Bernard Safran – The Use of Photographs in Illustration

Precis: This talk was given by my father, Bernard Safran, to Mount Allison University’s Art School in 1974.  (I have previously published several posts on this blog about my father’s 10 years as an illustrator in NYC)


I have been asked to talk to you today about the use of photographs in illustration. I was an illustrator in New York doing magazine, book and advertising illustration from 1946 until 1956.

Bernie as happy cowboy173

Reference photo of himself as a cowboy c 1950

From 1957 through August 1965 I worked for Time Magazine painting covers. The illustration business has changed drastically since then. When I began it was quite a large business. Illustrators were held in great esteem, and at the top earned lots of money. All that changed with the explosive growth of TV, which by absorbing advertising dollars destroyed many of the major magazines, and also other markets once open to the illustrator. The business now doesn’t resemble the business as it was then.

I am certain however that illustrations are done the same way. The things that govern the methods are time and money; and these have if anything become more important because of the competition of photography which is both cheaper and quicker. And which art directors turned to when their budgets were cut.

I went to Pratt Institute to study illustration. It was and is one of the leading art schools in the United States. In school, in that long ago, the use of photographs in illustration was regarded as not only grossly immoral; it smacked of not playing the game; and had a large odor of larceny about it. So a severe prejudice against photographs, and their use was held up as a fundamental canon.

Remarkably after all this time, I understand that this attitude still survives in art schools intact. In this era, it is astonishing to me how hardy it has proven to be.

After I graduated, it was some time before I found out that you simply could not compete or survive as an illustrator without using photographs. Having made this unequivocal statement, I’d like to leave it for a short time, and turn to a broader subject.

What I would like to discuss briefly is the use of mechanical devices used by artists since antiquity to help them in their work. The most important element of any work of art is the idea that it projects. The finished result is what you see, and only that counts. How the artist arrives at that end doesn’t matter. You look at it, and it evokes a response, or it doesn’t. If you are aware of the effort that has gone into it at all, then the artist has failed. His only object is to present his idea whole, full born, and in full force. If you are a professional artist you understand this, and will use any means that will save time and effort. Your major effort is not in the mechanical, but in the philosophical area.

the craftsman's treatiseI would also say that when artists were in a master’s studio years ago, and when artist’s guilds were in being, methods of work were kept closely guarded secrets. The artists regarded themselves primarily as craftsmen. If you read Cennini’s The Craftsman’s Handbook written in 1426 (the first artist’s technical manual that we have), or Leonardo Da Vinci’s Treatise on Painting, you will find that their chief concern was not Aesthetics, but how to do things.

There have been numerous devices used to speed up the actual doing of work. Probably the earliest, and most widely used was the camera obscura. The exact date of it’s invention, the Encyclopedia Brittanica says is unknown, but it is reputed to have been in used in ancient Greece. The first written reference to it that we have is in 1038 AD.


Alberti’s diagram

The camera obscura is an optical apparatus consisting of a darkened chamber into which light is admitted through a convex lens. This lens forms an image of external objects on a screen and can then be traced. The Italian painter and architect Alberti used it in 1437, and so did Leonardo Da Vinci who also left some accurate drawings of it. In 1558 there is an account of it’s application to painting and portraiture. We also know that Canaletto and Guardi in painting their views of Venice used the camera obscura.

canaletto camera obscura

Canalettos camera obscura, Venice

Canaletto’s is now in the Correr Museum in Venice. Since their paintings were commercial art done primarily to sell to tourists on the Grand Tour, they in some cases didn’t even bother to correct their tracings by straightening the verticals. The camera obscura was very popular with English young ladies learning to paint water colors in the 18th and 19th centuries, since they could trace and not learn how to draw.

durer camera obscura

Camera obscura by Durer

There were also tracing devices used by such great painters as Hans Holbein (the Younger) and Albrecht Durer. In fact here is a drawing of one by Durer. It is now quite accepted that Holbein as court painter to Henry VIII used such an apparatus. His drawings of court personalities now in Windsor Castle show clear evidence of it.

Anything that helped was used. The great Venetian Tintoretto left dozens of small sculptured figures, as did El Greco. These were used in small sets which were lit, and then used as reference for large paintings. This method of setting up the lighting of a picture was used by a man I knew – Gail Phillips, who was a Saturday Evening Post illustrator, and ran an illustration studio. He’d make a model of the setting for his illustration, light it, photograph it, and paint from it.

El Greco statuette

An El Greco statuette, Prado

Since El Greco was a pupil of Titian, it is not unreasonable to assume that Titian also did this, and no doubt many others.

Portrait painters such as Sir Joshua Reynolds only painted their sitters heads. The sitter would come in one hour a week over an extended period. Sir Joshua had an assembly line, and painted numerous people daily. The sitter’s clothes were put on a life sized mannequin which had articulated arms and legs, and Sir Joshua’s assistants known as drapery painters, did the rest.

It is no surprise therefore that with the advent of the photograph artists were quick to seize on it for help in their work. The great French painter Eugene Delacroix explored the use of photographs as early as 1853, just a few years after their invention. I found four references to the use of photographs by himself and others, in his journal, just casually going through it. Degas is reputed to have used them, and I have no doubt many others less eminent. We know that one of the finest American painters Thomas Eakins used them, and was also associated with Muybridge in trying to catalog the various actions of the human figure among other species, by photographing them. These photos have been available in book form in the last few years.


Delacroix photo


Delacroix Odalisque

I’m not trying to give you a history of the ways artists have tried to lighten their work, since I really have a small knowledge in this regard, but only want to show that it is not new or unusual.

In fact when you are a working illustrator, you find that you must be able to do your work quickly, and well. You must meet stringent deadlines, or – you may as well forget it.

I really learned to be an illustrator in the aforementioned Gail Phillips Studio. It was in mid Manhattan. There were quite a few illustrators at work there. The work covered the whole range of illustration from billboards to magazines to fashions. All of it was done from black and white photographs. There was a full time photographer there, and a large photographic studio.

Bernie Safran posing with model for pulp cover

Bernie Safran posing with a model for a pulp cover c 1950

If you are doing commercial illustration, you cannot make things up. There must be some air of authenticity. The greatest difficulty in painting a realistic picture is that it is virtually  impossible to invent the subtleties of how light will fall on people in your picture. In an illustration you can somewhat fake the background, but not the people. You must have models. Models are expensive. Beautiful girls, for example of the types in the current fashion, with beautiful clothes, fashionable makeup, and hair dos, cannot be improvised. When I was doing paper back book covers way back in 1949, they paid about $200 for a cover. Models were paid, not the top ones by any means, from $20 to $25 an hour. It’s obvious that you couldn’t hire them for long. So you photographed them in black and white. It was the most inexpensive way; the quickest and most versatile.

In discussing a paper back cover, for instance, with an art director, he’d generally tell you the exact situation he wanted you to illustrate. You then went, and did some sketches. When he had approved one, ordinarily with some changes, you hired models. Then you posed them, and lit them according to the sketch, and photographed them. There was a photographic studio in New York called Fashiongraph, and others that provided this service. They had a large file of models. They would book the models, take the actual photographs, and get the prints to you very quickly. when you worked in a studio as I did which had it’s own photographer, you could have prints within the hour. You’d get light prints so you could see into the shadow areas, and dark prints so that you could see the form in the light areas. If you did this yourself, you were able to make them even more useful by enlarging various details.

It is obvious that the photograph makes things much easier if you are dealing with action, as most illustrations are. The figure is off balance in a pose that can’t be held for long, or at all. If you try to do it from a model, you must do it piecemeal, and it is time consuming. The photograph solves this problem.

Bernie Safran reference photo

Bernie Safran in reference photo

Why black and white photographs instead of color? In doing an illustration there must be a unified color scheme. The illustration only projects one situation. The color sets the mood, and so you make it up to dramatize the picture. Normal or natural color is too drab. Every thing in an illustration is forced. The action, the black and white pattern, and the color. It can’t be very subtle, or it won’t reproduce well.

As an example of the kind of situation that comes up – I once did a Pocket book cover of a Perry Mason mystery. The picture showed a pretty blond holding a gun on Perry Mason who had his hands up. On delivery the art director thought it was fine. However, on a Friday afternoon he called and said that the editor had decided that we couldn’t show Perry Mason’s face since everyone had a different idea of how he looked. Perry Mason had to be turned around to show his back. The painting had to be back on Monday morning to meet the deadline. I ran in, picked it up, got home, and had my wife photograph my back, arms up. After I developed the photos, it was quite late. It suddenly occurred to me that the painting was done in casein, the toughest of materials, and I had no way to remove the figure of Perry Mason. It was a holiday weekend. I couldn’t get a solvent at the hardware store. I did however have a bottle of Cutty Sark scotch, and I sacrificed it for the job, successfully. As you can see, this sort of time frame makes the photograph essential.

Outdoor Life cover by Bernard Safran 1951

Outdoor Life cover by Bernard Safran 1951 (my uncle posed for the reference photo)

Here I’d like to touch on something else that is of primary importance to the illustrator. It is called scrap in the trade. Scrap means reference material. It is something the illustrator uses continually. Whatever you illustrate must be accurate, or as accurate as you can get it. So that if you paint 19th century France, the clothes and objects must be right. In an illustration of the US Calvary during the Indian Wars, the uniforms and equipment, and the Indians must be correct. There is an immense clipping collection in the New York Public Library on 42nd Street devoted to this*, and most illustrators are continually adding to their own files too.

Only rarely do illustrators hire the actual costumes or objects. Mostly they are improvised from clippings. Sometimes, quite often in fact, they will simply use the clippings as they are, perhaps reversing them. This frequently happens with backgrounds. The illustrator photographs his models in approximate dress, and used this or that from wherever he can find it, for his setting. The dominant factor is expediency, and the saving of time. The one saving grace of this practice is that it develops in the illustrator a great facility in pictorial composition. He frequently finds that he is dealing with many diverse situations, and with large differences of time and mood at once. Bad as this practice may sound, its practical result is a lot of flexibility and mental agility.

Houdon's l'Ecorché

My father believed a firm foundation in anatomy was vital. He owned a copy of Houdon’s flayed man, l’Ecorché, and kept it in his studio for reference. (image from

Now that I’ve told you why and how photographs are used by illustrators, I’d like to add some words of caution. Anyone can take a photograph, and copy it, but it doesn’t make him an artist. For the illustrator it is a tool and he uses it as such.

To use it properly, he must know how to draw, and understand form. This means that the artist has to be able to see in the photograph what he would see in the model.

Without going into a discussion on how to draw the figure, it simply is the realization of how the edges turn, where the planes are, and how the figure articulates. The artist must know what to emphasize and what to diminish. The photograph cannot be used as it is, or the result will be lifeless, and dull. The best photograph from the point of view of the illustrator is the sharpest and most detailed. The maximum information is the aim.

B Safran drawing of Michaelangelo anatomy smaller file

My father worked continually on sharpening his eye and hand with drawing the human form. In this study of Michaelangelo sculpture you can see how he is simplifying the planes of the figure, and emphasizing the form  by using line across the form to develop the light and dark values. When he was teaching me to draw, I drew from life, from l’Ecorché, and from photographs of Michaelangelo sculptures because Michaelangelo had already simplified the form of the body and it was easier to see the planes. Page from one of Bernard Safran’s sketchbooks.


The process of selection is the artist’s job. The photograph does not have a living presence as a model does, and the effect of life is something the illustrator must add to it from his knowledge.

To use a photograph properly is something that must be learned after the artist has learned his business, and not before. If a person becomes dependent on the use of photographs before he understands how to be an artist, the result will never be better than poor. So in my opinion it’s best to keep away from the photograph until you have learned as much as you can.


* The New York Public Library’s Picture Collection is now located at The Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, Mid-Manhattan Library, and Science, Industry and Business Library: 455 Fifth Avenue New York, NY, 10016 (212) 340-0863



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