Adventures with a blow-up doll
Basil Pao is best known as Michael Palin’s stills photographer. He’s the faithful chronicler of their global travels together for the BBC over 25 years, with several beautiful books to his credit.
On many of their trips, Basil took along a deflated Scream doll, his daughter Sonia’s second-favourite toy. Aged six, she begged her father to take her teddy bear Clara along to photograph on his travels, but Basil always refused, saying Clara would take up too much precious space. He was finally persuaded to take along the Scream on his odysseys instead. This was the blow-up version of what Michael Palin describes as Edward Munch’s “Icon for stress” in the preface to Basil’s new book, The Universal Scream.
A hundred years ago yesterday, Munch described on his way home seeing an extraordinary glow in the sky and having an experience which felt like “a scream passing through nature.” This became the subject of many paintings and proved to be the most valuable scream in history, changing hands at Sotheby’s for US$119million last year. Munch’s mummy-like figure with hands held protectively up beside its face Is not a happy image, it expresses something discordant and disturbing, writes Michael Palin. “What started as a scream against nature has increasingly come to represent a scream against the pressure modern life. The arms pathetically raised to block out fear, noise, oppression, lack of time, lack of space, lack of love,” he writes, adding that it has also become a brand and a trademark.
Cheung Chau native Basil’s new book features the inflatable Scream posing in many eccentric locations round the world, from Alcatraz to a graveyard for Russian tanks, a shipyard in Dalian and on the Great Wall of China.
Taken during BBC trips
Keen fans of Palin’s BBC TV travel shows will spot some familiar locations. A lot, but by no means all, of these pictures were taken on our BBC travels, writes Michael Palin. “Over the years I’ve become quite used to being upstaged by The Scream. After he has dutifully snapped me in various poses, I recognise an altogether different side of Basil, as he delves into his bag and reaches for Munch’s inflatable masterpiece.” He continues that duty to the production done, a sense of dogged purpose takes over as Basil puts his lips to the Scream and starts to blow. A new Scream photo is imminent.
In this admirably wacky collection, Basil has found a different way of looking at this familiar image, he says. “Instead of seeing the Scream as shutting out the world, Basil has used it for precisely the opposite effect, as a way of opening it up, as a way of celebrating ways in which very different people from very different backgrounds can be brought together.”
So what does Basil think is so special about The Scream after a hundred years? “It speaks to people on a certain level,” he says. The transition from Munch’s original paintings to the blow up doll changed the meaning. “Now it’s a blow up doll photographed around the world. This changes the nature of the Scream once again,” he says. “It just puts a smile on people’s faces.”
And what does Sonia, now 25, think of the book of Scream photos? “She likes the way I stuck with it,” laughs Basil. “She thinks it’s a lot of fun.” The Scream doll was shot in more than 400 locati0ons. So whittling them down to 360 took some doing. Now it’s pretty much one for every day of the year. Not only has he published a book, The Universal Scream, available from Bookazine and the Foreign Correspondents’ Club in Central, but a different Scream image will be posted every day on the Basil Pao Photography Facebook home page.
Anyone who would like to see his exhibition of Scream photos, on til December 31, can view them around the main bar of the FCC. Non- members are welcome to come and see the photos.