Monday, February 11, 2013

Franklin McMahon: Artistry from Mundanity

The term "reportage illustrator" tends to bring to mind courtroom reporting, so it's not surprising that Franklin McMahon documented many famous moments in modern courtroom history.

In September 1955, on assignment in from Life magazine, McMahon was present at the trial of the killers of Emmett Till, a black 14-year-old boy from Chicago who was brutally murdered for flirting with a white woman; the young wife of a grocery store owner.


McMahon captured an important moment - many say a turning point - in civil rights history. When Till's uncle, Moses Wright, stood and pointed out the two murderers, it was the first time in the history of the state of Mississipi that a black man implicated the guilt of a white man in court.


During his storied career, McMahon recorded the likeness of many important historical figures...

(Martin Luther King Jr.)

(Pope Paul VI)

... and the range of subjects he documented and the assignments he undertook is truly unprecedented. Here's a drawing of St. Peter's Basilica that was printed in the Saturday Evening Post and the Chicago Tribune...


... and here's one from a series done on board the U.S.S. Wasp during the recovery of the Gemini IV space capsule.


By their very nature, readers would find these subjects compelling, but even McMahon's illustrations of ordinary people living everyday lives provide the viewer with something remarkable: the sensitivity of his observational drawings brings artistry to even the most mundane activities.

Here is an illustration by McMahon for a 1960s McDonald's Corporation annual report...


Three double page spreads on newspaper production from the 1964 edition of "Childcraft: The How and Why Library"...






A painting for an article in Chicago Magazine, "Housing, Fair and Otherwise," 1960s...


One of approximately fifty drawings for an IBM film produced by Charles Eames...


And here's one of my favourite Franklin McMahon illustrations among all those I've seen while researching the artist, done for an Abbott Laboratories publication called "What's New."


McMahon once said, "I tell students: Look at the people you see on the way to school. Draw them. Look at the people in a bus station, waiting for a train. Draw them. Go to the airline terminal. Go to the courtroom, factory, municipal government. It doesn't have to be reportage in the sense of an incident. Draw what you see."


  1. McMahon was at the Emmitt Till trial?! My respect has gone even higher for him.

    From a different vantage point than the famous photograph, it looks like McMahon recorded the moment that Till's uncle pointed out the killers in the courtroom, something unheard of in segregation-era Mississippi.

  2. Thank you for doing all of this. McMahon is one of my favorite reportage artists. Such inspiration from him!

  3. Adrian; that's exactly right - McMahon captured that historic moment, and the famous photo from the opposite angle exists only because the photographer defied the judge's order of no cameras in the courtroom.

  4. donnamca; you're welcome! :^)

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