Drawing America’s Invisible Poor, Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco

Drawing of derelict and abandoned  factories

I found this interesting interview with the journalist Chris Hedges about his recent collaboration with the artist/ journalist Joe Sacco, in their book ‘Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt’. In it the pair make visible the unseen people and ignored corners of America.

Drawn reportage is often overlooked, and reportage in the form of a graphic novel is easy to dismiss in favour of a photographic or written account of the same event; but in this interview Chris Hedges highlights the advantages of this graphic approach over more traditional forms of reportage. I hope you enjoy it.

 

An Unofficial War Artist

Ronald Searle was never acknowledged as an official war artist, despite risking his life to produce a exceptional body of work recording his experience as a Japanese prisoner of war in Singapore and Thailand. Some of these drawings will be exhibited alongside his better known cartoons, in a tribute exhibition, Ronald Searle Remembered (1920-2011) at the Chris Beetles Gallery, 8 & 10 Ryder Street, London, SW1Y 6QB, from 22nd May to 9th June 2012.

By the end of January 1942 the British Forces had abandoned the Malayan mainland to the Japanese, and fallen back to Singapore Island. Within a few days the Japanese had assembled more than 50,000 prisoners of war, and marched them the 14 miles to Changi, the area occupying the Eastern end of Singapore Island. Ronald Searle was one of these prisoners. In a remarkable burst of reportage immediately after capitulation Searle documented the triumph of the Japanese, and the collapsed postures and glazed expressions of the defeated allied soldiers.

As conditions worsened, his sense of mission grew in strength. Health, opportunity and materials permitting, he would bring back from this experience a pictorial record of scenes which, he already knew, would otherwise scarcely be believed. It was important work – unique, as it turned out – and it was an objective reason to survive, which every man would come to need.

A supply route from Siam (Thailand) to Burma was essential for the Japanese war effort, but it had previously been accepted it would be impossible to build given the extreme terrain and the debilitating tropical weather. Large numbers of expendable labourers would be needed, and on the 8th May 1942 Searle and the rest of ‘H’ force were moved out. They endured a 100 mile march to the section of track where they would begin work. The prisoners were already severely malnourished and started to die of fevers and exhaustion. Searle who had suffered from enteritis, gastritis and tropical ulcers back in the camp at Changi was in comparatively good shape. Even during the punishing march he made drawings. He continued to record the routine of the day, drawing up later those scenes he could not capture from life. Sometimes making drawings at first light before beginning 18 hours of labour on the railway.

During the time Searle spent working on the railway he contracted Malaria, Dengue fever and Beri-Beri; and suffered from repeated beatings, including the attack of a Japanese guard on one of his hands. He narrowly escaped the airborne cholera that was killing so many others. Men in agonies of hunger would throw away their rice if they saw a fly land on it rather than risk contracting cholera. The fact that Searle drew these scenes makes them possible to imagine.

The Siam – Burma Railway was completed on the 25th October 1943, ahead of schedule. It is said that one man died for every sleeper laid. Searle survived, barely, and was transferred to the Sime Road Camp in Singapore. A fellow prisoner Russell Braddon described him at this time.

He could barely move, and we had no food, he had dysentery, malaria and was covered in running sores and each day we expected him to die…If you can imagine something that weighs six stone or so, is on the point of death and has no qualities of the human condition that aren’t revolting, calmly lying there with a pencil and a scrap of paper, drawing, you have some idea of the difference in temperament that this man had from the ordinary human being.

5 months later Searle was transferred to Changi Gaol, where 10,000 prisoners were housed in a facility intended for just 600. On the 24th September 1945 Singapore was formally surrendered; and on the 24th October, nearly 4 years after he left England, Searle arrived in Liverpool.

He had managed to create a body of work considerable enough to make him eligible retrospectively as a war artist, but the Artist Advisory Committee never granted this. In November 1946, a selection of his war drawings were published under the title 40 Drawings. Despite editing which minimised the scenes of forced labour and torture, the book remained powerful enough to distress. There was, during this period of time, a great deal the general public was anxious to forget, and so the publication was not a success. The drawings were put away and were not published again for forty years, when they were finally bought to the public’s attention with the publishing of the book To The Kwai and Back.

Ronald Searle: A Biography by Russell Davies

To The Kwai and Back: War Drawings 1939 to 1945 by Ronald Searle

Interview with Lucinda Rogers

I have been following Lucinda Rogers’s work for some time, I even have a framed poster of one of her New York drawings on the wall in my studio, so I was really glad to receive an email announcing her new website www.lucindarogers.co.uk. 

Her drawings are stunning and really capture the atmosphere of a place, especially her projects about New York and London. She gave a lecture at the Dulwich Picture Gallery a few years ago entitled Drawn From Life; afterwards I was fortunate to be able to ask her a few questions about her location drawing, and about her views on making a career in reportage illustration. Lucinda has been kind enough to review her original answers and update me on what she is up to now.

 

Do you think there is a market for reportage illustration?

L.R- In theory there is a market but in practice you need to search out this sort of commission to make it happen.

What advice would you give to someone who is just starting out?

L.R – Have your portfolio show a body of reportage work covering different sorts of places and scenes. Be aware of how reportage-style illustration is being used in advertising, design and the media.

Who would you advise approaching with a portfolio of work and why?

L.R – Newspapers / magazines are the traditional home for reportage work and you might propose drawing an event that they are likely to cover. Reportage is also used in annual reports and other marketing. The subject-matter you like to draw, such as Anna Cattermole’s Newlyn fishing boats, may be relevant to a particular company or organization whom you could approach and suggest they commission your drawings.

Do you think it is necessary to have an agent?

L.R- It is good to start off on your own and see how the business works but you might want an agent to do the difficult job of negotiating with clients. Don’t expect an agent to find all your work; try to be self-sufficient and have the agent as an added benefit.

Is all your work done on location now, or do you still find yourself answering commercial briefs by drawing from photographs?

L.R – It is done on location as much as possible and I usually turn down jobs that have nothing to do with this way of working.

At the talk you stressed the importance of maintaining your own projects, why do you think this is important?

L.R – It is better to keep personal work going so that you are not steered by commercial jobs alone.

Have you now finished your New York and London drawings or are these projects ongoing?

L.R – They are ongoing along with an interest in other places.

Have you got any other exciting projects in the pipeline that you can tell us about?

L.R – I intend to spend 2012 drawing in a number of different places…I also have six location drawings of Spitalfields published in March in the bookof the blog www.spitalfieldslife.com

A drawing by Lucinda Rogers of Leather Workers in the East End of London

 

A book of Influences

At the Urban Sketchers Symposium Melanie Reim introduced us to her ‘book of influences’. An A4 plastic folder that she had filled with images that inspire her, and which she takes with her when she is sketching. The idea is not to copy someone else’s work, but to be encouraged to apply to our own practice, lessons that can be learned from the work of others.

I have gathered together a few of the images that I will be putting into my own book of influences; it has been an interesting exercise. While I have been choosing which pictures to include and which to leave out it has become clear that there is a massive difference between images that I admire, and those from which I would like to learn lessons.

Photography is a huge influence on my work, so it is no surprise to find so many picture by Robert Frank making it into my selection. What surprises me more is that all the photographs and illustrations I have selected are black and white.

As well as these influential images I would like to include two quotes into my ‘book of influences’:

‘What you reject…is just as important’ Robert Frank

‘If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.’ Robert Capa