by Art Chantry ( firstname.lastname@example.org)
how many of you out there in illustrationland (or graphic design world, for that matter) know what a “morgue” is any more? it’s a term and an idea that has gotten lost in the digital internet – and that’s a shame. a morgue is something that every art student was required to start up back in the olden daze of yore. many students kept them going for the rest of their lives, too.
a morgue is a clip file. specifically NOT a “clip-art” file, but a collection of images and styles and samples that you used in your work. what good illustrators collect are fat files based on relatively vague categories (like “desert animals”, or ‘men’s fashion” or “entertainment – partying”. files with general titles like that.) then they would save images of people posing in useful positions, set in particular themes and (in particular) other people’s illustrations in styles you liked. whenever you got a job to do, say, an illustration for a new restaurant client advert, you’d go to the file and pull out “entertainment – dinner”, and “architecture – restaurant”, and maybe “women’s fashion – evening wear”.) then you’d browse through it and let your mind wander until you found a few images that you found useful for your ideas. then, you’d simply draw from these images like a live model (or sometimes trace with a lucigraph or art-o-graph or light table) and build up a wholly unique illustration to solve the client problem at hand.
often you’d also have illustration styles that you admire, too. you might have an file full of ‘illustration – wash’ or ‘illustration – cross hatching’ or “illustration – watercolor.” you might even have fat full files full of just one illustrator you really like (like “illustration – milton glaser’, or “illustration, bernie fuchs.”) you refer to these styles and techniques to use style as a benchmark for the message you are trying to get across. old morgues were amazing tools and we tossed those tools into the crapper when we went digital. now, we just download stock. no wonder everybody freaks out over copyright infringement these days.
i recently was given an old morgue that was compiled by an old-school illustrator (who recently passed on.) he sold it to an art school and they took it in (he was totally broke – like most illustrators) and needed cash fast. they paid almost nothing for this morgue – that he compiled over a lifetime. but, the sad truth was that all the little art students ignored it entirely. other old professionals who worked in the building would sometime raid it for ideas. but, eventually, it was ignored into oblivion and reduced to two old filing cabinets stuck in a corner in the basement store room. the school was going to toss it out and said to me, ‘you want it, take it. do us a favor.” so, being a clutterfucked old pack rat, i hauled it home.
i ended up with this marvelous collection of vintage ads, images, photos, brochures, you name it. as i look through i keep finding treasures i’ve never imagined. since this morgue was started back in the very early 1950′s and continued through the 1970′s, it is a documentation (a sloppy un-footnoted documentation) of 30 years of one of the most critical periods of the last century. granted, it ain’t news clippings, so you don’t get an actual history lesson. but, like a morgue is supposed to work, it’s a collection of images of cultural change that you have to use your OWN knowledge of history at the table to interpret. most of these images are just junk to me. i really have no desire to look at clipped 1960′s national geographic snapshots of hippos or turtles. but, when i look at an old advertisement for the Edsel and ponder what eventually happened with that car/campaign/style/era, suddenly a scrap of paper speaks enormous volumes of information and history and emotion.
this image i show is a great little (very personal) example of what i’m talking about. i found this digging around in the file last night. it was in an inch-thick yellowed manilla file folder labeled “families – american”. that file was crammed to the gills with classic standard advertising photos and illustration from the 50′s/60′s/70′s of what we all thought ‘amercian family units’ looked like (think “beaver cleaver”). it was a bizarre surreal fantasy of smiling happy handsome young white people with one daughter and/or one son (and a dog) using soup/cars/deodorant spray/whatever and beaming with pleasure and serenity. it got sort of frightening looking at this ‘stepford wife world’ that was the popular fantasy we held back then. i remember those days and they sure didn’t actually look like this stuff in real life. not by a long shot.
then i found this ad. isn’t it marvelous? look at the clothes and poses and the expressions! they even have a hip little fake dog (‘nipper’ himself!) and that stereo! man, i’ve been looking for a stereo that cool for 30 years. i’ve bought a lot of cool old stereos, but, they were always crusty and in need of repair of some sort. so, they sat around broken and were eventually given away to other stereo junkies like myself – “here, you want his? i give up on it.”)
but that stylin’ stereo caught my eye on a double take. just a week ago, i bought a cool old stereo that was in immaculate ‘mint/unused̵
‘like new’ condition (all i had to do was plug it in and it worked beautifully – and it sounded amazing!) and it was THIS SAME MODEL! imagine the synchronicity of buying a vintage antique consul stereo as bizarrely styled as this unit and then actually trip across an advertisement for that same weird-o stereo in a file of yellowed clipped rubbish? serendipity!
morgues are great, eh?
AC:old photo files from businesses and photographers are gold mines. all the junk they don’t care about is the stuff that turns my crank. the rejected stuff….like, the image in this advert i show here – there were likely several hundred images taken to produce this ONE that they used. all the rest were shoved in a file and may have never even been printed. THAT stuff is like looking inside king tut’s tomb. then imagine an entire career of photography and the tens (hundreds) of thousands of images created to print up a few as adverts? man, i would die to look through studio five or garret/howard files. or all those old men’s mags ‘morgues’. or even that ancient ad agency down the street in that old office building slowly fading away. there’s amazing history just rotting away out there….i used to collect ’50′s/60′s crap’ i had a house full of that style back in the early 1980′s. amazing shit everywhere. then i got divorced and lost everything. gave up on that whole thing….i can’t describe to you how rich and resonant this stereo is. i haven’t heard music played like this in years. digital sucks, maaaan….