Intrigued by the concept of reportage and documentary drawing, we met with artist and illustration lecturer Gary Embury to find out more about the driving force behind Reportager, an online journal showcasing and initiating projects in the area of drawn reportage. The story brought us for the first time to Portishead where we have been welcomed by the lovely Embury family gathered around the fireplace. From social media to Walter Benjamin’s aura, the conversation naturally unfolded from the living room to the studio and along the estuary at Battery Point.
What we love about Gary’s drawings, apart from the almost meditative compulsiveness of the act itself, is the unrestricted freedom and spontaneity of his figures, which seem to expand their existence beyond the confines of paper, as if reaching out towards the viewer in order to absorb and engage them into the immediacy of the event. Through his ever-evolving body of work Gary Embury shows us that drawing doesn’t necessarily need the continuum of space, but the coherence of the moment and the subjectivity of the viewpoint.
For people who are not yet familiar with your work, who is Gary Embury?
I’m an artist and educator working within the disciplines of illustration and drawing. I’m currently senior lecturer at the University of the West of England in Bristol and involved in many drawing projects such as the Topolski Residency in London. I also run an online journal reportager.org and have just completed writing a book for Bloomsbury publishing on Reportage drawing: Visual Journalism with Prof. Mario Minichiello which will be out in January 2018.
What is your most vivid childhood memory?
Aged 7 sitting at the back of a working men's club up north, tears streaming from my eyes due to the acrid cigarette smoke, whilst drinking a bottle of coke through a straw, waiting for the Bingo to finish before my mum gets up to sing. She was a cabaret and big band singer in the 60’s and 70’s.
How did you get into art? What or who inspired you to pursue illustration?
My parents really encouraged me to draw and my dad was a really good caricaturist and artist who drew many portraits from life of our friends. He encouraged me to pursue a career in what was then known as ‘commercial art’.
We’re curious to know more about reportage drawing. Is there an artistic tradition that informs this discipline? And where does it fit within the sphere of contemporary art?
The tradition of reportage drawing could possibly be traced back to early cave drawings 40.000 years ago where hunter gatherers were depicting their daily hunting activities as a way of recording their surroundings for tribal, ritualistic, or other symbolic reasons. Visual journals can be found as far back as the painted scrolls of the Sung dynasty in China (960–1280 AD). In more recent times reportage drawing can be traced through subsequent centuries recording or reporting on events, wars, and social history, such as in the work of William Hogarth and Thomas Rowlandson. ‘Special Artists’ or ‘news illustrators’ were assigned to periodicals such as the Illustrated London News. Before the ubiquity of photography and photojournalism took over, these artists were sent out to report on distant campaigns and other news items of the day.
Reportage can also be linked to art movements such as the Impressionists and post-Impressionists. In terms of contemporary Art, there is a long tradition of official war artists. More recently the Imperial War Museum North curated an exhibition called ‘Catalyst’, the first major exhibition of IWMN’s collection of contemporary art produced since the First Gulf War, including video art, installation and site-specific works. In the introduction to the catalogue the IWMN suggested: Artists working outside the pressures of journalism are in a good position to propose ideas urging the viewer to think more deeply about a subject and its impact. Artists not only act as journalists or observers, but as activists.
Poetry, wrote Auden, makes nothing happen; politically committed literature, Sartre was saying, was no better. Are visual arts, in your opinion, equally powerless?
I think there is much work, especially within commercial illustration, which is purely a page filler, passively produced as a service industry with very little comment or content. Work such as reportage which is more authorial can comment and inform using techniques that photojournalists have used for years. The reportage visual essay is where the artist can effect change by uncovering events, location stories which may not be unearthed by a camera alone. I do ask myself the question regarding reportage drawing but if you look at the work of, for instance, Olivier Kugler who is undertaking a large documentary project drawing and interviewing asylum seekers and refugees for an exhibition and publication. I think as long as the work reaches enough people through exhibition, publication and online through social media, these projects will effect change because they are real stories from real people witnessed by an artist.
Obviously, some people will not be moved, but drawing is a different way to engage with people and often is not influenced by the same pressures that the more official news agencies are under. Artists can through a more personal agenda and methodology uncover issues and stories which may not normally be uncovered.
How can reportage drawing compete with photojournalism in this digital age? How visually effective must a site-specific drawing be in order to convey a meaningful and long-lasting message?
Susan Sontag said, ‘photography is an act of non-intervention’. Reportage drawing is very different from photojournalism. I believe the artist has more connection with the subject due to the time-based element which aligns it more closely to animation or documentary film. In an age of 24 hour rolling news perhaps reportage drawing and the artist’s subjective viewpoint is more important than ever, giving a different viewpoint to the official news media. Transparency is everything.
Increasingly there are more reportage projects which are multimodal in their use of image, text, sound and moving imagery, and increasingly interactive, such as in the work of Bo Soremsky who made an online interactive drawn reportage of a court case in Germany.
Visual effectiveness is very important but site-specific drawings don’t always have to be accurate, it depends on the use or intention of the drawing. There often isn’t time to get accuracy, but the method may be influenced by the circumstances and reflect the experience much more fully and accurately.
Perhaps media coverage can liberate artists from the pressure of producing an official record of an event by freeing them to respond in a more personal and subjective way, therefore possibly uncovering and reflecting wider social and political viewpoints. Reportage drawing is a valuable interpreter of contemporary events and offers a unique perspective that is different to the dramatic spectacles of photojournalism.
You are also the editor in chief of Reportager, an online journal showcasing and initiating projects in the area of drawn reportage. What motivated you to start up this initiative and how do you see it evolving over time?
I went to see ‘The Sunday Times Magazine 50th Anniversary Exhibition’ at the Saatchi gallery. Here was showcased some of the most iconic Photojournalism. World-famous photographers who have contributed to The Sunday Times Magazine since its launch in 1962. I was fascinated by the huge range of subjects investigated through photographic visual essays and I thought to myself why isn’t there more of this kind of work going on in illustration?
At the same time I was also working with a documentary filmmaker and realised that many of the projects he and his students were working on were very outward facing, dealing with real issues, locations and subjects, often in quite exciting and demanding locations. Illustrators can be quite inward facing and often make work inspired by more whimsical imaginary subjects or are often commissioned by an art director to make work for someone else’s content. Drawing on location in an investigative journalistic manner has always been a passion of mine and I wanted to create a platform for showcasing reportage drawing projects in order to promote, raise awareness, and also create initiatives to encourage projects in the area of reportage and visual journalism.
Reportager.org has been running for about 5 years, and most of the ideas I originally had, have been either put into place or are currently in production. Projects such as the first international Reportager Award and a series of ongoing documentary films interviewing reportage artists about their practice. For the future, I want to collaborate more with other drawing groups and Universities internationally and organise a second drawing award and international drawing symposium. I’m also starting work on another book.
Throughout the years you have developed close ties with the artistic community in Bristol and beyond. Can you tell us more about the challenges faced by the local art scene? And do you see any dangers for artistic freedom?
I feel this is something I need to focus more on and in the future. I think artists need to be more engaged in contemporary ideas, contexts and content. Illustrators especially need to think about what their work could say especially in an authorial context. Work which is often commissioned can be quite passive and just ends up being decorative and not really commenting on anything. This is often due to the kinds of commissions and art direction resulting from publications which are financially at the mercy of advertising revenue. Editorial budgets are shrinking, meaning illustration becomes much more of a service industry. The balance between commercial and more authorial artist led work needs to be redressed.
In terms of the local art scene, I guess this doesn’t really need to be limited to ‘local’ due to the internet and social media. It’s much more global now although I still think that artists need to be more proactive as a group and create opportunities for collaborative projects which are more immersive, interactive, experimental, and site specific to engage the public and new audiences.
You are working on an on-going drawing project at the Bristol Bike Project. Why is Bristol Bike so important for you?
I produced a lot of developmental work at the Bike project in the early days but haven’t fully realised the project into a specific outcome. I am inspired by the ethos and philanthropy of the project, its aims and energy. It’s about bringing people together in a safe and supportive environment especially minority and disadvantaged groups, such as asylum seekers, homeless people and rehabilitating drug users. It’s an amazing initiative of which we need to see more of. In this pre-Brexit period of increasingly narrow and nationalistic paranoia, these are the kinds of projects which need to be championed.
You are passionate to create, but also to teach. What can you tell us about the young generation’s interest in art? How important is art to them?
I’ve been amazed at the increase in numbers of young people enrolling on visual arts degree courses since the fees have increased to 9K per year. Art can be a platform to ask questions, explore dissent, protest and discuss contemporary issues and ideas. Maybe the rise in students undertaking art degrees reflects this sense of wanting to express something more than just servicing something.
What would be your biggest piece of advice for soon to be graduate illustrators?
Make work which you are completely engaged with and believe in. Don't be too overly influenced by trends, fashions and fads. If you are very commercial try to keep a part of your practice which is always questioning, exploring and investigating in terms of materials, media, methods and concepts. Don't stay creatively inert or stationary. As Samuel Beckett said: Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.
What is more important to you, having strong beliefs or deconstructing them?
Strong beliefs are important but I prefer people to be open to new ideas and beliefs and realise there may be new and alternative ways of doing things. Discuss and challenge but always be open and prepared to change your mind.
Do you always have a sketchbook on you when you travel?
Yes, definitely. You always pick up your toothbrush when travelling so why not your sketchbook. Even if it’s a trip to the shops or the barbers, although I generally don’t take my toothbrush to the barbers. I have been criticised for drawing in a few circumstances which probably weren’t appropriate.
What do you do or where do you go when you want to relax or get inspired?
I find drawing particularly enjoyable especially if it’s on location. It’s a form of mindfulness and hours can go by without realisation, especially if the location is complex and ever changing. The discipline of reportage drawing in either a busy environment or a much more isolated space can really focus the mind. Once in the flow it can become quite ritualistic and meditative. Almost like playing an instrument, there is a separation between mind and hand and the drawing becomes a thing in itself, almost automatic. Swimming is the only other thing which has a similar effect on me.
Do you have any new ideas or aspirations that you would like to work on in the future?
A much bigger drawing project in terms of aspiration, scale or subject and also physical scale. Drawing which becomes almost sculptural, something which would run for a couple of years. I’m looking at the future of drawing and want to continue with researching interactive and virtual technologies with analogue drawing. I’ve a few ideas which have been put on the back burner whilst the book has been in production, but now it's completed, watch this space.
Can you recommend us:
A song: Almost Blue, by Chet Baker from the film Let’s get lost.
A book: Paul Auster's New York Trilogy.
A film: Synecdoche New York, by Charlie Kaufman