Turn Back the Pages: Franklin McMahon



Franklin McMahon (1921-2012) was an artist-reporter who is primarily known for his drawings created directly on-site, which he would use as a basis for either a commercial assignment or personal piece. Throughout his lifetime he covered the civil rights movement, U.S. Presidential campaigns, America’s role in the space race, the formation of the European council, Vatican II, and many other events.

In 1955 Life Magazine commissioned him to draw at the Mississippi trial of the killers of Emmett Till, a black 14 year old boy from Chicago who was accused of flirting with a young white wife of a grocery store owner. Till was abducted from the home of his uncle, beaten and shot, and his body found at the bottom of the Tallahatchie River, weighted with a cotton gin fan tied around his neck with barbed wire. McMahon’s drawings, and one in particular of Emmett Till’s great-uncle, Moses Wright, standing to point at the accused men, was seen nationwide and gave him the exposure that help build his reputation as an on-site artist. The trial was also one of the catalysts for the civil rights movement.


His work in the 1950’s reminds me of three artists from that time period: Ben Shahn, David Stone Martin (who I wrote about in a previous article) and Andy Warhol.  It’s the angularity of the shapes, the sparseness of the drawing, and “cartooning” of the figures. I’ve never read anything that says McMahon was influenced by those three artist, but I’m sure he knew their work.

Here are three drawings by Franklin McMahon from a book about the Constitution of Illinois:

Three by Ben Shahn:

An original drawing by Andy Warhol:



And an image by David Stone Martin:


You can still see the influence of this look in McMahon’s later work, but he moved away from it and into the approach that he’s most known for. I’ll share examples later on in this article as we dig deeper into his art.

From the book “Drawing On-The-Spot” by Nick Meglin:

“My approach to on-the-spot drawing is quite basic – I simply rely on the interaction between myself and the subject,” states Frank McMahon. “I find that the drawing or painting takes on an entirely different form than what I had anticipated back in the studio, and it’s this difference that gives location drawing its special value. Besides, I get choked-up when I work in the studio; I seem to get all caught up in the how I’m doing the job rather than what it has to say. The best way to beat this is to pack up and go out on-the-spot.”

McMahon photo

McMahon typically worked on a 14×17 or 22×30 medium or heavy sheet of watercolor paper. The sturdiness of the paper was necessary given the physical demands that he made on his art. He also drew with a dark pencil (Veriblack #315), used a razor blade to sharpen them, and a kneaded eraser. He sometimes applied color on the spot, but usually did that later on.

“On-the-spot drawing allows you to take a kind of cubist approach to the subject, drawing it from several angles in the same drawing, and drawing it as you know it to be rather than through someone else’s angle of vision or emotional point of view, which is why I prefer not to use photographs.”

In his article for the famous artist school titled “The World is your studio” McMahon said: “You will discover that an artist’s studio need not be confined within the limits of four walls but can, and should, be bounded only by the full range of his interests and experience.

Whether or not you specialize in some particular aspect of art, you can profit by observing closely, selecting what is meaningful to you from all that you see, and making use of this material when you paint and draw. Most artists are reporters of one kind or another – and some artists are working reporters, performing a journalistic function similar to that of newspaper and magazine writers and photographers. In fact, pictorial reporting, which we have come to think of as becoming largely to the realm of photography, need and will probably always need the artist because he is able to bring to the subject insight, interpretation, and a unique point of view that is not always obtainable with a camera.”

Specifically talking about an artist working on-the-spot McMahon said: “He can walk around a subject, selecting and emphasizing its most important features. He can exaggerate the perspective or flatten it, heighten the color or eliminate it, dramatize the mood or subdue it, and with the help of those interpretive devices actually heighten the truthfulness and reality of his pictorial statement”.

LightninHopkinsMcMahon worked regularly with magazine clients, but was never confined to only doing the work they assigned. For example, when he was coming back from an assignment at NASA’s cape Kennedy (in Florida) he heard, on his car radio, about Martin Luther King’s march from Selma to Alabama and immediately took a detour so he could go there and document the events.


In the 1960’s McMahon set out to do a story on the European Common Market as a self-initiated project. He attended meetings, talked with government officials, wandered along the Rhine, and combed the streets of Rotterdam, Paris, Luxembourg, and Bonn. In three weeks he made seventeen drawings with an objective in mind to translate a complicated economic and political scheme into human terms.

Around the same time President Kennedy, in a speech, awakened American interest in the affairs of the Common Market and McMahon was able to sell a few of these images to Fortune Magazine.

Here’s one of the drawings that he did in Luxembourg, which depicts manufactured goods, carried by modern means of transportation, over ancient trade routes.



In this drawing of cars, he found a symbol that summed up the whole idea of European Unity and became the key picture in his story. It’s the European license plate with six stars – one for each nation of the European Common Market.


I’ve talked about his philosophy and the way he worked, but another thing that he was good at was selling his own artwork. Maybe it was the fact that he had to support his family of nine kids (not an easy thing to do!) or perhaps it just came natural to him; I’m not entirely sure. Whatever the reason he sold clients on the idea of sending him on location to document a subject, sold those same clients (and others) drawings that he did on his own time, created illustrations that later appeared on limited edition plates, started a film company with his wife where the videos would use his work (those films were shown on CBS and PBS) and, at times, even had his wife accompany him on location to work as a travel reporter.

Franklin McMahon was a dedicated artist who followed his own path and even rejected the label of being called an “artist” (even though he did create art). Instead he said that he was simply a reporter who used art to tell stories.

Below is a selection of artwork by McMahon that he did over the years.

For more information on the Famous Artist Course please visit: http://arthomestudy.com





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Categories: Illustration History, Illustrators, Reportage

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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2 Comments on “Turn Back the Pages: Franklin McMahon”

  1. Deborah McMahon Osterholtz
    March 27, 2023 at 4:26 am #

    I am Deborah McMahon Osterholtz. Franklin McMahon was my father. Iti fun to see this blog. My book The World is your Studio Travel Stories by Irene and Franklin McMahon was recently published and is available on Amazon and Barnes and noble. I have also done several talks about my fathers art work. These talks are available on line. USK Talks Franklin McMahon, The History Center of Lake ForestTHE World is your studio and 5 minute drawing Franklin McMahon University of Lisbon.

  2. Deborah McMahon Osterholtz
    March 27, 2023 at 4:34 am #

    Franklin McMahons Emmy And Peabody award winning films are available to view at the Chicago Film Archives.


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