Friday, July 23, 2010

Rackham on Photo Illustration

Even as far back as a century ago, magazines were beginning to use photographs to illustrate stories and poems. Arthur Rackham, sensitive to the threat that the art of photography posed to him as an illustrator, challenged the practice:

“Now your work, all your work, should be regarded as a work of imagination, as art. You are not copying-clerks or phonographers or recording angels. Yet there is some tendency now to illustrate even poetic works and fiction by photographs. Surely to place before your readers…the actuality you had before you when writing, is ruthlessly to rub off all the bloom of imagination, of temperament, of personal view, of atmosphere, which are your chief, your only, great claim to consideration.”

from James Hamilton's
biography of Arthur Rackham


Don Cox said...

"imagination, of temperament, of personal view, of atmosphere"

There are photographs which have all of these, and there are drawings and paintings which have none. Particularly the vast numbers of cliche-ridden fantasy illustrations currently being churned out.

Liliana Lucki said...

Simplemente maravilloso.

Todo !!!!

James Gurney said...

Don, good point--photography is of course fully as artistic as any other art form (and there's plenty of uninspired work in any category of art).

Rackham's quote interested me mainly because I always think of him as secure in the Golden Age without being threatened by new technology. Even the Old Illustration Greats had to deal with changes in the business environment caused by tech trends.

Anonymous said...

I've yet to see a photograph that rivals the intelligent imagination, charm, artistry, and personal view of a Rackham.

Mario said...

I agree on every single word by Rackham, and I'm happy that this point was expressed so clearly by such a master.
Photography of course can be artistic, but every art has its own "vocation", and photography is certainly more realistic than painting or drawing, where every part of the image, from general concept down to every point on the canvas, every line, every nuanche of color, can be decided by the artist.

James Gurney said...

"Every art has its own vocation." That's a really interesting way to put it, Mario.

As many of you have suggested Rackham’s comment raises an aesthetic issue in our times. What do people think of using photos to illustrate works of fiction, especially paperback covers and movie posters?

Until the ‘90s it was sort of an unspoken rule fictional characters should be represented with a painted image. When modern photo-illustrations first appeared they struck me as missing some of the “bloom of imagination” that Rackham is talking about.

But since then, Photoshop and Painter has sort of blurred the line between traditional paintings, digital images, and photographic images.

T. Arispe said...

I don't think it's wise to make any sort of definitive statement on which sort of art form works "best" for fantasy illustration. As several people have already said, there is room for both inspiration and blandness in all media.

On a personal level, however, I prefer painting/drawing for fantasy illustration, because it gives the artist room to perfectly capture their vision of the world they are illustrating without being constrained by the limitations of only being able to use the props and models, settings and lighting situations that they find in our reality. (It would drive me crazy trying to find someone to portray a certain character when I have such a vivid image of said character in my mind; far easier to just be able to sketch out exactly what they look like.)

Additionally, I happen to tend to like drawing and painting better than photography, but that's just me.

Doug said...


I think that one day, in the future, "digital" painting will be considered as "Traditional Media" and some of those artists using digital painting programs will be looking at the so called "ARTISTS" using the Psi-minder 3d Ultra 2.0 picture units that allow you to use just your mind-eye co-ordination to manipulate light bands and form 3d masterpieces for walk-in holo-theaters as challenging the definition of the creative process and the artists ego.

Still, I imagine, at this time, there will be someone, somewhere, leaning toward an easel, listening to the sound of the brush against the canvas,and feeling the resistance put on that brush by a masterful stroke.

Every medium has it's challenges, working both traditionally and digitally, I find those challenges to be different, yet producing similar results. It seems to me that whatever medium I use, I can't seem to shake off my nervous system, my minds library still shapes the idea regardless of reference, my hand still follows the same instructions.

I have had a very difficult time appreciating book covers that were Re-touched in Photoshop or painter with the intent of making them look like paintings, most notably those "painters" that used stock photography, some didn't goes as far as to take their own photos.

Then one day I saw a book cover, and I thought WOW! what a painting, who the heck did this! I found the artist on line, and sure enough, he was photo retouching stock photography.

I felt sick, is the cover I saw no longer "art"? Was the "bloom" gone now... Was the inspiration I had felt dead in me because of his method. Is method more important than outcome? Does the outcome represent method, artist, or both?

Well, I can't paint over photos, the method does not excite me as much as constructing the image from scratch, that excitement/inspiration I experience during the act of painting, is why I do it. I seldom get any gratification from the work after it is done.

Sorry for the long response and thanks for your patience and your blog...

I love Rackham!

WW said...

It's not uncommon for artists to fear becoming irrelevant. It happened to Rembrandt, even without the threat of photography. But perhaps no greater evil is blamed for the demise of traditional art forms than the emergence of photography. In the age of moon landings and Woodstock, a Rackham or a Rockwell illustration just wouldn't do.

But at least with respect to the type illustration shown here, Rackham, as it turned out, was correct. While many attempts have been made – some more successful than others – photography never became the preferred medium to depict the realm of the imagination. This is particular true of fantasy, science fiction, comics, and children's book illustration.

In Rackham's day, to render that scene photographically, one might get a pretty girl to pose in a nice dress, and a handsome man to wear a tree costume. But the camera would render these things all two well – "ruthlessly" – as Rackhman says. The method may have it's charms, but despite the novelty of seeing a man in a tree suit, it would more likely detract from rather than compliment the story it's meant to illustrate. Meanwhile, with pencil and ink, Rackham draws from a centuries old visual vocabulary and has refined it to perfection. No contest there.

A notable exception is the cinema. Even a lion suit and funnel-hat was sufficiently spell-binding for the Cowardly Lion and the Tin Man in the Wizard of Oz. From Metroproplis and King Kong, to The Hobbit and Avatar, the movies have succeeded in blending live action photography and various studio techniques to achieve convincingly photorealistic effects of imagined worlds. But in the print world, the land of fairies, dragons, and anthropomorphic plants animals have never been photo-friendly.

It remains to be seen wether the emergence of digital photography, digital painting, and CG changes any this. I do think they will become the preeminent tools for commercial illustration. Be that as it may, great artists may fall out of fashion, but that doesn't mean they've become irrelevant: the "faun" character of the movie Pan's Labyrinth is said to be inspired by the work of Arthur Rackham. Indeed, many of today's digital artist could learn a lot from him.

WW said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
James Gurney said...

Thanks, all, for these thoughtful and perceptive responses. Especially great to hear from you, Walter, as the master of photo illustration that casts a genuine other-worldly spell.

Unknown said...

This reminds me a bit of an interview I heard with a guy who developed a computer program that could extrapolate new works in the style of a composer, just by having the original works fed into it. Some fans were horrified, and thought it soulless etc.

I think the key to understanding what's going on there (and here in ways) is that the computer still isn't creating the music. The computer has been designed by a person to extrapolate the rules and styles that were developed by the original artist. No matter how well the computer "composes," it's still just following rules set by a person on how to imitate other people.

The connection here is that tech can't do anything by itself. It's all in how you use it. I'm sure tempera artists felt the same way about oil artists back in the day: "Well ANYBODY can blend colors using THAT stuff!"

It's all in how you use it. As Walter said, computers are allowing photos to be manipulated more than ever. If you think of photos as the paint itself, you can see how a Rackham could still work magic in that new medium.

A Kelly said...

As an avid reader and a writer myself, I find Rackham's comment to be particularly poignant as commentary on one of the more unnoticed concerns for some readers and authors of modern fantasy literature.

Photographic and photomanipulated covers on fantasy fiction in particular fail to inspire me to connect with them enough to take them up from a shelf -- even a minimalistic, non-illustrative cover gives me more feeling (perhaps some kind of innate appreciation for doing a lot with nothing?). While there is an application for all forms of art, even photographic and photomanipulated book covers, I personally feel some houses wield the ease of new technology with the appropriateness and grace of an overweight dragon performing Swan Lake. The resulting has been slews of tacky and uninspired covers appearing in genres they had no business appearing on the covers of.

Despite the old adage of not judging books by their covers, I still find it hard to detach from the notion that a certain sense of traditional wonder and grace has been removed from the equation. Publishers are kidding themselves if they don't think the cover -- no, rather, the wrapping -- has a critical bearing on how readily a reader will pick up a new book and by extension to the success of that book as a business venture. This 'supplemental material' is an aesthetic construct -- we as humans are attracted to the visual, it permeates every aspect of our daily lives, and as we go about our routines we often subconsciously give more bearing to that which appeals to us on a purely visual level.

Photographs used to illustrate high fiction often robs us of that often unnoticed undercurrent of inherent detatchment from reality that attracts many fantasy lovers, by way of making a subconscious connection with the mundane through the use of reality as a illustrative medium.

Or that's my opinion, rather, haha.

James Gurney said...

A Kelly: thanks--those are deep thoughts, eloquently expressed.