Thursday, July 31, 2008

New Visual Journalists in the Field


In his 1973 essay, Tom Wolfe declared that novelists-turned-journalists like Norman Mailer, Truman Capote, and Gay Talese; represented New Journalism. It was their reportage he said, that removed all the "screens" between literature and its audience and put "the writer one step closer to the absolute involvement of the reader.” Wolfe's essay asserts that the techniques of these “New Journalists” are the only truly effective means of capturing the "reality" of particular cultural phenomena.

Is there an illustration version of investigative or new journalism? Can we allow an artist a bit of honesty within the current media deluge? Does this portend a new trend in illustration?


I say yes to all. I can name two illustrators who do just that. They are Nathan Fox and Steve Mumford. They are the New Visual Journalists. Back in the 19th century, the London Illustrated News used to dispatch ‘reporter artists’ to the war fronts like the Boer War and natural disasters around the world. Before the use of photography in newspapers and magazines, these artists drew pictures and wrote narratives about these newsworthy events. These artists were field-tested.


After graduating from the Kansas City Art Institute in 1997, Nathan Fox headed to New York and The School of Visual Arts Illustration As Visual Essay Graduate Program. This taught him the value of being engaged and being contemporary. Fox has a masterful, hip energy to his work. He is the person the New York Times Magazine calls to illustrate articles on terrorism, the Iraq war and new battlefield technologies. At his recent show at the Receiver Gallery in San Francisco, he told me he “wants to put as much truth in his drawings that he can, right down to researching the correct details of an AK47.” Fox has the uncanny ability to place himself in the thick of battle without ever leaving his Milwaukee studio.


On the other hand, Steve Mumford is a true war artist. Not since Winslow Homer’s Civil War drawings for Harper’s Magazine has an artist witnessed and depicted the mess of soldiering and civilian life. His new book, Baghdad Journal shows us sketches, writings and paintings that are dramatic, honest and display day-to-day life in war torn Iraq not typically seen in the convention press. On his own dime and a press pass from, he toured Iraq four times in four-month stretches. His sketchbook was his passport. Never did he feel pressured to follow the precept: If it bleeds, it leads. At a book signing at Cody’s in Berkeley, Mumford admitted to me that he, like everyone else, has a bias. “A photograph shows everything in an instant. In a drawing, I can edit. It’s still not the truth, but it’s my subjective reality.” Mumford doesn’t take sides. In his first few tours, he was able to travel throughout Iraq, without escort, to draw combatants and everyday people freely and without malice.

There has been years of unrelenting war. Thankfully, New Visual Journalists like Fox and Mumford provide us with honest, participatory and beautiful depictions of bad news and an insight into the culture.

Fox Images: Copyright © 2005 Nathan Fox

Mumford Images: Copyright © 2005 The Artnet Worldwide Corporation and Steve Mumford

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