N vision


Archive for March, 2012

March 15th, 2012

The significance of a modest medium

Illustration is as ubiquitous as photography and graphic design, yet often overlooked when it comes to the acknowledgment of visual communication disciplines. The least theorized of all the major disciplines of contemporary visual communication, its key strength of responsiveness to context has ironically rendered illustration practically invisible.

The distinctive domain of Editorial illustration is an integral part of printed communication, in daily newspapers, in mainstream and specialist magazines. These images are tailored to visualize the concepts that lie behind the analysis of news- and current events, science and fiction. Although a distinctive discipline in its own right, it has close and instructive links to photography, popular culture and fine art traditions. Over the last 150 years, the development of the varieties of technology, form and expression of communications media have, each in their way shaped the possibilities and context for all images presented through these publishing platforms. Moreover the relationship between audiences and visual communications have grown ever more sophisticated, and open minded in what it could present understood and decoded by readers.

Because of its all encompassing yet elusive nature coupled with its intrinsic quality as the supportive rather than the dominant partner, editorial illustration is seldom noticed as the core visual communications mediator and cultural signifier it really is.

Utilizing Walter Benjamin[1] and Roland Barthes’s [2] critical theoretical insights into visual culture, language, the interpretation of images and mass media, this article analysis the role of illustration and questions the distinction between photography and illustration, the two visual disciplines that inform editorial content. It proposes a new approach based on functionality, questioning the increasingly obsolete boundaries in a digital era.

Title:  vrijpleiten is niet hetzelfde als rehabilitatie -Exoneration is not the same as rehabilitation

Art Editor: Paula van Akkeren for NRC, Dutch broadsheet newspaper

Date: March 2010

Let me start with an example from my own practice

In March 2010 I was commissioned to create an editorial illustration for the Dutch broadsheet newspaper the NRC. This image was to accompany a final analysis of an ongoing court case, where a pediatric nurse was convicted of the serial murder of patients in her care. As a result of public pressure, the case was reopened and as a consequence the nurse was exonerated thus revealing a gross miscarriage of justice. This case had lasted eight years and during this time it had figured prominently in the Dutch news.

The outcome, of this failure of the judicial system called for an article of the requisite analytical depth. With good reason the editors at the NRC felt that this important and complex article deserved the public’s full attention. Hence the entire text was positioned prominently within the main section of the paper.

The NRC is known for its carefully considered use of visuals and deploys illustration regularly for commentary and news analysis. In this case a handmade, rather than photographic image was felt appropriate, not just to attract attention, but also to use the reflective and personal nature of illustration to guide the reader towards a particular understanding and as a vehicle of implicit editorial critique.

The image shows a dark looming silhouette of a phantom like female, who raises a sword ready to strike a blindfolded woman sitting in front of her. In an instant the manner in which the symbolic meaning of the various elements connect are communicated. The statue like silhouette, the sword, blindfold and scales- suggest Lady Justice-signifying the judicial system and the woman in a white uniform and hospital clogs-evokes the nurse. The narrative of the image suggests a misuse of power and injustice. At the same time the illustration presumes certain visual knowledge, as the case had been prominent in the news in the previous weeks and the typical reader of this newspaper is targeted as cultured and educated.

The primary function

Saul Steinberg places his work wholly within the realm of reproduction and mass communication through printed magazines. Here he finds that the intellectual potential of images made for publication lay precisely in there being a ‘modest medium’, in which the spectator responds to the artists statement without requiring that it satisfy ideals of aesthetic prestige’. (Rosenberg, 1978)

From the outset the illustration exists not to present the illustrator’s ideas, its core function is to use illustration as visual reflection to enhance the publication’s quality of communication. The task of the editorial illustration is to engage, to seduce and sell. It is there to sell the argument, the article and the magazine and not least to sell itself. Not that different from the image in the advertisements in the same magazine, or on the same page, that wants to entice the reader away from the editorial content, but the illustration wants the reader to remain on the page and engage with the article to which it is connected. In the editorial environment words might drive the content, but the illustration is seen before text is read (Berger, 1972) the intelligence of the image determines the success of the entire communication. It needs to attract the reader’s attention towards the text and it does so through creating readability, interest and distinction.

On a formal level of page design and navigation the illustration supports the readability of both the page and the entire magazine. However small, the image attracts the eye, breaks up the monotony of the text fields and helps the readers navigate and recognize content. Through serialization or repetition images can create connections between pages, groups of articles or related subjects that can be positioned over discontinuous pages and into following editions.

Like the trailer of a movie, the illustration aims to provoke interest and arrest the attention of the reader. It presents in a condensed moment the ‘gist’ of the article to which it is connected. It must not give away the entire story, its function is to stimulate the reader’s curiosity and desire to explore the article further.

Through the use of style, visual connotations and narrative construct, the illustration can bring distinction. The readers can decide, in an instance, whether they are the intended audience for this particular piece of information and indeed for the entire publication. It is within this relationship between publication and reader that editorial illustration finds its function.

The Halftone Turn

In 1842, the editor Herbert Ingram, with the publication of the first illustrated newspaper, London Illustrated News made clear that pictures sold the news. Its instant success was shortly followed by a wave of competition and brought a new news medium into being.

The highly pragmatic nature of the publishing of illustrated newspapers, driven by demand, speed and costs, was conservative in its visual content, but innovative when it came to balancing audience interest with economic production systems. Operating within the conventions of the academic art tradition, the visuals were carefully composed, sanitized and dramatized narratives that left no confusion about the story and its interpretation. On the one hand its aim was to depict the news events as realistically as possible, on the other hand its audiences looked to the periodical to be their moral compass and interpreter of the fast changing world of the 19th century (Pykett, 1989; Sackett and Wolff, 1982), which forced the illustration to balance between fact and fiction.

In the mid 19th century the only form of visualization feasible in the printed mass media was the wood engraving. The creation of the engraving was not only time consuming but also had to be executed under the time pressure of the deadline and competition. In order to get the fastest turnaround engravings were executed by groups of engravers working simultaneously on the same image, using the sketch of the illustrator as the template.  In the push for time and realism, the creation of the illustrations relied on a mixture of (source) materials, including sketch, photographs, clichés and fantasy. The wood engraving placed the impact of the reproduced image before the creative process, still a core quality of illustration.

The discovery of the halftone printing technology in 1880 (Reed,1997) marked the shift from wood engraved illustration, a single distinctive but highly constraining visual tradition, to a greatly expanded set of imaging possibilities. The halftone reproduction, a direct and tonal copy of the original artwork, allowed the photograph ‘the true copy of the real’ to enter the newspaper, and in the coming thirty years came to dominate the illustrated papers and in the process redefine the position of illustration.

At the same time, without the translation of wood engraving, the illustrator’s mark could also be directly reproduced and this greatly extended the expressive pallet of the illustrator. Now material expression, through mark making and art materials could be used to enhance the experience and meaning of the image. Although illustration had been displaced from it’s earlier role of evidencing the real, it gained new strength and distinctiveness adding material expression as one of its qualities. It was for the illustrator to exploit this in the reflective, the suggestive and the imaginary.


In his essay The task of the translator, Walter Benjamin states that the essential substance of a literary work is what it contains in addition to information- something that a translator can reproduce only, if he is also a poet. He further points out that the original text in itself is already a translation; that of idea into words. The task of the translator is to navigate the need to remain close to the written word, but more so, remain true to its concept and in the process construct a new understanding.

The translator uses the capacity of poetry to reveal the hidden realities in the text, moving from one linguistic reality to another. The idea of translation, as presented by Walter Benjamin is very much reflected in the role of the illustration. By translating ‘what a concept contains in addition to information’ into a visual language, taking on the role of visual poet, the illustration can remain close to the word, but more so, true to the concept, inherent values and intent.

In the very first encounter with the page presenting both image and text, the image has to be understood independently yet point to the text, which could at this moment be seen as an interpretation of the image. In order to seduce the audience to read, it must always retain a sense of incompleteness, because if it was fully explanatory it would make the text superfluous, only during the reading can a further fuller meaning present itself. It is during the reading that the roles change, where the understanding of the text begins to influence the interpretation of the image.


For an illustration to be successful, it must directly address the reader and ‘speak their language’. The reader should be able to see himself, his world of values and associations reflected in the visual. The twentieth century with its explosion of new ways of seeing gradually made a wider public familiar with a greater variety of expressive means. The reader’s growing visual literacy made new interpretations, new visual languages and new forms of visual storytelling part of individual and group identities, where the connotations are continually changing and bringing new meaning that go far beyond official definitions. The image also exists in relationship to its accompanying text as well as to the wider context of the publication as a whole. Visual connotations and relationships, in form, style and pictorial elements, shape the interpretation.

Consequently, taken together every illustration needs to be created with a careful, understanding of the distinctive intellectual and cultural references held by its target audience. Not all readers will grasp the exact associations of all of the personal, semiotic and historical references, but a good illustration is vigilant and able to tell its story to the widest denominator of the readership, whilst at the same time giving a sense of exclusivity to the more informed readers.

This gives the constructed illustration a freedom of expression far beyond the printed words or the photograph. Exclusivity and suggestion are important and even dangerous instruments within the toolbox of illustration. It can create recognition, give expression to forbidden ideas as well as create damaging caricatures’ of individuals and peoples.

Photography , the significant other

In his essay The Little History of Photography Walter Benjamin points to a statement made by Berthold Brecht regarding a photograph of the Krupp factory. Where the mere representation of the factory building was not enough, something needed to be constructed in the image to show the human relations regarding this factory. For Benjamin the photograph needed to be able to evidence the larger story, that of the political significance. It was very clear for him that a good photograph was not just a reproduction of a reality, it had to be able to go beyond it and reveal its hidden truth, in portraits, cityscapes and objects alike and that in order to do so, an image was allowed to be constructed.

Having developed the belief in the pure evidencing power of the photograph, a hundred years of daily classes in visual literacy in printed and moving image media, has brought about the realization that the picture you see, might be very different from the reality it represents. Newspaper readers are now likely to judge the news image no longer on content alone. These days context and appearance play an almost equal part.

Today’s photography is far more explicit in declaring its nature as constructed. Through manipulation in pre- and postproduction, they present a surreal hyper-reality, for the reader to ‘go beyond and find hidden truths’. This new visual literacy blurred and challenged the distinction between photograph and the illustration.

Yet only photography can be that ‘footprint of reality’(Sontag, 1977) and surely, when we read the news we will always want the experience of photography’s capacity to convey the evidential proof of the subject’s existence. But beyond the evidential function of news photography the boundaries have shifted and with the online media an entirely new visual territory is opening up.

Coded and uncoded

Perhaps we should decide on a different way of determining the nature of the visual in a contemporary editorial context. It may require a way of thinking based on function, rather than the medium through which it is created. This would allow for a far more considered and coherent ways of understanding editorial visual language and a clearer foundation upon which the use of images might be based. It could potentially liberate the disciplines from being quite so bound to the restrictive tradition of a particular visual language, be it photographic or ‘illustrated’.

Within editorial publishing I propose the introduction of a new distinction: on the one hand evidential imagery in which the content focuses primarily on the factual representation of an event, through news photography or data visualization and on the other hand editorial imagery, which can function as a visual partner to the written content, as autonomous commentary and analysis or as point of recognition or stimulus.

Roland Barthes speaks of the denoted and connoted message of the image (Barthes,1978). The denoted message, the uncoded message could be transcribed as the raw visual data of the image, whilst the connoted, coded message refers to the style, symbols, symbolic references and cultural interpretations put into the image.

In the context of published media, the news photograph is as close as we’ll get to the uncoded image, even though we know that there can be no image entirely free of connotation. The inescapability of context will mean that there is always a reason for using a particular image in a particular place.

Editorial visuals work from an opposite principle, they are used exactly because of their connotational powers, they play with this coded language, to create that excepting bond between reader and publisher.

Protest and hope

This year TIME magazine-special end of year issue, presenting the person of the year- shows a large portrait of an almost covered face of the protester (TIME, December 26 2011). The style of this image is recognizable, It’s made by Shephard Failey, the illustrator famous for the iconic election poster for president Obama in 2008. An image, which helped Obama win the American election and has become a visual format for communicating ‘uprising’ and ‘better futures’. But where the illustration had become a global icon, the photograph would have remained obscure, if not for the lawsuit around copyrights.

The ‘Hope image’ reignites the power of the illustrated image. This was not a portrait of Obama, but a visual convergence of the concept of ideal leader with the slogan of HOPE. It echoes the multiple connotations of uprising, utopia, comic book super-hero and the ‘drama of the leadership’.

Now the same illustrator is brought back to the cover of TIME, a conservative news journal, to present the concept of protest. Can I conclude that illustration is back as the language of protest and hope? That would be too easy. I don’t know what arguments were employed by the art director, but using the understanding editorial illustration that I have sought to outline in this article, this image could have been chosen for the same reasons that motivated the art director in the commission I was given last year, to engage, to translate and to reflect, exploiting and constrained by the possibilities of the published platform, using style and expression as the carriers of meaning.

At the end of the 19th century, technological change transformed the landscape for illustration, disrupting established traditions and opening up a new breadth of possibilities and in the process creating a radical reevaluation of illustration its capacities and position. With the present move of mass publishing towards online media, and the new forms of reading made possible with the tablets such as iPad and Kindle we are again at such moment. A moment in which the need for the inherent traditional qualities of illustration remain as strong as ever, but the long-standing connection with the visibly handmade, paper and print is under pressure and changing. Digital technologies bring new appreciations and new expressions to editorial illustration, Its fundamental role and distinctive capabilities will remain, though presented through different formats and media platforms.

The ‘modest medium’ might be modest in the critical attention it attains, but in content and expression it can be bold, expressive and powerful. It can simultaneously connect, be outspoken and aesthetically pleasing, be supportive and yet the first to be seen. And best of all it harbors a far wider communicative freedom than written words or news photographs are ever permitted. In this period when technological change is enabling ever more complex modes of reading, it has never been more important that editorial illustration’s distinctive role and capacities be better understood.


Barnhurst, K.G., 2000. Civic Picturing vs. Realist Photojournalism: The Regime of Illustrated News, 1856-1901. Design Issues, 16(1), pp.59-79.

Barthes, R., 1980. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography Reprint., Hill and Wang.

Barthes, R., 1964. Elements of Semiology, Hill and Wang.

Barthes, R., 1978. Image-Music-Text, Hill and Wang.

Beaudelaire, C., 1860. The Painter of Modern Life. In Phaidon Press.

Beegan, G., 2008. The Mass image; A Social History of Photomechanical Reproduction in Victorian London, Palgrave Macmillan.

Benjamin, W., 1931. Little History of Photography.

Benjamin, W., 1923. the task of the translator. In Illuminations: Essays and Reflections.

Benjamin, W., 1936. The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility. In Illuminations: Essays and Reflections. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Berger, J., 1972. Ways of Seeing, Penguin Classics.

Chatto, W.A., 1839. A treatise on wood engraving, historical and practical: with upwards of three hundred illustrations, engraved on wood by John Jackson, Charles Knight and Co.

Cox, H., 2008. Mass Circulation Periodicals and the Harmsworth Legacy in the British Popular Magazine Industry.

Gombrich, E.H., 1960. Art and Illusion, Princeton University Press.

Hutt, A., 1973. The Changing Newspaper-Typographic trends in Britain and America 1622-1972, London: Gordon Fraser.

Ingemann, B., 2002. The Mirage Project:An Experimental Qualitative Reception Study. Visible Language, 36(1).

Jackson, M., 1885. The Pictorial Press, its origine and progress, London: reprint Burt Franklin 1969.

Mayor, A.H., 1980. Prints and People: A Social History of Printed Pictures Rev Upd., Princeton Univ Pr.

Pykett, L., 1989. Reading the Periodical Press: Text and Context. Victorian Periodicals Review, 22(3), pp.100-108.

Reed, D., 1997. Popular Magazine in Britain and the United States of America 1880-1960, University of Toronto Press.

Rosenberg, H., 1978. Saul Steinberg. In New York: Alfred A knopf, in association with the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Sackett & Wolff, 1982. The Victorian Periodical Press, Shattock and Wolff Eds. The Victorian Periodical Press, sampling and sounding. Leicester UP , University of Toronto P.

Schjeldahl, P., 2009. A Shepard Fairey moment. New Yorker.

Sinnema, P., 1998. Reproducing art and the devision of labour, representing the nation in the illustrated London news,, Ashgate Publishing.

Sontag, S., 1977. On photography, Picador.

TIME, 2011. Person of the Year 2011-The Protester. TIME.

[1] Walter Benjamin (1892 –1940) literary critic, philosopher, sociologist and essayist. His work is seen to be of great importance and influence in contemporary cultural and visual studies especially the essays “The Task of the Translator” (1923) and “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1936).

[2] Roland Barthes (1915 –1980) was a French literary theorist, philosopher, critic, and semiotician. Barthes’ ideas, on representation and understanding of (visual) information and models of communication, have been very influential. His writing o.a. Elements of Semiology (1968), Image, Music, Text (1977) and Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography (1981) is seen key in contemporary analysis of modern culture.