Territory III: The Informational Image

An abbreviated post for the moment. I'll gather the appropriate bibliographical data (from a machine other than my laptop) in the coming day or two. [Image information now below.] But for the time being, consider this: the world of Art has long trafficked in hierarchical distinctions, known especially to designers and illustrators as "fine" and "applied." In prior periods, especially ones given, in reverberating habits of mind, to vertical distinctions of merit, art theorists were perfectly comfortable with the establishment of hierarchies within art. Typically, history painting ranked first, and still life came in dead last. The modernists reversed this order, celebrating the humble (and purely visual) disdaining the grandiose (and literary).


As visual communicators, we may be quick to chortle over these silly rankings, especially as we know the blunt end of them. But informational illustrators are not immune to such hierarchical judgments within the realm of design. A moment's reflection will show that editorialists outrank the informers. Name a significant informational illustration. Okay: how about the plates from Gray's Anatomy, published in London in 1858. So who created the plates? The wikipedia entry on the subject does not contemplate the question, let alone answer it. Who made the plates for Diderot's Encyclopedie? Anonymous tradesman-engravers. The few broadly recognized examples of informational images--e.g., Audobon--are not valued for the knowledge they encapsulate, but for the picturesque effect they provide.


As my prior post on plasticism pleads [Bring the alliteration under control. --ed.] the manipulation of space and form--and for information, data--requires intelligence and adaptive visual thinking. Information designers claim this territory proudly. Review any Tuesday's New York Times "Science Times" section you'll find extremely subtle but very clear-headed visual representations of data. 

But these constructions are rarely substantially, and almost never chiefly, pictorial. Illustrators tend to prize the personal, and so do not willingly claim informational images as valuable territory. A pity, and worthy of review.


I bought this 1846 meteorological greatest hits plate along with a handful of other such instructional cards from an antique print dealer in Arkansas. It bears the notation James Reynolds & Sons, 174 Strand, London

The Science and Society site in the UK provides this bibliographical data, which includes an illustrator/engraver credit to John Emslie:

Meteorological diagram 'displaying the various phenomena of the atmosphere', identified by a key beneath the illustration. One of a selection of 44 scientific teaching diagrams, drawn and engraved by John Emslie on geology, geography, astronomy and natural philosophy. This hand-coloured engraved plate is taken from a series published and probably written by James Reynolds of 174 Strand in London in 1850-1860 in response to the popular demand for information on developments taking place in science and engineering as a result of the Industrial Revolution. Superbly illustrated images with a related text were presented loose in a portfolio so that they could be passed around a class or lecture room or used as posters.

Below find a scan of the printed text on the back of the card.

an uncredited, somewhat zany pictorial graph from a story on the American economy in the January 5, 1953 issue of Life magazine. I will return to this suite of illustrations in another post


John James Audobon, watercolor illustration of the Crested Caracara, or Brazilian Caracara Eagle (polyborus plancus), painted near St. Augustine, Florida on November 27, 1831


Pablo Picasso, Still Life with Skull and Pitcher, 1945


the work of the distinguished Mr. Emslie


an illustration of the neurological system from Meyers' Lexicon, a German encylopedia from 1894.