Saturday, February 2, 2013

Cheap Photography, Classy Illustration?

At the very tail end of a grueling stretch. For the last 8 weeks or so, I've been pressing to get a variety of things out the door. In the next 10 days, I hope to post about some of that. Tonight, winding down at the end of a long week, a few choice nuggets from the talk I gave Thursday, on the relationship between photography and illustration in mid-20th century men's magazines. I gave the talk in connection with Skye Lacerte's terrific show at Olin Library's Special Collections, Thrill-Seekers, on men's magazines. Skye is curator of the Modern Graphic History Library at Washington University. Her show (which I think is coming down now) covered a great deal more range than my talk.

A minefield of a subject, but an interesting one, too. I scrambled, a little, to put the thing together–there was so much fabulous material at the MGHL, plus a few things from my collection. I think I got some interesting material strung together in a decent order, but I would like another shot at presenting it, having had a little time to let it cure.

In the era of Adobe Photoshop, we have become used to the manipulation of photographic images to create synthetic sexualized fictions. The prototypical CGI babe was Lara Croft, of the game Tomb Raider, already sort of a relic, though I gather a reboot is in the works. A ridiculous figure.  

But in the contest between photography and illustration in the production of pinups and mild erotica, the former struggled with a prosaic flatness.

For example: the metal plant stand, the pot, the plant and the electrical outlet do not contribute to a seductive vision. (Skye pointed out the other night that her feet are dirty.) And the goofy poem about the convertible?

The best of the pin up illustrators achieved an idealized fusion of saucy, sexy and innocent. Note: there are no extraneous electrical sockets in a Gil Elvgren painting.

The "girlie" magazines that predated (then ran alongside) Playboy lack sophistication, to understate the case.

Here, the table of contents for the September 1958 issue of Gala with its counterpart on the spread, a full-page ad for stag films.

A closer look reveals a distressing window into the presumed customer base: wolves and slathering idiots.

I confess to a certain sadness looking at these things. The myth of prowess is fatally undercut by the advertisers. In addition to the salivating goobers,

the ads shill for for hair tonic, bodybuilding and promises of help in finding companionship and romance. Meet & Marry Texans??

After looking at this stuff for awhile I had a new appreciation for the fiction illustration in the women's magazines. At least men and women show up in the same picture, and they actually touch each other.

Images: photographer(s) uncredited, detail of photographic collage on the table of contents page of Gala, September 1958; photographer uncredited, "Yank Pin-up Girl K.T. Stevens," Yank; The Army Weekly, May 19, 1944; CGI illustration of Lara Croft, Tomb Raider; game developed by Core Design, published by Eidos Interactive; cover illustration Stare magazine, December 1961; photographer uncredited, Glenda Graham (with houseplant), Stare; Gil Elvgren, Pin-up Girl with Parrot, circa 1950; photographer uncredited, cover design, Gala magazine, September 1958; Gala table of contents; advertisement for stag films, HPB Enterprises, Culver City, California; various details, advertisements in Gala; Jon Whitcomb, fiction illustration, Ladies Home Journal, September 1946.

1 comment:

David Apatoff said...

I'm sorry I missed this show, which Jeff Pike described to me. I am especially glad you folks had the courage to display it, as some institutions might flee from this subject matter. Pulitzer prize winning author Michael Chabon wrote that he loved hanging out at "the margins of trash and quality," straddling the borders and gaining insights from the extreme contrasts. (And sometimes even changing your definition of what is trash and what is quality.) "There's something stimulating about hanging out at the borders there."

Was the show well received? If your full comments are written down somewhere, I'd love to read more.