23, and Francoise Delbart, 20, kissing passionately. He asked the couple, both aspiring actors, if he could photograph their embrace - so the moment was not quite as spontaneous as it appears. Although Doisneau snapped the couple in various places, their most famous photographic kiss took place in front of the L'Hotel de Ville in Paris. In 2005, the girl in the picture, Francoise Bornet (her married name), sold the original print to a Swiss collector for £105,000.

Hollywood Diner, by Syd Brak

In 1990, Brak created this sexy, retro-cool picture featuring Marilyn Monroe and James Dean in an American diner with Elvis Presley and Marlon Brando. Brak also made the famous Athena "Kiss series" with titles such as Long Distance Kiss and Forget Me Not.

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