The Visual Correspondent
I reflect upon/write criticism about/curate exhibitions concerning the culture of illustration, and the illustrated periodical, broadly speaking. But my own practice has moved over the past decade to a narrower territory: reportage drawing, or "onsite work" in the vernacular. That enterprise has begun to reemerge in the digital era, now marching beneath the banner of "visual journalism."
I am working with students on just such a studio project right now, even as my other class, an academic seminar exploring the illustrated periodical, has brushed up against the reportage as a historical topic.
The subject is a rich one. Illustrated perspectives on the news have informed readers in several distinct epochs: from the mid19th century to 1900 or so, from the 1950s until roughly 1980, and once again during the Internet era, with increasing interest evident today.
At right, I am provide a diverse set of examples, historical and contemporary. Citations are provided in captions.
I have written on this and related topics before. At the bottom of this post are a set of links, which I recommend to those, especially, who are just beginning to explore this material—which is quite poorly represented in narratives of either narrative image-making or the press.
Illustrators, known as “special artists,” played a key role in the illustrated press, a creation of the mid-19th century–when the invention of wood engraving (1795) and improvements in printing presses and paper-making made truly industrial image production feasible for the first time. Special artists provided visual and textual narrations of the Crimean War for the Illustrated London News, and of the American Civil War for Harpers Weekly. “News pictures” lived a longer life than strictly necessary in the press, as illustrated accounts were regarded by audiences as more persuasive than photographic ones into the 20th century.
In 2015 I curated an exhibition in the Teaching Gallery at the Kemper Museum at Wash U titled Parallel Modes: Illustrated Visual Journalism and American Photography, 1955-1980. From the pamphlet essay I wrote at the time, a quick summary of the resurgence of the “special artist” tradition, in a more editorial form:
...As attitudes shifted, new opportunities were taking shape in magazine publishing. Illustrators had played prominent roles in presenting “the news” during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but as the century unfolded photography completely supplanted drawing as the primary means of representing events. From the 1920s on, the most prominent illustrators of the day were illustrating not news but romantic short stories in mainstream magazines. Those polished, idealized images relied extensively on photography to stage elaborate narratives, redrawn and painted in gouache. Around the same time, however, a younger group of illustrators emerged to reinvigorate journalistic drawing in American publications. Led by Robert Weaver, they detested romance illustration, which they regarded as hopelessly artificial. Instead they worked in the field, typically foregoing reference photography and using the immediacy of on-site drawing and expressionistic paint handling to report on real conditions. Photographic reportage remained dominant in magazines; the new journalistic drawing emerged as a complement to it. Weaver, Robert Andrew Parker, Cliff Condak, and veteran illustrator Austin Briggs, among others, worked on assignment for Sports Illustrated (SI), Esquire, Fortune, and Look. These magazines had begun to publish first-person nonfiction writing with a strong point of view, essays that relied on the techniques of fiction writing–an approach that came to be called “New Journalism.” Influential art directors such as Richard Gangel at SI commissioned illustrated features to reinforce the new editorial approach.
The break with, and hostility toward, prevailing practices in magazine illustration is difficult to overstate. Gangel, for example, emphasized what he would not publish: “Anything deriving from that exhausted old tradition in which the artist, as a mere interpreter of somebody’s script, painted gorgeous, dreamy works for ladies’ love stories—each creampuff page setting art backward a baby step.” (Dick Gangel, as quoted in “Letter from the Publisher,” Sports Illustrated, February 3, 1964. Gangel’s harsh judgment categorically values reportage over fiction illustration, and–implicitly–male audiences over female ones.
The Visual Essay. The magazines published visual essays, or suites of images by a single illustrator based on topical first-person reporting. Cliff Condak’s “Big Men on the Move” for SI captured daily life in the NBA, featuring the 1963-64 Cincinnati Royals and rising star Oscar Robertson; subtextually, it also showed an integrated locker room to a nation still adjusting to interracial intimacy at any level. Robert Weaver used a charcoal pencil and sketchbook, not a camera, to develop his spring training portfolio for SI–cannily documenting still-segregated Florida ballparks and the social order they represented. The Weaver baseball drawings shown here represent a fraction of the fifty sheets in his sketchbook, most with drawings front and back. Weaver developed a suite of paintings from these drawings for the illustrated feature “Spring Training: Fresh Starts and Old Hopes,” that ran in SI in 1962. A more direct translation from drawing to printed page is visible in Weaver’s work for Nicholas Pileggi’s feature on Little Italy in New York magazine. (New York, famously rebooted by editor Clay Felker and graphic designer Milton Glaser in 1968, became a showcase for New Journalism as well as the primary–and later, nearly the only–venue for Weaver’s work.) The drawings were reproduced directly and enlivened through the use of spot-color printing.
Austin Briggs’s landscape for Look betrays deep skepticism about the New South. Showy roadside billboards dominate the frame; only slowly do we discern the diminutive cotton pickers along the horizon line. Finally, Robert Andrew Parker’s work for Fortune may be less suggestive of social commentary, but the abstract energy of his approach is unmistakable. Parker’s feature on the Bethlehem Steel Corporation delivers a sense of what hot furnaces and molten metal are like. These illustrators–especially Weaver and Parker–became closely associated with the visual essay. As a “Letter from the Publisher” in Sports Illustrated declared in 1964: “[We hold] that the artist-reporter can do as much as the word-man or the cameraman to capture the shine and movement of sport. He brings his private and opinionated eye to the event; when he does his job well he catches truth in a new way.” (Gangel, again. The male pronouns are a little much, but think Mad Men.)
Links to relevant material in other posts: Mike Hirshon in Amsterdam; on composing from within, as opposed to simply looking at things, see Thickets, Screens, Scrims, of particular value to those working on the studio project mentioned above; "Drawing the Smell of Creamed Rice," on the poetic drawings of a friend in Germany; Back in the Swing, about a research trip Robert Weaver took to baseball spring training in February 1962–a New York Times feature from 9 years ago; on an interlude spent drawing airplanes, and the opportunities and problems afforded by the use of photographic reference. Finally, have a look at Urban Sketchers for evidence of a contemporary movement in this area.