Sunday, March 18, 2012


Franklin McMahon, the last of the great illustrator-reporters, died last week at age 90.

McMahon worked in a bygone era when newspapers and news magazines relied on artists to add class and grace to the reportage of current events.  For 50 years, McMahon went everywhere and witnessed everything on behalf of news publications such as The New York Times, The Chicago Tribune, Look, Life, Time and Sports Illustrated.

His career as a reporter began in 1955, when McMahon covered the infamous Emmett Till murder trial for Life Magazine.

Emmett Till's aged uncle points a quavering finger at his nephew's murderers

He went on to cover the key events of the Civil Rights movement, the space program and numerous political campaigns.  Unlike a camera, McMahon prioritized the essential elements of his images and conveyed his impressions, adding an important dimension.

Pope John xxiii

The Vatican

McMahon recalled that he was hired by publications that were "confronted with mountains of material and a need to transcend the usual dreary recitation of facts and figures."  His role was to "heighten the emotional reaction to a printed piece and transmit the special flavor of a [subject]."

The Duomo, Milan

Detail of Duomo, above

His documentary artwork also added distinctive elements to annual reports and trade journals:

The day of the illustrator-reporter is now gone, just as the newspapers and news magazines where these pictures once appeared are in the process of disappearing.  Many of the professional photographers who replaced illustrator-reporters are being replaced by internet stock photos and amateur cell phone users.

But for many years, talented illustrators such as Franklin McMahon logged a lot of miles pursuing an important craft, making great sacrifices to do quality work.  The death of McMahon is a good time to remind ourselves of their contributions and honor their role. 


Anonymous Anonymous said...

No progress, I guess, without some loss. As a lawyer, I generally believe that the openness of courts to cameras, both still and video, is a good thing. But I remember well how even as a kid, I used to perk up when court reporter sketches of notable trials appeared on the evening news. I remember Howard Brodie, transplanted comic book artist Bill Lignante, and others. Here in my home state of Massachusetts, we still have some great local court artists with us, like pastelist Connie Pratt, now doing portraits and other "fine art." I didn't have a specific awareness of McMahon, but the examples you print show him to be very accomplished. I hope a lot of the court art is collected in books (still my low tech first thought) or at least web sites, so it can be preserved and enjoyed. As I often say about your posts, thank you for this.

--Bob Cosgrove

3/18/2012 12:03 PM  
Blogger kev ferrara said...

I really like how McMahon's loose, rounded style humanizes the technical equipment and the architecture. Like the missing link between Austin Briggs and Milton Glaser.

3/18/2012 12:07 PM  
Blogger James Gurney said...

Franklin McMahon was one of a dozen or so artists in a 1976 book called "On-the-Spot Drawing." I remember he had a sketch of Lightning Hopkins on his porch and a bunch of drawings of a Nixon campaign stop in Peoria. Just as Hunter S. Thompson inspired a lot of writers, that book inspired me to leave art school and sketch my way across America.

3/18/2012 1:39 PM  
Blogger Vicki said...

These are really beautiful drawings. I am grateful for the introduction to this artist, though it comes just at his death. I am especially struck by the drawing done of crowds at the Vatican, with its variety of scale--throngs of people below and the columns stretching up--a difficult scene to depict, but he has made us understand it with a lyrical beauty.

3/18/2012 5:12 PM  
Blogger Donald Pittenger said...

David, while you correctly emphasized the segment of the technological arc from McMahon's heyday to now, let's not forget prior technological changes.

For McMahon to do what he did required (1) the existence of mass publication media and (2) printing technology that could accurately transform his sketches to the printed page. Mass media in the modern sense didn't really exist in the USA until roughly the second half of the 19th century. And for the first several decades of the mass-circulation publications, artists' illustrations had to pass through the (literal) hands of engravers and not a photography-based reproduction process.

This "window" for the likes of McMahon lasted maybe 70 or 80 years, a drop in the art history bucket. He was fortunate indeed to have made his career when he did.

3/18/2012 7:08 PM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Bob Cosgrove-- Thanks for your comment. I am a fan of Brodie's war pictures-- an entirely different category of reporting. I see a great variety in the quality of court reporting art (just as with traditional art), but the illustrators who both perform a function and maintain high artistic standards are deserving of our respect.

Kev Ferrara-- yes, and McMahon applied that recognizable style consistently throughout his career. He found a personal way of looking at the world that came naturally to him. It enabled him to produce thousands of laudable drawings.

James Gurney-- I have that excellent book by the very talented Nick Meglin. It is a "must read." Thanks for an inspiring story. For the benefit of other young artists out there who are thinking of leaving art school to become the next James Gurney, I feel compelled to add: "Your mileage may vary."

3/18/2012 11:08 PM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Vicki-- Thanks, I'm glad you agree that these drawings contribute a "lyrical beauty" that we don't find in a photograph.

Donald Pittenger-- of course there were artists who used art as a tool for reporting, centuries before the peak period you mention. Illustrated travelogues were popular in the 19th century, and war reportage was popular too. But I agree with you, things really took off as a result of the two factors you mention. Photo engraving made it possible to reproduce drawings like McMahon's with great sensitivity and fidelity.

It doesn't distract from McMahon's accomplishment to say, "Fortunate is the artist who is born at the right moment in time."

3/18/2012 11:40 PM  
Blogger Abraham Evensen Tena said...

Thank you so much for this post. I love his distorted perspectives and the deformation cause by the movement of his characters. Everything flows as the eye in situ moves and reads and takes information about motion and finally lands on the paper. A lesson to all of us who like to tell stories in images :)

3/19/2012 8:48 AM  
Blogger 2Dciple said...

David, are you going to do a post about Jean Giraud in the near future?

3/19/2012 2:21 PM  
Blogger Tom said...

David have you heard about this?

3/20/2012 6:19 AM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Abraham Evensen Tena-- Good point. McMahon's style makes it very easy for the viewer to absorb information (an excellent trait in a reporter). There were other illustrators who did more glamorous, striking pictures with distracting colors and dramatic angle shots. McMahon's role called for more restraint, and he did an excellent, classy job within the confines of that restraint.

2Dciple-- Giraud was a very talented artist with a long, storied career. He had some marvelous accomplishments and I would like to write about some of his specific work. However, he also has a very active fan network, and shortly after his death there were 800 blogs and web sites discussing his life. The last thing the world needs is me trundling along behind them, adding my two cents. I try to restrict this blog to topics where I can contribute original or seldom scene art, or where I think I can add a message that hasn't been addressed by smarter, harder working people.


3/20/2012 7:16 AM  
Anonymous Anthony Zierhut said...

Beautiful work! It's interesting and ironic that a drawing can sometimes give a more accurate transcription of an event than a photo or even video. Our eyes are selective in a way cameras can never be and a great artist like Mr McMahon can engage the eye and heart with his hand. Some of these look like pencil and marker on tracing paper -- a very soft and interesting technique that people don't do much of any more. Thanks for posting this!

3/20/2012 3:13 PM  
Blogger Tom said...

Nice, I liked your link David.

3/21/2012 12:53 PM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Anthony Zierhut-- Thanks for the comment. I see you have done a fair amount of recording the world on your own sketchblog. I heartily approve.

Tom-- Isn't it interesting how one group can lug a huge boulder for miles out of spiritual conviction while another can lug a huge boulder for miles to make... ummm... art? Both are wildly impractical, bordering on insane. Yet, we might view Stonehenge as a monument to the power of sacred inspiration while viewing the project you cited as evidence of a goofy and overfunded art market.

3/21/2012 2:45 PM  
Blogger Regina said...

What a master of composition! The sketches look so delicate and monumental at the same time.Every moment he captured feels as a historical moment.

3/21/2012 3:43 PM  
Blogger Tom said...

Well said David, and one seems beautiful and the other just feels annoying.

3/21/2012 11:12 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Emmett Till, Trayvon Martin. LOL

3/24/2012 12:12 PM  
Anonymous sarwar said...

nice work keep it up

3/24/2012 10:58 PM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Regina-- I'm glad you like it, and I agree, McMahon had a way of transforming a moment into a "historical moment." The great illustrator-reporters caused us to pause over what otherwise might be viewed as pedestrian events. During the moment of that pause, we might even see some of the larger issues inherent in the event. Unfortunately, we seem to have lost some of our appetite for larger issues.

Anonymous-- I like Mark Twain's quote, "history doesn't repeat itself but it does rhyme."

Sarwar-- Thanks very much.

3/26/2012 2:36 PM  
Blogger bill said...

His drawings are just incredible. Thanks for reminding me of McMahon's fantastic work.

3/26/2012 6:44 PM  
Anonymous D. said...

Hi there, David. I draw illustrations myself; perhaps it would interest you:

And congrats for the cool blog.

Best wishes,

3/29/2012 6:56 PM  
Blogger StimmeDesHerzens said...

I was going to comment on your last comment about "Being a guy"--but that is totally not appropriate at this moment. (I'm sure I will find an opportune time.)
If only this grand artist could have captured the recent 3 day occasion of the Supreme court hearing the Administration trying to make its case! I did not know him, but feel the loss through your post.

3/31/2012 5:32 PM  
Blogger Amarjeet Prasad said...

So lovely.Wish you happiness.

oil paintings
artwork reproductions

4/02/2012 10:44 PM  
Blogger Benjamin Raucher said...

Thank you for remembering him!!


4/07/2012 3:23 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't know if this is the correct forum to ask this question but, please indulge me for a moment. I have 8 Franklin McMahon prints dated 1971,1973,1974,1977,1978,1979,1980 and 1982. These are works of McMahon as commissioned by the American Bankers Association depicting the cities in which the annual convention(s) were held. These prints are signed and dated. I am willing to part company with these prints to someone who appreciates them as well. Thank You or 815-742-5835

4/26/2012 11:14 PM  
Anonymous what is a blog said...

great illustration nice article well thanks you

6/21/2012 11:45 AM  
Blogger VICTOR said...

In a class all his own. Beyond category as Duke Ellington would say. He raised the bar so high for all future reportage illustration.

9/15/2014 11:25 AM  

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