Turn Back the Pages: CBS

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From the 1950’s to the 1970’s CBS Television Network, under the art direction of Louis Dorfsman, commissioned one artist each year to create a series that documented a behind-the-scenes look at their studios. Those drawings were then reproduced in a 7”x7” promotional calendar book.

Here’s a blurb from the book “Dorfsman & CBS”: “Unlike the promotional kits, brochures, and books which were pure business, CBS also mailed an annual gift to clients and business associates. It took the form of a diary/calendar for the coming year. While Dorfsman went to great lengths to make these diaries entertaining and handsome, they were not entirely without a commercial tinge. All the illustrations subtly or blatantly promoted the CBS Television Network. Dorfsman also cloned illustrations from the diaries for the spin-off trade ads the effectively amortizing his production costs.”

What I love about these books is that it’s similar to looking at an artist sketchbook. Typically, a sketchbook is a place where an artist experiments with new attempts at mark making and the work inside them are rarely a finished product. In the case of these books the illustrators aren’t experimenting, but are working in a loose drawing style that aims to capture a feel of a location more than a tight accurate rendering. In some of the images you can even see where an artist erased a section of a drawing. It’s that sense of exploration along with the book itself (the size and number of pages) that reminds me of sketchbooks.

Let’s take a look at three books in the series. The first one by Robert Weaver, an illustrator who I’ve discussed in previous articles. He was an artist who is known for his on-the-spot drawings, which made him a great fit for this assignment.

From the 1960 notebook that he illustrated:

“If, like Alice in Wonderland, you could walk through the looking glass of your television set, you would find that for every performer you see on the screen there are ten more behind the screen, performing their tasks with equal dedication and split-second precision. You would find them doing such things as focusing their cameras, cueing the actors, controlling the lights, regulating the sound, shifting the scenery and sharpening the images-to note only a few. Throughout the coming year this diary may help remind you of the diverse talent and skills of the invisible performers who help bring into your home day by day the wealth of information and entertainment that television provides.”

  • James T. Aubrey, Jr., President The CBS Television Network.

The next book is by Carl Erickson (“Eric”), a fashion illustrator who is known for his work in Vogue Magazine. He always worked directly from live models and used a sensitive line that was combined with innate elegance and taste. It’s those qualities that he brought to the 1958 book.

Rene Bouche was also a fashion illustrator, and much like Eric, he worked from life as much as possible. His art doesn’t have the same elegance that Eric’s does, but his taste and selectivity made him popular in the fashion world. For those reasons it made him a good choice to illustrate the 1955 notebook.

This series shows the possibilities, and potential, of what can be done when an artist is commissioned to document a location through drawing. I believe that reportage, when utilized correctly, can be a welcome alternative to the standard illustration assignment. It allows an artist to tell the ‘story’ from their viewpoint, filtered through first hand experience; an experience that is unique to that specific location and time.

In the 1970’s CBS turned to photography to illustrate the notebooks and eventually ended the project all together. I’d love to see CBS, or a similar client, assign a project like this today. I think a reportage series would stand out among all the images we see on a daily basis and, in turn, have a lasting impact.

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Categories: History of Illustration

Author:Daniel Zalkus

Daniel Zalkus is an Illustrator and graduate of the School of Visual Arts in NYC. You can see more of his work at: danielzalkus.com

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