When illustration became part of the Illustrated London News in 1842, this was because its editor made an educated guess: pictures sell!
And so they did. After the direct success of the first illustrated edition, soon it was followed by a flood of other newspaper and magazines titles, which brought the news and stories not only in words, but also in pictures illuminating and telling the story that only words left untold.
The Victorian wood-engraving industry boomed, new printing technologies developed and within the space of forty years, technology not only allowed for illustrations, it allowed for a wide range of images; from photographs, info-graphics, line drawing to the direct representation of the hand and mind of the illustrator. And all this is still part of the visual language of editorial publication today.
Pictures don’t only sell newspapers; they sell ideas and sell stories. They provide clues and connections and can be scanned for information, give reflection and direction. They make the entire reading experience clearer and if the image is good, more engaging and pleasurable. The photograph shows the reader a glimpse of reality, and it presents us with visual verification. It shows the facts, the events and portraits – it presents you with what it really looked like, even in if the photograph is completely composed and manipulated.
What is special about the illustration is that it’s never evidence, but always about trying to convince. Never neutral, it tries to persuade you to see the story in a particular light, to understand what the writer and the magazine had in mind and help you to understand sometimes difficult complex ideas or win you over to something possibly controversial. Note how illustration is positioned with the reflective stories, with ideas, with opinion pieces or fiction, stories that need more than a piece of evidence to bring the reader round.
The editorial illustration is to the story, what a trailer is to the film. Its first job is to give a quick gist of content and slant, and to never tell the whole story. It translates the essence into an image that’s out to intrigue and engage. But unlike the trailer, the illustration is a fully finished work in itself, with its own internal narrative and its own style. It is complementing the text yet equally independent. Together, word and image create the universe of the story.
But there is more. At the first glance, the illustration draws you in, but then it will continue to be part of the reading experience. Even only subliminally, during and after reading it will help shape the meaning. In order to do so successfully the illustration needs to allow deeper layers to be discovered and needs to honour the readers’ intelligence. It is here that the personal interpretation of the illustrator becomes important. Here the illustrator has been positioned in the role of the best-informed and most eloquent reader imaginable, happy to share his or her insights. The picture with its styles, codes and metaphors has become the readers’ personal guide to the story.
Must an illustration always be bias? Off course, that’s the point, it’s meant to opinionate and asks the reader to reflect, that’s its purpose. Independent the illustrator might be, but the illustrator tasked with the making of the image, should not find it difficult to represent the editors’ vision, after all he or she is handpicked to do so and has agreed to take on this particular assignment. The editorial illustration is there to represent and strengthen the ideology of the newspaper and magazine and is a political tool more subtle and more powerful than the overt political cartoon. Using all the trick of visual language it seemingly modestly partners a text. But via the illustrators’ hand and mind, the illustration is for the editor and publisher the ideal way to express their position and for the reader to feel at home.
Now that we are looking for our information online and news and current events are explored on our screens, the editorial illustration, like its traditional environment -the printed paper-, has seemed to have lost its appeal. Fewer are commissioned, barely any for the online platforms. Perhaps illustration represents the ideological tradition in paper that limits and interprets information before it gets to the reader. Perhaps we now want the digital technology that gives access to infinite data and countless options, with the freedom to surf and select all the pieces of information we wish. There is no more need to be told what to think. This means we are tasked to form our understanding of the world on disparate bits of information that we happen to find. Yet at the same time we feel a wariness towards it; can we trust what we read? Do we know enough facts to really support a balanced opinion? How can we ever make sense of it all?
Amidst the digital information storm, against all odds I see a growth of printed opinion magazines, different ones than before, more crafted, longer articles more care taken. Many of these titles carry illustrations. These magazines are not neutral, not about facts but about reflection and understanding the world from a particular point of view. They translate the facts through their human insights and well-presented argument, left or right. Their editors have learned the power of the image, that images sell, and that an illustration is the most perfect tool when it comes to selling an idea, a reflection, and an argument. Perhaps it’s worth to remind ourselves of the qualities editorial illustration can bring. Now let's get it online.
illustration by Nanette Hoogslag