Friday, January 04, 2013


"Photo-illustration" is the modern term for decoupage.  You see photo-illustration everywhere, filling the spaces formerly occupied by illustration or photography:

Bloomberg Businessweek

Time Magazine

Don't get me wrong, a person can make many cute and clever images by cutting out somebody else's photographs and gluing them together in interesting new configurations.   Several publications with generally excellent art direction use photo-illustrations frequently:

New York Times

Bloomberg Businessweek

By starting with pre-fabricated building blocks rather than the basic elements of line and color, we gain speed and economy but we lose some of the potential for charm, grace and creativity. Obviously, this loss matters more to some people than to others.

Here, a Photoshopped cover effectively conveys the childish antics of the US House of Representatives:

 However, it is also devoid of the design or elegance or class that a stronger human aesthetic role might have contributed.

When illustrator Peter de Seve was asked years ago to illustrate the squabbling Congress for another magazine cover, the picture required  more time and preparation (note his preliminary draft below) but the result was more visually interesting and the humor more layered and sophisticated.

Preliminary drawing

When illustrator Bernie Fuchs died in 2009, Golf Digest published a touching tribute recognizing the "grandeur" that Fuchs' illustrations had brought to their pages over the years.  Right next to that tribute, without the slightest hint of irony, was a cheap and crappy photo-illustration of the type that Golf Digest and so many others use today:


Perhaps grandeur is no longer in style, or perhaps grandeur costs too much.  But I think we forget the true price of photo-illustration unless we compare it, every once in a while, with what it replaced.



Tom said...

Wow David I really like the Fuchs illustration. After the pervious illustrations in this post, it is like a breath of fresh air. Maybe still waters do run deep. I like the way he has balanced and contrasted everything with the vertical trunk of the foreground pine tree. After your last post I can help wondering, are you are developing a theme for the new year?

Donald Pittenger said...

Since those "assembled" illustrations seem to be comparatively fast to create, I'm wondering if publications pay less for them compared to traditional illustrations (digital or hand-done). A fair comparison would be for works by one artist or by two artists with similar reputations.

Anyone out there know what the market says?

David Apatoff said...

Donald Pittenger-- I am certain that publications pay less for photo-illustrations and get them back much faster. After all, once the basic idea is set, the execution can be handled by a reasonably talented high school student with Photoshop.

That's just one of the many reasons why you are unlikely to find "two artists with similar reputations" for your comparison.

Tom-- I very rarely "develop a theme" that lasts beyond a single post (although some would say the common theme of the last two posts is, "I'm a dinosaur resistant to change.")

However, in this one instance, I am indeed working on a larger project which I will describe in my next post. It should be a fun January.

ScottLoar said...

Photo-illustration has a merited place, although a very small place, in illustration. Dumbing-down has a merited place, although a very small place, in entertainment.

Bruce Docker said...

Like so much of his work this painting easily moves out of the just illustration arena and into fine art. In the time of this type of work it was a joy to look through magazines without even reading. Many magazines have more of an mtv style now. Of course, it takes more time to produce this product, but it is certainly worth it.

pRiyA said...

Amen! I'm so glad you've said what you have in this blog post. I remember the beautiful illustrations from old Reader's Digests long ago. I still treasure some of those copies which I've saved because of the pictures. Those beautiful illustrations are what inspired me to become an illustrator in the first place. I doubt if I'd have felt that way if I'd seen photo illustrations.

kev ferrara said...

I always enjoyed the work of David Plunkert. He seems like an actual artist when he collages, rather than somebody writing text with read made symbols.

Vanderwolff said...

I don't stop by here as often as I should...but whenever I do, it is both an exhilirating reminder of what really counts, as well as a disciplinary jolt. Why? Because Mr. Apatoff, with a precise, impeccable eye for what is worth preserving, and the quiet authority that only true immersion in the higher arts can give, reminds me that there is still a rare oasis of excellence left, amid the detritus. Sometimes I forget, and succumb to indifference. Mr. Apatoff is a cultural defibrillator for the chronic tachychardia of current "taste". Thank you for the therapy!

JonInFrance said...

Yet, somehow, I wonder - these last few days my mind's been running on the fact that a photo is a physical "imprint" and has the authority of that physical touch. It troubles me... Vermeer and the Impressionists come up in my head - some sort of immediacy? .... .

David Apatoff said...

ScottLoar-- Agreed on both counts.

Bruce Docker-- Well, it is certainly worth it to you and to me. So many publications are just scraping by these days, laying off writers and cutting corners on printing, I suppose it is not surprising that quality illustration is not always "worth it" to them. It is a shame, and we just need to be alert to what is happening.

pRiyA-- Thanks for writing. Yes, I think that when you simultaneously view a photo-illustration and the kind of art that it replaced, side by side, the disparity is quite striking.

David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara-- Yes, Plunkert's collages seem to have more of a human investment than many of the examples I've shown here. I really like the collages of James Gallagher, although he makes them with the old fashioned, analog cut and paste process.

Vanderwolff, whoever you are-- I was really quite moved by your comment. You are too kind, but thank you very much.

JonInFrance-- I think a photograph is less of a physical "imprint" than it once was. Older photographs have special significance for me, precisely for the reasons you mention, but now we can tamper with photographs in a way that destroys their "imprint" nature.

etc, etc said...

Photography, I think, effortlessly captures (as far as visual still mediums go) what Hegel called the emotional inner life or "Spirit" of humanity , and the current aesthetic preference for photography fits nicely within Hegel's predictions in his Lectures on Aesthetics as fulfillment of Romanticism, and, leading ultimately to the end of art. And, I'd argue that Photoshop, which puts creative actions into the hands of uncreative people, simply and mockingly expedites art's demise.

kev ferrara said...

Etc, etc. I would say all four of your clauses in the last post are obviously wrong. Was that on purpose?

etc, etc said...

Wrong in what sense, Kev? Are you disputing that's not what Hegel taught, or that you do not agree with what Hegel taught? Something else I said, perhaps?

Tom said...

Now why was Hegel so threatened by the visual arts?

etc, etc said...

I don't think Hegel was threatened by visual arts; in fact he regarded them highly. I don't know that Hegel would agree with the following characterization, but I think of it basically in terms that he "fast-forwarded" the concepts of humanism, and determined that while visual art plays an important role in the hierarchical development of human Spirit, there are greater needs, even aesthetically. Visual art was vital, but also limited in that it could only carry Spirit's development so far.

etc, etc said...

And by the way, I will find it highly amusing if you should choose to disparage and abort Hegel's aesthetics, a well respected system of thought that is literally pregnant with the argument that comic books and graphic novels could potentially have greater significance than traditional visual arts.

kev ferrara said...

I'm glad you're amused that I find no value in your tendentious arguments.

Hegel's system of thought is worth knowing; An enormously intelligent fellow who made valuable contributions to the philosophy. But not immune to criticism, not immune to errors of logic, error of epistemology, errors of omission, lack of scientific knowledge, lack of knowledge of artistic composition, etc. His theory of beauty is obviously weak and it irreparably damages his aesthetics. His understanding of aesthetic emotion is primitive. His theory of dialectic is obviously incomplete, and he wasn't the last word in Idealism by a long shot. You want to bow to him, go ahead. I'll keep on thinking, instead, just like everybody who came after him.

As well, I don't really care to hear arguments that contend that Hegel predicted the efficacy of comic books or modern pop cultural forms because of some vague point you are teasing out of his writings.

Photographs are a naturally inert form of information capture, except when they capture something like a human face, that is extremely expressive of an inner life. Take a look at the contact sheets of any famous photographer and you'll see dozens and dozens of failed photos per sitting, maybe hundreds. So don't tell me photos capture essence effortlessly. That's a silly statement.

By and large, photos are a depressing view of things, devoid of life as they are, with no "spirit" to them whatever. They capture light rays bouncing off objects in a short instant of time. And this gives evidence of fact. That these factual recordings result in anything like profound knowledge is an impossibility. Life is not still, nor does it happen in an instant. If you want to contemplate what an object looks like, photographs are your thing. Everybody else will probably want to seek out experience or art.

And this claim that "art is dead" is just silly. It shows a distinct failure of imagination, a lack of faith in human creativity, and no epistemological humility. And its been done. Its already boring.

etc, etc said...

As well, I don't really care to hear arguments....some vague point you are teasing out of his writings.

Well, I don't really care to hear vague arguments about Hegel you have teased out of Google searches, either.

Take a look at the contact sheets of any famous photographer

My comments about photography were made in the context of David's post, which appeared to me to be focused upon the illustration of news stories/current events. If you think people are irrational philistines for preferring photography over traditional illustration in that context, fine; I'm not going to argue about your opinions.

kev ferrara said...

Etc, etc...

I know you have a hard time keeping a sense of reality from post to post, so I thought I would resubmit what you wrote for the record:

(1)Photography, I think, effortlessly captures (as far as visual still mediums go) what Hegel called the emotional inner life or "Spirit" of humanity , and (2) the current aesthetic preference for photography fits nicely within Hegel's predictions in his Lectures on Aesthetics as fulfillment of Romanticism, and, (3)leading ultimately to the end of art. And, I'd argue that (4)Photoshop, which puts creative actions into the hands of uncreative people, simply and mockingly expedites art's demise.

Now, to rephrase my view of your remark, I think its all a bunch of tendentious bunk. Let’s do a quick once over of your four major assertions:

1. No it doesn’t. And you shouldn’t speak for Hegel.

2. No, photography is obviously not the fulfillment of Romanticism. It's not even in the same aesthetic ballpark. There is no aesthetic preference for photography, because photography’s rise to ubiquity was not due to aesthetics. It was due to the successful marketing of a product that has a utitilty that flatters the ego, and calms existential anxiety by mechanically/impartially capturing visual facts.

3. No, photography does not lead to the end of art, because the purpose of art and photography are fundamentally different. There is a marketing conflict there, but not an artistic one.

4. And no, photoshop is not expediting art’s demise. Because art cannot die.

Real simple.

etc, etc said...

Romanticism is the foundation principle of art and it always has been, even before it was named. Romantic just means the subject is portrayed with reference to an idea which suffuses the work in the abstract or transcends it in some way, thereby unifying the work thematically to the idea.

Romanticism is how art works and to be anti-romantic is usually the result of not understanding art.

There is no painting ever painted, sculpture ever sculpted, movie ever directed, play ever staged, dance ever choreographed that doesn’t conform in large part to the theory of Romanticism.

Sidebar: Would you please explain how it is you abstracted or formulated such a definition of Romanticism? And, not that I'm an advocate of peer reviewed truth, but are there any artists, philosophers, art historians, etc. who are on record as making similar claims about or sharing your definition of Romanticism? The reason I'm asking is, while it has much in common with what Erwin Panofsky writes about in Idea: A Concept in Art Theory, (although as I recall he makes no associations with Romanticism), it is unlike anything I have encountered as a definition or description of Romanticism.

kev ferrara said...

The most misunderstood movement in the world is Romanticism, particularly as it segued into symbolist aesthetics. Read what the French symbolist poets wrote. They understood.

etc, etc said...

French symbolist poets? That was weak, Kev.

kev ferrara said...

Do I really have to explain to you that I have no interest in composing, at your request, an explanatory essay or bibliography regarding this topic?

etc, etc said...


You don't need to explain anything.

Now that I think about it, I suppose "Romanticism" has a better ring to it than "Second-rate Late Baroque/Rococo".

kev ferrara said...

Yeah, I'm not a fan of Delacroix, nor that painting. I like what he wrote in his notebooks though.

WWick said...


I'm a big fan of your writing on art. I especially appreciate the efficiency with which you connect minute observations in drawing or painting with the larger themes of the lives of artists. As one who frequents museums, I can't always say the same about the wall text. I wish you the best for your upcoming show.

On this post, however, I'm not clear what you mean by "photo-illustration" because what you're showing us, in my view, is a small subset of the genre which I would call "photo-collage", and of that, the type where the poverty of aesthetics is part of the joke (if also expedient and cheap). A much better example in this vernacular would be the Beatles' "Sargent Pepper" album cover, which is considerably more layered in the way it illustrates the ongoing narrative of the Beatles saga as it was seen at the time. Another great example, if of a different purpose and tone, is the Milton Glaser poster you've included above. It seems to me that also counts as "photo-illustration" since the photography is essential to its ephemeral charm.

I can understand why you might want to limit the scope of the discussion to that which involves some "hand work" of assemblage, as that could be seen as somewhat akin to the process of traditional painting and drawing. But the limitation of cutting and pasting photo elements is not really indicative of the history or future of photographic illustration.

At the risk of sounding heretical, I would site the editorial photography of the likes of Irving Penn or Richard Avedon as superlative examples of photo-illustration. They may be celebrated today as great "photographers" or "artists", but in their time, their photography served to illustrate some aspect of the ongoing narrative of fashion or culture, just as a painter might do for the very same clients. In doing so, much of the "hand work" necessary to achieve their aesthetic goals was, by and large, accomplished before the shutter was clicked, even if they also took full advantage of inherent freedoms to work spontaneously with the camera.

Perhaps not now, but maybe at some later date, you could write a special post where you could compare the very best "Photographic Art" with the best "Illustration Art" to see how the respective aesthetic goals might contrast or overlap. A few choice examples from Avedon or Penn might be a good place to start.

David Apatoff said...

WWick, "photo-illustration" is the term employed by many magazines. For example, the current Time Magazine has the following picture credit: "Photo-illustration by Sean McCabe for Time: from left: AFP/Getty Images: AP (2); The Plain Dealer/AP; AP." It's hardly your traditional signature on a work of art.

Many of these photo-illustrations are minor works that fill spaces, but many of them now appear in prime space, such as the cover of Time.

I am definitely a big fan of art photography including Avedon and Penn (in fact, in this post you'll note that I grumbled about photo-illustration "filling the spaces formerly occupied by illustration OR PHOTOGRAPHY.") I would like to have discussions about photography on this blog, although I have a long list of illustration topics I would also love to get through.

mahendra singh said...

Mr Pittinger asks if pubs pay less for collaged photo work versus "traditional" illos. No, they don't.

They pay the same abysmally low rate for both. They also demand impossibly fast turn-arounds (usually because writers are late on deadlines) and thus, there's no time for anything that remotely resembles an illustration.

Right now, a cartooney, clip-art style is in fashion in print. And that's simply because it's fast and because many ADs think clip art looks great, never having commissioned or looked at anything else.

WWick said...


Thanks for the clarification. I have noticed that news organizations have been using the term "photo-illustration" of late as a way to delineate photographs that have been heavily manipulated, presumably as a disclaimer to signal that while such images are not up to standards of photojournalism, they are acceptable if treated as "illustration". This seems to me a rather crude demarcation, because there are an infinite numbers of ways to use straight, unretouched photography that might happen to violate every known standard journalistic practice, but would otherwise serve as very effective illustration.

Your use of the word "decoupage" came across as a pejorative, but I was also assuming that "photo-illustration" was your short-hand term for any sort of photographs used as illustration. I see now I was incorrect.

Zubin Wadia said...

That last picture of the green, with the tree in the foreground is special. As for assembled illustrations, I find them to be incongruous in top-flight paper publications, but not so abhorrent in web/mobile.

As an aside, I am sort of going down the blasphemous route and creating a very rapid composition app that puts together images and text in clever ways.

The goal isn't to devalue illustration, but to improve expressiveness across social media in general. I just think it is too drab out there. Photos. Filters. Text.

Oh and I call it Quipio!

Luca Carey said...

I never really liked photo illustration; I think it looks cheap and jarring. I respect, though, that a certain degree of cheap and jarring can be a positive and playful reprieve. I wonder though if this phenomena is owed to growing deficits in traditional talent, the dumbing down of the masses, or just a greater common hunger for diverse aesthetics. Either way, de Seve had something of way higher value than the featured photo illustrations. I think, much in the same way that face book photos are relatively free of pretense and easily accessible/relatable, photo illustrations give us just the straight dope and don't ask us to sit around and contemplate the marvelous technique and artistry. As a society, we value the appearance of openness and accessibility, so, bearing that in mind, I could see why photo illustration has become so prevalent. maybe.

Mozchops said...

Years ago I had a job interview with the art editor of Time Out magazine, and he noted that some of my portfolio was photomontage, suddenly taking on a dismissive tone, closing the book with lines along "If I need that kind of stuff, I can always ask our admins to knock something up".
He refused to listen to my point that you still need an artists eye to do it well. Maybe that sealed my hasty ushering to the exit.