N vision


Archive for April, 2011

April 8th, 2011

The impossibility of news illustration

When in 1885 the first photograph was published in newspapers, it marked a change in the news industry. Though it would still take a long time for the photographic reproduction to be really accepted as valid news by the public. In the late 19th century the photographic picture stood for the ideas of realism and modernity which newspapers wanted to represent, besides the photographic process allowed for much more editorial control.  And once a news publisher committed to change to the expensive chemical and technological production system, the simple economics of return on investment demanded a solid usage of photographic pictures to the demise of illustration.

Before the entrée of photography, the illustration would determine the news image, not just though visual dominance of picture over text, but also through its content and its interpretations. The images were made by specialist news-illustrators, who were employed to go out to newsworthy events and make sketches on the spot. Using this material, other image sources, such as photographic reference, imagination and personal points of view, they created their interpretation of the event, which was presented as a true documentation.

The question is off course whether this really was what Victorian readers understood as news depiction or if the illustrator saw it as a personal interpretation, as we would see it today. How was the editorial illustration interpreted in 1880, when there was really no other visual medium to compare it with? What information did the reader seek to find in these pictures, what meaning did he want to extract?

Photography was already widely known, but was not necessarily seen as a way of representing news events, On the one hand by the limitations of technology at the time, on the other through the readers understanding of what news depiction was.

Newspapers were there to inform but more so to confirm the readers own status in life. Moral and social impact was given a lot of weight. Towards the end of the decade, with so many social, political and technological changes, this attitude changed to a desire for a clearer understanding of the world around, the physical evidence of reality captured in the photograph was a visual extension of this way of thinking.

The inherent qualities and limitations of news-illustration were no longer able to fulfil this desire for evidencing. Gradually it grew to into the position of partnering the reflective, the opinion and the imaginative. Forwarding traits already part of illustration but now explored more overtly.

For a long time the camera has been dominating the printed news. But though it might be able to capture reality and freeze the instant, the image is only news if a photographer happens to be at the right place at the right moment and in addition showing the right drama in the right composition. Anything happening elsewhere, badly framed or in technically unsuitable conditions will not be reproduced in a newspaper will not be news. News needs to happen when a professional camera can capture it. Leading to an industry of orchestrated camera-opportunities, from handshaking ministers, red carpet Hollywood launches to embedded war reporters. Every now and then a photographer turns his camera to his colleagues and depicts the perverse news industry that has been created to feed this need for ‘real’ pictures.

A new type of news images is again changing the news media. The amateur witness, sometimes even the victims turning their cameras on themselves, broadcast their plight to the world. Whatever drives them, all the newspapers have to do is edit this stream and give their readers a filtered chunk of news, finally able to present news ‘from the happening place, at the happening moment, by the happening people’.

No longer in the position to report the reality of the instant here and now, their reporting aim to connect to our moral, ethical and aesthetical sense. Where an ethical code of non-falsification tries to keep a tight grip on what is shown. The desire for the different angle in a world filled with images, forces the images to keep questioning this boundary. The professional photojournalist is no longer needed to report, news will report itself. Like the illustrators a100 years ago they are seeking the position of reflection, opinion and imagination.

Over the same time that news photography has been developing, so has its audience. Where the newspaper editors soon clued in that what you saw printed was an interpretation, be it illustration or photograph, so does now does the viewer. With digital manipulation technology permeating all areas of visual communication, the evidencing status of the news image is being questioned by its destined audience. Though the news industry is fiercely guarding the authenticity of its news pictures it presents, it is a difficult task when at the same time stock images and sanitised publicity material is presented heading articles alongside the ones with ‘authentic ‘ images. Too many scandals, too many premeditated camera-opps and every camera owner now able to manipulate their own pictures, have eroded the credibility of the evidencing quality of the photograph.

At least with the illustrated image it is clear: anybody can see that it is handmade, thus manipulated and a personal interpretation. In the inability to capture the physical real lays now its credibility.

Which brings us back to the Victorian news illustration.


In the illustration project ‘impossible news images’ I set myself the task to revisit the Victorian news illustration. But with present day understanding, morals, access and competing visual media, like a still version of a docudrama. What position could news illustration take and what should or could it look like? What moments are there for illustration to investigate? When is photography by amateurs or professionals able to truly add understanding of news events or could an illustration actually improve this sense of understanding, just because it is subjective, laboured and by definition ‘after the event’? Could it give the insight that fits a modern mind that has already seen it all and when needed they can ‘top-op’ with a quick scan around the Internet.

Or will illustration be forever unable to satisfy this perhaps instinctual need for physical proof, delivered to us by our own trusted channels, despite the fact that it is manipulated, manicured and probably superfluous?

(...George Osborne had his claim to be delivering a budget for growth undermined by the ominous prospect of lower growth, rising unemployment and higher borrowing... Guardian Wednesday 23 March 2011)