Will the real drawings please stand up. Photo-technology. Lisa Kopper explains how it is done
As a professional illustrator, I have noticed changes taking place over the years which suggest an underlying shift of attitude amongst those who illustrate and those who commission illustration. The photograph as a foundation to illustration has become more and more prevalent. Is this 'cheating'? Or, if the end result works, does reliance on photography matter? I think it does.
Photo-techniques used to be confined to advertising. Perhaps even then, some clever book illustrators were using them, but they did not really come into children's picture book publishing in a big way until the early eighties when the need for books which reflected our multicultural society became an issue. Publishers under pressure to produce such books found it difficult to find artists who could draw Black people. There were few Black illustrators (as is still the case today). Cartoon imagery was out as publishers feared they would be criticised for racial stereotyping if the representation of Black people was not realistic. Innovative writers and photographers like Joan Solomon partially solved the problem by doing straight photographic books about children from different cultures. These books filled a gap but tended to be information books.
This was not appropriate for the majority of picture books and other solutions had to be found. Some picture book artists turned to photographs and began to produce super-realistic drawn images directly from them : photo-realism. No one could say that their Black people did not look like Black people - they were so good, they looked just like photographs. In my view this was cheating in a profound sense because the real issue of why it is so difficult for people of one culture to draw people from another, was not addressed. I do not blame the artists for this; they were responding to a demand in the best way they knew how. But, over time, what has emerged from this trend is a kind of visual apartheid. Today, I would hazard a guess that 85% of children's books depicting Black people use photo-technology of some kind in their image creation.
But just as the photo techniques did not stay confined to advertising neither did they stay confined to children's multicultural illustration. The steady march of 'photo-drawing' gradually reached every corner of illustration. It is easy to see why. On the surface of things, photography is a short cut to something very difficult to achieve : good drawing.
But there is a price for pursuing the icing rather than the cake, form before content, and that price is the potential loss of a skill which is the foundation of visual imagination. The frightening thing is that it is happening by stealth. There has not, so far as I know, been any serious discussion of how photo technologies are affecting not just children's book imagery, but the very nature of drawing itself - how this skill is taught and nurtured.
Arguably, drawing is one of the purest forms of visual expression - the shortest route between the eye and the paper. To be able to draw freely means to give form not only to what we see around us, but also to what we cannot see - the depiction of the imaginary.
By its very nature, the photograph is bound to what already exists. In my view, the most excruciating examples of photo illustration are when the artist does attempt fantasy and cobbles together incongruous, photo-derived images such as a girl sitting on a flying tiger or such like, with structural conventions such as viewpoint, perspective and harmonious detailing thrown to the winds. The best photo-illustrators often spend much of their time and money setting-up their photos. This can mean dressing and posing models, lighting, travelling to the locations, and sometimes expensive equipment to ensure quality transference of their photos onto canvas, paper or computer disk. Many photo-illustrators are talented photographers and do an excellent job - but why bother to make a drawing of a photograph? Has it become so important to be 'real' because we are losing the skills which gave us the freedom to be unreal? And what makes people think that a photo is so real anyway?
Eye to hand drawing is a means of communication, 'acting on paper', as I often tell school children. It is often the flaws that give a drawing life, movement and character. Sometimes accidental perspective or detail also emphasises the spirit as well as the form of the subject.
A photograph is an instantaneous, two-dimensional representation of a three-dimensional object. As the camera only has one 'eye', it already sees the world in a very different way from us. Make a drawing from this photograph, and we move yet another step away from the life and dynamics of the original subject. Thus many 'photo drawings' are curiously static and dead, their subjects frozen in an instant rather than expressing their true nature. It is a process which often cuts the heart and life out of an image. ... Photography is a simple mechanical activity and drawing requires a profound understanding of form and character.
This trend is reinforced by the number of prestigious prizes awarded to photo-derived books. Perhaps those who award such prizes know little of the techniques involved? However, the message this sends to young artists is clear: learning how to draw does not matter.
This is not a good message even if some people prefer the style of photo-illustration to free drawn images. Certainly illustrators who can draw use photographs much more creatively and successfully than those who cannot and it is immediately obvious to an educated eye which is which. Some artists use limited photo-aids very imaginatively.
Understanding techniques I believe it is important to understand the difference between something that has been created by the skill and imagination of the artist or as a piece of photographic sleight of hand. Perhaps to help with visual awareness, photo-illustration should be described as such on book jackets. Over the last 150 years the photograph has often been seen as the benchmark of reality, but before (and after) photography arrived on the scene, artists were creating their own realities through the sheer skill of their observation and mechanical ability. The realities of Rackham and Shepard transcend the mere representational. They glow with character and the inner qualities of that which they represent. Even if our drawing abilities are less breathtaking we should, I believe, still have the same ultimate objective. We must carefully guard and preserve the skill of drawing for the future, or we risk losing its value for ever.
Lisa Kopper has been an illustrator working in the children's book industry for over 18 years. She is best known for her multicultural work (eg Jafta: The Homecoming, Puffin, 0 14 054467 4, £4.99) and her Daisy books (eg Daisy Thinks She is a Baby, Puffin, 0 14 054826 2, £4.99). As she says, 'No photos used. Honest! A version article was originally published in "books for keeps"