Wednesday, February 29, 2012

In Honor of Leap Day

Bufo Americanus. Gouache and prismacolor. From the MySci Project, a few years back. (2005).

Onward into March.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Teddy Roosevelt as a Cheshire Cat

A rare thing these days: a smiling Republican.

I am listening to Rick Santorum speak after losing the Michigan primary. (Why?)

It is possible that I will plunge an icepick into my eyeball before he is finished.

It is also possible I deserve this fate, since I am an elitist professor, and likely a snob. Though I teach, write and practice illustration, which seems pretty snob-proof.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

The New Journalism & Illustration

The much ballyhooed New Journalism of the 196os and 70s featured writers like Tom Wolfe, Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer. Wolfe made a career of it, partly by solidifying his own myth in telling the tale. In Drawing Conclusions this week we are reading sources from the period, pro and con.

But the visual practitioners of the New Journalism–in particular, the illustrators who operated as correspondents on assignment–have been left out of the story. Publications like Esquire, Fortune, Sports Illustrated and New York Magazine commissioned such projects.

Readers of this blog may recall the pivotal role that the illustrator Robert Weaver played in these developments.

In 1969, Weaver produced such an essay for Fortune magazine, a top-to-bottom account of work in the Woolworth Company. A set of images from this project was recently posted in the pictorials section of the Melton Prior Institute website. (The Melton Prior is devoted to the study and promotion of the tradition of reportage drawing. It's located in Dusseldorf. I haven't been yet, but plan to visit in the next year or so.)

I'm posting a few images from their display.

The line drawings and the color finishes cast interesting light on each other.

In most cases, I prefer the line study.

Images: Robert Weaver, suite of images from What's Come Over Old Woolworth?, Fortune Magazine, January 1969; Photographer credit unavailable, Photograph of Tom Wolfe, cover, New York Magazine, February 14, 1972.

Facts, Truth, Art, Gall

Recently we have explored questions raised by the history of visual journalism. Of primary concern has been the relationship between "the facts" and "the story"; or more precisely, the way certain facts lead in the direction of–or are selected so as to construct–one story versus another.

The lead article in today's New York Times Book Review (alertly flagged by a student before I'd managed to reach that section this morning) concerns The Lifespan of a Fact, by John D'Agata and Jim Fingal. The book consists of a series of exchanges between the authors: D'Agata, who was working on a nonfiction piece for the Believer, and Fingal, the fact-checker charged by the Believer to vet the article. Their exchanges were difficult, even unpleasant.

The article in question was an essay about a boy named Levi Presley who jumped to his death from a hotel in Las Vegas in 2002. To simplify (but not a great deal): D'Agata took liberties with facts in the service of Art.

Jennifer B. McDonald's review demonstrates her deep impatience with D'Agata's stance. In her rendering, it seems difficult to imagine credible counterargument. Her review is so effective that I found myself wondering whether she'd eliminated available nuance to make her points. (But I do enjoy reading irritated [good] writers.)

"D’Agata argues... his duty is not to accuracy, nor to Levi. His duty is to Truth. And when an artist works in service of Truth, fidelity to fact is irrelevant."

Lest we harrumph too quickly, no less a personage than Aristotle has made the same argument. In the Poetics, Aristotle marks a bright line between poetry and history. The poet worries about form; the historian, accuracy. We have discussed these very issues in recent weeks in our Drawing Conclusions seminar.

Quoting Murray Krieger in "Fiction, History and Reality" (1978):

"What the Aristotelian poet does is to transform the empirical world's casual into art's causal (and what new worlds are opened up by the simple transposition of the "su" of casual into causal!). He marks off what, from history's viewpoint, may seem like a mere line segment, plucks it out of its empirical sequence, away from what comes before and goes after, and turns it into all the time there is or has been or even can be. In effect, he bends the line segment into a circle, a mutually dependent merger of all beginnings, middles, and ends; and the self-sufficient world of his poem is enclosed by it. We can never be further from the literal imitation of history, from the dependence of internal sequence upon external sequence, than Aristotle is here."

So is D'Agata an Aristotelian? Perhaps. These are weighty questions, in the abstract. But this case is this case. For my money, McDonald's points resonate. Oedipus Rex did not run in a newspaper or magazine as a nonfiction story. The particularities of Levi Presley's death are knowable; willful amendment to the factual context (which Jim Fingal establishes) in a publication (The Believer) which announces to readers that it does not publish fiction seems less like Art than Vanity.

As McDonald notes, aesthetics and nonfiction need not be strangers, and aren't in the best hands.

I recommend reading the whole of her essay.

Images: Henrik Kubel & A2/SW/HK (a London design shop), Fact, typographic illustration, New York Times Book Review, February 26, 2012; Illustrator credit unavailable, Falling Burglar, Le Petit Journal Illustrated Supplement, Paris, Sunday May 14, 1899.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Drawing Meets Design: Line & Shape

What is the relationship between drawing and design? The Renaissance term disegno binds them together as a kind of thinking-through-drawing.

My students are working with just such a drawing/design problem right now. The project sheet has informed them that the distribution of line, shape, tone and pattern are primary. But what does it mean? "The distribution of line, shape, tone and pattern are primary." It sounds like Beginning-Design-Class pablum. Which it can be. (Zzzzz.)

It sez here: the language of forms rewards investigation.

The Seymour Chwast ink drawing from Pushpin #21 (above) integrates strong black shape and a husky brushed line to hold the page. But the angular rhythm of those legs makes the thing work, by preventing the white/black, white/black, white/black march of the costumes from becoming insistent. That and the visual syncopation of the last black shape; it works off the dotted half note of the second black figure. The image fuses description and form.

In some cases, well-used contour line and a strong sense of shape is enough to generate interest. Ed Benedict's character sheet is a study in drawing and design. Look at the geometry of the second figure from the left. Check out the pinwheel created by the forward edge of his hat, right jowl and chin. Ponder the elegance of the shape of his hat brim--like a response to Noguchi or Calder. Below, a series of shapes I isolated from that pencil in Illustrator.

Below, another piece of cartoon language with surprising design sense.

Mostly line, but for the black pants-legs-feet-shoes. Note that the information for all that is compressed into one exquisitely elaborated positive shape that activates negative space all around it. And the second line color adds interest but also keeps things under control. Nice pattern, too.

Just in case you're thinking this is about "style", think again. Above, an ink drawing by Eulalie Banks reproduced with machine-shaded screentone passages. The line does 90 percent of the work. She creates interest through distinct passages offset by negative space: the birdcage; the windowpanes; the curtains; woodgrain on the table; the gathered cloth below the waistband on the apron; the dots in the hat; the banding on the bowl, the stonework along the right edge. Etcetera.

Here's a case where line and pattern are used within a defined format to create positive and negative form. Within the rules of the depiction and the limits of the medium (woodcut), no opportunity is wasted. To wit: the profile of the horseshoes and metalwork on the hooves; the attenuated triangles on the right figure's stockings above the knee; the diagonal gesture of the scabbard that breaks the negative space between the same figure's legs. In general, look at all the negative spaces; that's where the money is, so to speak.

A contemporary cousin of those playing cards, by Toby Thane Neighbors.

Above, with details below, an allegorical panel by Karel Spillar in Gerlach's Allegories. (That's Music, Poetry, Painting). Most edifying. Here some lovely line has been reinforced by "coloring in" the negative space. Works just fine.

Please note two things: first, how about the active use of the figure to build composition, especially Tambourine Girl at left, and second, consider the role that non-figurative elements play in building form. The tree and the foliage are major structural pieces of the puzzle.

Gesture + props + setting elements + foliage = positive/negative composite.

While we're thinking about black and white (which helps to isolate these questions) here's a purely tonal vocabulary that exploits negative space delightfully. There's no box as a container for the picture; the edge of the format is created optically.

And then there's the relationship between line and supplementary shape. This mother hen is mine, a spot illustration for a book project from last year. I include it in this set because of the simple relationship between the black line and three sets of shapes: blue, white and black. The blue and white collaborate to create a set of supporting shapes that add interest and body to the image: the blue mass of the bird; the white breast and face detailing; the intimation of a white butt. That the blue is a low chroma, middle value is important; it balances the light and dark.

Here are some character studies in a sketchbook painting from a few years ago. The question of what's a line and what's an edge is critical, as is the issue of adjacency: what value is next to what other value?

Below, an Alex Steinweiss record album cover from 1946. Here's a case where the line/shape relationship takes a different turn.

The shapes are superimposed on networks of line: sometimes to complete a shape suggested by those lines (the pine trees) and sometimes to establish a contrasting form which is more or less indifferent to the linework.

The application of the shape and the color is seemingly casual in both cases. (But only seemingly. The disegno has a rakish touch.)

And sometimes, there are scarcely any lines at all.

These are all edge. We group things together through association, especially the pieces of the prone boy leaning on his elbows in number 2.

Above and below, color maquettes or design comps (short for design comprehensives, which nobody ever says) by the Swedish graphic designer Olle Eksell for a children's book with a title that I can't read, either in Swedish or in the Japanese caption provided by the publisher (Pie Books, Tokyo). 1958.

How smart and confident!

See above. She would be easy to dismiss. But not to the discerning formalist. Check out the subtle "lace" linear gesture above the Dutch Girl's right (rear) foot, and the way that it's echoed by the scalloped edge of her apron. Or the way that the calligraphic contour line that describes her shoes bows out in spots, leaving orange access to yellow.

Finally, two examples in which shape and edge are used to establish characters and forms, but within which line and supplementary shape articulate interior information. Above, Harry Beckhoff, and below, Jim Flora.

Images: Seymour Chwast, illustration in Pushpin #21, 1959; Ed Benedict, character sheet for Deputy Droopy, MGM Animation directed by Tex Avery, 1955; Designer unknown, Marty Mayrose advertising character for Mayrose Meats, circa 1967; Eulalie Banks, Chicken Little in the children's book of the same name, for Platt and Munk, 1932; Jehan Volay, publisher, Playing Cards with Spanish Suits, 18th century (reproduced in the Dover book Antique Playing Cards, 1996); Toby Thane Neighbors, illustration for Faesthetic No. 13; Karel Spillar, Music, Poetry, Painting in Gerlach's Allegorien, 1898; Ruth Chrisman Gannett, illustration for My Father's Dragon, by Ruth Stiles Gannett, 1948; D.B. Dowd, Mother Hen, from In Pursuit of God's Kingdom, by the Rev. James F. Dowd [my uncle] 2011; Dowd, Characters Waiting, sketchbook painting, 2009; Alex Steinweiss, album cover design for Respighi: The Pines of Rome, conducted by Eugene Ormandy, Columbia Records, 1946; Olle Eksell, children's book design comps, 1958; Designer unknown, Dutch Girl advertising character, 1956; Harry Beckhoff, You must take this thing out of here, fiction illustration for Collier's June 12, 1941; Jim Flora, album cover design for Redskin Romp, Charlie Barnet and his Orchestra, RCA Victor, 1946.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Calendar Geekery

I have written before about my calendar challenges. I can't really explain why I so dislike pre-printed personal calendars, but I do. It's a forced order, I guess. Since I am modern human operating in a professional culture, I must track my appointments. Over time, I have developed a regime that I can own.

I have to make my calendars. I've tried a variety of blank books; mostly Moleskins, which have worked well, but this year I wanted an actual hardback book with just a little heavier paper. I lurked around a few bookstores looking for the right thing, which ultimately I found at Artmart, a locally-owned art + craft + stationery place. I love the book I bought. Clothbound, nice heft. It's a Trav-e-logue Watercolor Journal by Hand-Book.

My basic format has stayed pretty consistent, shown in a number of these examples. Seven columns, a week at a time.

Typically I have used prismacolor colored pencils and a ruler. This year I decided to draw it all with a brush, looser, no ruler. A little water woke up the gouache remnants I have sitting around in my studio on about a dozen little plates. (These are the palettes from Spartan Holiday No. 1.)

I use the headings as an excuse to goof around with lettering. I vary the color on a (more or less) monthly basis to keep myself interested.

I'm not disciplined enough about writing things down (which might be characterized as passive resistance). I am however compulsive about recording my swim workouts. I track yardage, intervals and times. Honestly, I've gotten much much geekier over time.

My original post on this subject really had to do with dailiness of making crap, and the way in which "the offhand thing" offers important evidence about one's concerns. I still think that's true.

Last time I wrote about this I got a nice comment from Klaus von Mirbach, a bookbinder and artist's book maker. I dropped by his blog this morning and enjoyed looking at spreads from this book.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

On Sale at Star Clipper

For St. Louis folks, Spartan Holiday is now on the shelf at Star Clipper Comics on the University City Loop. Proprietor AJ Trujillo snapped this cellphone pic to prove it. Woo hoo!

Other outlets in diverse geographical locales are coming online; details soon.

Of News and Pictures, Then and Now

This is the fourth year running that I’ve offered a spring semester academic course (as opposed to a studio one; the distinction being, chiefly, writing versus making). I’ve alternated between an introductory course in (primarily) American visual culture and a more research-focused seminar.

Two years ago I offered a seminar–Readings in Postwar American Visual Culture 1945-1965. The students that time out produced some lively and fascinating research projects, formatted as online exhibitions. They’re accessible here.

This time we're exploring new course material in alignment with my own recent research (both creative and historical) in visual journalism, and particularly reportage drawing. The course is called Drawing Conclusions: Illustration, Visual Journalism, and the History of the Press. We’re reading some standard press histories to provide context. The visual aspects of newspapering tend to be associated with sales, not information.

Michael Schudson characterizes increasingly visual practices in the pages of Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World as self-advertisement. “ anything about newspaper layout and newspaper policy, outside of basic news gathering, which is designed to attract the eye and the small change of readers.” Schudson goes on to offer that “one of the most important developments of self-advertising...was the use of illustrations.” (Discovering the News; a Social History of American Newspapers, 1978.)

Such analyses suggest a somewhat Puritan attitude about the use of images. The primacy of text is a given; the use of images could be justified as salesmanship, but not as an aid to understanding, excepting immigrants with poor English. It might be suggested that visual coherency and complementarity of elements (or “layout” and well-crafted text & image relationships) affect sales because they result in greater understanding and retention, but that’s another discussion.

For present purposes, I’m interested in how pictures and diagrammatic materials aid in journalistic understanding. At the top of this post, a memorable image of the Costa Concordia, an ill-captained cruise ship that foundered on rocks just offshore in Italy on January 13, 2012. Here's a case in which words would fail to convey the incongruity of the scene: a massive ship tipped ludicrously on its side in shallow water, a maritime drunken uncle. It would be funny but for the loss of life. Seventeen people have been confirmed dead.

This week in class we will be using the Civil War battle of Antietam (September 1862) as a case study, drawing on contemporaneous illustrated accounts in Harper’s Weekly and Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, as well as the epochal photographs shot by Alexander Gardner after the battle. Epochal, because they presented images of soldiers’ corpses, capturing the aftermath of battle: a litter of carnage. (As with everything, the new is framed by limitation. Gardner photographed corpses because that’s the only aspect of battle he could have shot with the equipment of the era: the apparatus was bulky, and shutter speeds were interminable. Dead men don’t move. Although the photographers occasionally moved them, for compositional purposes.)

There are useful notes on the Antietam National Battlefield website concerning Gardner’s photographs, especially the use of stereoscopic techniques, used to produce a 3-D image when seen through a viewing device. And the Atlantic, which is publishing a special Civil War anniversary issue, presents about 20 stereoscopic images on its site here. If you click on the images they shift from one exposure to the other, creating a crazy miniature animation.

Above, Timothy O’Sullivan photograph of Alfred Waud, the Harper’s illustrator (who was present at Antietam) at Gettysburg in July 1863. Specifically, Waud is sitting on a rock in Devil’s Den, a particularly ghastly spot on the second day of the battle. This is a red-blue anaglyph version of the stereoscopic pair of exposures.

The ANB site does a solid though abbreviated job of presenting its material, but this sentence, concerning Gardner's work, appears without qualification: “It wasn’t until September of 1862 that the first true images of war were produced. Antietam was the first battle to depict the grim and bloody truth of civil war.”

The first true images of war. Yes, or no? Discuss.

I have been thinking of this in the context of a classical author who would object to such a conclusion. Plato’s Republic famously seeks to define the contours of the well-ordered state. Book X addresses the role of painters and poets in such a state. The news is not good for “the creatives”; they're tossed out. Painters are defined as imitators of appearances. Plato uses the example of a bed, which exists as an ideal form, a divine bedness beyond the particulars of any one bed. A carpenter fashions a particular bed, which is once removed from the ideal bed. The painter makes an image of the carpenter’s bed, now twice removed from the ideal. The painter, argues Plato, knows zip about beds. What he does know are parlor tricks, deceptions; he is several steps removed from the truth.

But the painter’s ignorance is only part of the problem. The painter and his cousin the poet do not rely on sober judgment and reason. Rather, they play to the emotions.

Concerning the poet, Plato writes:

And now we may fairly take him and place him by the side of the painter, for he is like him in two ways: first, inasmuch as his creations have an inferior degree of truth–in this, I say, he is like him; and he is also like him in being concerned with an inferior part of the soul; and therefore we shall be right in refusing to admit him into a well-ordered State, because he awakens and nourishes and strengthens the feelings and impairs the reason. As in a city when the evil are permitted to have authority and the good are put out of the way, so in the soul of man, as we maintain, the imitative poet implants an evil constitution, for he indulges the irrational nature which has no discernment of greater and less, but thinks the same thing at one time great and at another small–he is a manufacturer of images and is very far removed from the truth.

These ideas are 1) deeply significant in western intellectual history, and 2) to blame for countless dopey allegorical paintings from the 18th and 19th centuries, thanks to neoclassicism. There’s much too much to cover here. But Plato raises good questions, especially for our relatively delimited discussion subject of the visual journalism of war. We can argue persuasively that there are no “ideal” soldiers; only particular soldiers die: somebody’s son or brother or father (or daughter or sister or mother, nowadays). But Plato, reviewing Gardner’s Antietam photographs of Civil War dead, might argue: This is a true image of war? A vast conflict is waged for complex reasons. Won’t the “true” image seek to show causes and effects on a macro scale? Isn’t the presentation of horrible casualties simply an appeal to feelings, and a denial of reason?

Meanwhile, history and technology have sped along undeterred. The era of the photojournalist and the filmmaker followed the heyday of the "special artist" (as people like Waud were known). Video and television came next. The consumer-grade camera enabled surreptitious eyewitness video, most significantly in the Rodney King beating (March 3, 1991) broadcast on television after the fact, leading to rioting in South Central Los Angeles. Today’s handheld cameras and smartphones have democratized reporting yet again, and the distribution mechanism of broadband internet and social media have enabled nearly instantaneous worldwide distribution.

Which brings me to a contemporary echo of Gardner’s Antietam pictures. Several years ago, dramatic protests broke out Iran following the announcement of widely distrusted presidential election results. Opposition rallies began on June 13, 2009 and continued through the end of that month. People around the world tracked the events on Twitter, which was used to spread word of violence and arrests. Seemingly rattled at first, the regime deployed Basij paramilitary units to suppress the protests.

On June 20, a government sniper claimed the life of a young woman named Neda Agha-Soltan.

An eyewitness wrote:

At 19:05 June 20th Place: Karekar Ave., at the corner crossing Khosravi St. and Salehi st. A young woman who was standing aside with her father [note: he turned out to be her music teacher]watching the protests was shot by a basij member hiding on the rooftop of a civilian house... I am a doctor, so I rushed to try to save her. But the impact of the gunshot was so fierce that the bullet had blasted inside the victim's chest, and she died in less than 2 minutes. The protests were going on about 1 kilometers away in the main street and some of the protesting crowd were running from tear gas used among them, towards Salehi St.

We know about this event because it was videotaped by at least three people. Along with millions of other people, I saw the video that very day. At the time I wished I hadn’t. As the doctor reports, she bleeds to death very rapidly. Neda’s death galvanized the Green Movement instantly, and the regime was quick to isolate her family as a countermeasure.

Above is a still from the longest of the three videos capturing her death. You can view this clip here, if you decide to. But be warned: it’s extremely upsetting.

The martyrdom of Neda Agha-Soltan will, like the dead of Antietam, resonate in global media history. It will also matter in the unfolding national narrative of Iran.

But what does a 40-second video clip of a dying individual on the fringes of an event tell us about complex political phenomena? Doesn't the symbolic urge–the rush to make meaning out of grievous happenstance–threaten to overcome the merely factual? And is it possible that viewers' outrage simply justifies participation in a pornography of violence? Finally, shouldn't we bring each of those questions to Gardner's photographs, 150 years after the fact?


Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Visual Journalism in Copenhagen: Summer Class

I'm happy to report that I will be teaching a three-week workshop in Copenhagen this July. The course is open to Washington University students, but also to the wider world. It's called Graphic Reportage Workshop, though a better title would be Visual Journalism Workshop. Below, my write-up for the class:

Copenhagen is many things: a mecca for contemporary designers and urbanists, a maritime center, a richly textured historical site, a hub for green industries, the seat of a constitutional monarchy, home to one of the oldest amusement parks in the world. Throughout this three-week workshop, students will use the city of Copenhagen as a source for working toward a multilayered understanding of what turns a location into a place. The program will provide an immersive experience in visual reporting, concept development, and nonfiction writing in an international setting. Each student will develop an integrated visual and textual essay on a subject or theme of their choosing. Working in teams, they will produce coherent typographic approaches to the essays. Final projects will be integrated into a collective digital publication formatted for iPad distribution.

The workshop is open to all students at the undergraduate level or beyond, as well as recent graduates. Classes will meet five days a week, providing ample time for additional excursions. Course work will include opportunities to observe, draw, and photograph the city and interview its inhabitants, in addition to required readings, research, and writing.

I'm excited about the experience, which I think will serve a diverse group. Serious visual training is not a prerequisite; the wonders of digital cameras make photographic reportage possible for the relatively inexperienced. The pivotal questions will be about the magic Venn diagram that captures the intersection of personal p.o.v. and (at least mildly) journalistically relevant content. It's a rich place; and the most charming city I have visited. Bonus points for "Hamlet's Castle" (really; it's in Elsinore) and the Little Mermaid, who hangs out in the harbor.

Anyone who's interested should contact the knowledgeable, helpful and straight-shooting Belinda Lee in the Study Abroad office of the Sam Fox School at Washington University. What a pro. Belinda's email is below.

The deadline is March 1st, so if you're curious don't dawdle!

Monday, February 6, 2012

Spartan Holiday No. 1: Shanghai Pictorial

Sound the trumpet!

As of today, we are equipped to take online orders for the first issue of Spartan Holiday. The first installment covers my visit to Shanghai last year, and blends travel reportage, autobiography and reflections on local visual culture, including an architectural infatuation with cupolas, then and now.

Those in the St. Louis area will be able to purchase copies at local bookstores and comic shops. The zine will be available at Star Clipper Comics on the University City loop in the next few days. I’ll issue an update on that front in a week or so.

Within the next week, Spartan Holiday will also be available at the Minnesota Center for For Book Arts bookstore in Minneapolis.

If you have an interest in stocking or distributing the zine in your corner of the world, please contact me here.