Gordon Brown in Polaroid by Rankin

I’m not the world’s biggest fan of Gordon Brown, and that’s assuming there are any fans, but I have more time than him for most.

Although Brown was at the heart of the ‘market-first’ orthodoxy of the last decade, he also had the nous to recognise the end of Lehman Brothers as the catastrophe it was, and create the model to address the precipitous recession that has been adopted across the world.

If nothing else, Brown can probably have that one under his name in the history books.

But he’s made for a rather sad spectacle as PM. Whereas the initial honeymoon period showed a relaxed and confident man, HoneyMoon Brown hasn’t been seen since. He now appears unsure, hesitant and, frankly, shagged-out.

Gone are the clunking fists, and the famous intellect that terrified several Tory front benches seems overcome by neuroses.

But it’s not apparent how much of this is actually true, certainly in terms of whether that constitutes the ‘real’ Gordon Brown. As Prime Minister he is habitually painted as weak, grumpy, ineffectual and virtually paralysed by indecision.

Rankin’s Polaroid images of Brown, as part of the Observer’s Polaroid Project to celebrate the last Polaroid films reaching their expiry dates, reveal a man comfortable, humourous, relaxed and, well, human.

Even the shot of Brown astride a chair, a la Christine Keeler, doesn’t look particularly odd, despite the fact that it’s a strange pose for a man in his late-50s to adopt.

Gordon Brown by Rankin

Rankin’s own reaction to Brown speaks volumes about the way Brown is portrayed and, indeed, the way the PM comes across.

The photographer admits to being surprised at finding Brown such pleasant company.

“…with Brown you can’t help be aware that he is supposed to be dour. I found the opposite was the case. He was a really fascinating – and fascinated – bloke. Really inquisitive about what I was doing. It got me thinking that maybe no one had ever taken a good honest photograph of him before.”

‘With Polaroids it’s like I can see someone between the shots – in this case Gordon Brown is friendly, then intense, then relaxed.

“We had a chat before starting; he was easygoing and natural. The shot of him on the chair, for instance, I could have made him look bad, but he didn’t seem to care.

“He had no vanity whatsoever. He had a great way about him and a great smile, which is not what you’re led to believe from the press and most photographs.”

It’s ironic that, in an age more exposed to multimedia of every kind at every turn, it’s possible that no-one has ever taken a good photograph of one of the most photographed men on the planet.

Or, arguably, it’s part of the media’s projected image of the PM, with images of a gloomy, glowering Brown more suited to stories predicting his imminent downfall.

The images themselves are superb. Brown is shot in flattering light, and from flattering angles, but he appears every inch the statesman, family man and modern politician – as if a touch of Tony Blair has rubbed off on him. Simply, he looks like a nice guy, someone you could have a beer with.

A lot of people praise Polaroids for their supposed realness, whereas they display nothing of the sort.

Colours and contrasts aren’t remotely like those the human eye perceives. In actuality Polaroids are nothing like real life, they come out looking like a relic of a 70s summer holiday.

This appeals to me, as did the awkwardness of my old SLR. I’m mightily impressed with the efficiency of digital, but it hasn’t enthused me in the way the clunkiness and preciousness of old film snaps did.

I learned a lot experimenting with light, apertures, angles and shutter speeds on old cameras, and the imprecision of development lent another filter for the original image. Through those filters the mundane can become magical, and the stark more enigmatic.

The difference between them is like the difference between old film stock and videotape – often seen in the same programmes together during the 70s and 80s when location work was shot on old film reels and interior on video. The video segments are better in every technical respect, but they don’t look half as good.

So, how does all of this help Gordon? Not one jot in all likelihood, but it gives a fascinating insight into the power of photography or, if you’re more cynical, the power of a concerted and pre-conceived news agenda.

• The Impossible Project aims to restart production of Polaroid cameras. Head over for more details.

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