Looking back from 1943, artist remembers days before ‘firing squads and economic chiselers in the newspaper business’

I dedicate this Monday Reading to the recently unemployed graphic artists of my acquaintance in particular, and in general to all the newsroom artists I’ve worked with. As newsrooms became more professional — in the worst sense of the word — and the tolerance for dealing with creative personalities declined, the art departments seemed to be the last hold-out of better times.

Robert Graham at the Saginaw News was so kind-hearted (or perhaps just so grateful to find someone else in the newsroom who thought what he did was cool) that he taught one fresh-out-of-J-school word guy enough about rubylith and the lucy (an opaque projector, so named I presume from “camera lucida”) that I was able to fill in as newsroom artists for a short time after he left. Not until I started using Photoshop did I experience a similar joy at being able to create art despite my less than spectacular sketching skills.

All of the small group of artists at the Detroit Free Press in the mid-80s were nice folks, but in particular Cathy Gendron, who came in as chief artist and brought a flare that added a lot of fun to my job as assistant picture editor. I still remember her in a smock — an actual artist’s smock! — with an airbrush in hand, standing before an easel in the cramped corner of the newsroom where the artists were corralled, looking for all the world like Van Gogh gone Machine Age.

One of the best things about newsroom artists, at least for people like me, is that they are often generous enough to take a rough idea and polish it into perfection. Looking for a way to illustrate a counterespionage story for a Freep section front, I mentioned Mad’s Spy vs. Spy. Cathy produced an homage that still makes me laugh. When I got to The Plain Dealer and, somewhat to my shock, discovered that my job was business section designer, Ed Freska helped transform my ideas into good-looking pages. Stuck with nothing for our Sunday cover but a wire story about Ted Turner’s plans to colorize old movies, I turned to Ed and didn’t have to say much more than “Casablance. Paint-by-number.” (Here’s a long, but wonderful, video on Facebook showing how Ed did a courtroom sketch from start to finish.)

I’m very happy that some artists have survived the digital transformation, so that The PD’s Bill Neff can keep producing 90-second Know-it-all videos and Andrea Levy can continue astonishing us all with the visual metaphors and puns in her illustrations and stand-alone opinion pieces. While photographers and designers are visual creatives as well, artists add a special touch. They bring to life things that never existed before. I envy them their talents and am always fascinated by the workings of their minds.

In their honor, here’s a selection from “Give Us a Little Smile, Baby” by Harry J. Coleman. Coleman had become best known as a photographer by the time his book came out in 1943 (he’s noted for making an unsuccessful attempt to use a balloon to make an aerial photo of the San Francisco earthquake in 1906, perhaps making him the father of drone photography). But he started out as an artist. This excerpt is from his time at the New York Journal somewhere around 1900.

I had a regular desk in the Journal art department by that time, and I had acquired a temperament and pearl-gray spats, trimmed my hair chrysanthemum style, carried a portfolio and sported a flowing Windsor tie. These were the trademarks of early-day artists.

There was plenty of work to do. I was assigned to arrange illustrations for Hearst’s German-language paper, Das Morgen Journal, and to assort and prepare pictures of the Boer War and the Boxer uprising. There were no picture services, of course. Most of our Boer War scenes were lifted and rearranged from weekly London pictorials.

Artists lived high in that don’t-blow-out-the-gas era. We were all flush, well able to step out, finance our uneducated palates and graze with high society. One night you would find us all duded up, eating in the Bohemian charm of strumming guitars, crocks of Chianti, and lovely women at the subterranean Cafe Boulevard. Next night, we might join the mackerel-snappers at the fulton Market, or burp with the spaghetti-stuffers at Gonforoni’s. We even put on the swell and rode through Greeley Square to the gathering place of artists and writers, the exclusive Gilsey House, where “Diamond Jim” Brady was accustomed to entertain his railroad customers.

… Newspaper work was like the era — gay and expansive. News cameras were still considered practical only for outdoor spectacles and “scenes.” Sketching was in full flower. In most cases, artists were sent from the office with reporters to draw the personalities involved in the daily drama of arson, murder and rape. …

Those were the halcyon days, too, before the advent of “canning” seasons, firing squads, red-tape men and economic chiselers in the newspaper business. A business manager was a very human sort of guy, whose face lit with compassion when payrolls increased, and cashiers were always tipovers for a light touch. Hearst spent plenty of money to hire more artists. The World and Journal dragnets for picture talent emptied commercial studios. Even art schools were running close-hauled.

… My slow picture procedure had to be speeded up until even close resemblances to the original subjects were entirely lost in the struggle to get in under the wire. The hurried sketches, usually left profiles, bore little similarity to any person living or dead. Interpretations made by finishing artists were pure fabrications, in which any accurate characteristics were lost entirely. Only male subjects had any luck and that was because they were nearly all bearded. At the press coop, in the shadow of Coogan’s Bluff, our topnotch baseball writers, Jake Dressler and Charley Dryden, had only to mark their scorecards with suggestions that George Van Haltern, “King” Kelly, Zeke Buckley, Walter Wilmot, “Kid” Gleason or any other major league player be portrayed and our art department could do the job by a simple process of characteristic whisker identification.

Late in the day, there was no time for sketching at the scene. I phoned in descriptions for the benefit of the portrait artists at the office. These lazy louts always had a dozen or more ready-made, wash-drawn mugs of different male and female types, painstakingly prepared from imagination to save time. When my verbal description reached them, they would select the pot-boiler which bore the closest resemblance, make a few appropriate adjustments, paint on some jewelry and end the finished picture off to the engraver. This was also a money-making scheme. Most newspaper artists were not paid by the day, but in proportion to the printed space occupied by their work, at the rate of two dollars per column width.

… Ingenious devices to avoid work were the constant invention of our art department. Original photographs were painted over and adjusted slightly to fit the general description of a subject. That was the incubation of picture faking. I often returned to my office and found the culprits hard at work. They would dig up an honest-to-God photographer of John L. Sullivan, remove his ferocious mustache, paint a General Grant bear across his massive chin, and send it to the engravers as a legitimate picture of an unidentified body in a foul murder. A practiced eye could look under a doctored photographer on page one and find Hetty Green, the Witch of Wall Street, or even the Czarina of Russia, hiding behind a painted pince-nez and poke bonnet, or perhaps peeking through a gaudy, freshly daubed snood as another hapless victim of the cowardly hit-and-pedal scorchers who infested the Coney Island cycle paths.

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