Wanted: Brief Essay on Methods and Sources
This post provides many examples with some context. Students, read through the whole thing once, then a second time reflecting on the questions posed in the wrap-up.
I am teaching a course called Visual Journalism and Reportage Drawing this semester, for the second time. I last did so in the spring of 2015.
We have looked at historical sources from the second half of the nineteenth century into the 20th. The other day we went to West Campus to see work from what might be termed a "Silver Age" of visual journalism, from the mid-1950s through the 1970s. This is the era of the "New Journalism" associated with writers like Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese and Hunter S. Thompson. The illustrators we looked at that day included Robert Weaver, Robert Andrew Parker, and Cliff Condak--all of whom are in the collections of Modern Graphic History Library.
Below, an extended quote from an exhibition brochure I wrote to accompany a show on this general topic. (Of the photographic dimensions of that show, another day.)
Excerpted from the text:
The years immediately following World War II were especially good for magazine fiction illustration. But shifting tastes and the encroachment of television created pressure on magazines to adapt.
Some magazines sought to capture the shifting zeitgeist in an evolving marketplace. Influential art directors like Richard Gangel at Sports Illustrated argued that illustrators could assist in that effort, by offering singular perspectives on events. New illustrator-correspondents were recruited to capture the atmospherics of contemporary social life, commerce and sport. They worked for innovative periodicals like SI, Esquire, Fortune, and Look. These magazines published first-person nonfiction writing with a strong point of view, essays which relied on the techniques of fiction writing... The break with, and hostility toward, then-prevailing illustration practices is difficult to overstate. Gangel 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." (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.)
Leading magazines commissioned visual essays, or suites of images by a single illustrator based on topical first-person reporting. Illustrators like Robert Weaver and R. A. Parker became closely associated with the magazine visual essay: arguably, the illustrators’ version of the New Journalism. As a “Letter from the Publisher” (the same one quoted above) in Sports Illustrated declared in 1963:
"[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."
Leaving aside the typical-of-the-period chauvinism of the pronouns, this is a compelling position to those of us who see drawing as elementally important. (Once more, with feeling!)
For the record, below is the checklist from that exhibition (clickable for increased legibility).
Students: as you may have noticed, shown at right are a variety of samples from illustrators we looked at in class the other day. Some of the Weaver baseball drawings ran in the New York Times ten years ago, and are accessible here.
And below, two pieces by Shreyas R Krishan, who was kind enough to drop by class on Wednesday: a view out an airplane window, and the collaged cactus spread we talked about.
The work presented from this period has a certain shagginess about it, a reaction against the boy/girl illustration at which people like Gangel (and Weaver) sneered. It reflects the tastes of abstract expressionism and the personal roughage, as it were, of psychoanalysis, shifting into the Civil Rights era and Vietnam.
These illustrators (save for Shreyas) are all male, but there were women at work in the same period whose approach to making images can be applied to reportage.
Evaline Ness used printmaking and hand made color separations to create elementally satisfying images; Lorraine Fox worked in a modernist mode of flat shape and color. Quite differently and much earlier, Anne Harriet Fish used a combination of writing and cartooned figures to capture social mores in the pages of Harper's Bazaar and Vanity Fair in the 1910s and 20s. Not reportage, necessarily, but reporting, for sure.
For a wide variety of projects, both geographically and culturally, go to the site of the Melton Prior Institute of Reportage Drawing, created by my friend Alexander Roob in Dusseldorf. The Pictorials page is worth scrolling through and through and through...
There are plenty of folks doing contemporary reportage as well: Urban Sketchers compiles many examples.
Inspired by both Robert Andrew Parker's cars and Shreyas' travel journal, I'm adding a few things from the recesses of my old files.
Students: as the first half of the semester winds down, we are beginning to consolidate early efforts. As I noted at the beginning of the course, I have seen this as a period of extended warm up and practice, freed from the "problem-solving" aspects of design work. You have been "assigned" very open-ended prompts like event, setting, and character.
I have received some communications suggesting disappointment, partly due to confusion. I don't like what I am making. I don't know what good means in this context.
Some of your anxiety may be connected to the problem of open-endedness. Why am I making this thing? Why indeed! Why have you chosen to make it? What do you want us to see?
At heart, this is a question about an experience, and the representation of it. All drawings are abstractions, so why should this particular abstraction be manifested thusly, including x and leaving out y? Every illustrator shown (and linked to) here engages in editing, by virtue of exclusion and inclusion. All of them make choices, about the distribution of emphasis--hierarchy, in a word. But why? To show what?
Soon, after spring break, you will be assigned a subject to work on. It will require you to write and draw and compose a narrative. You will be accountable to things and people. This accountability will help to focus your work. But part of the reason for our extended warm-up and practice--and for our consultation of historical sources--is the development of an approach, a mindset, that you can bring to reportorial work.
For Wednesday of this week (February 28), I would like you to write a 750 word essay with illustrations describing your process to date. Which are the most suggestive drawings you have made in this course? Which raise questions you want to pursue? Capture what you have learned, identify your struggles. In addition to reflections on your own work, I would like you to cite and show several examples of historical material (some of which you may have shot on your phones last week in the collections) which are relevant to you.
The primary goal of this piece of writing is to address the relationship between your drawings and the subjects they represent. What do you seek to show? How your is methodology is evolving to meet your pictorial/reportorial/creative aspirations?
I'd like you to engage particular works by others to integrate into this discussion. How are other illustrators' aspirations made manifest?
What about yours?