Monday 9 December 2019

Leopardness and crocodilehood - Anne Rooney

There's a lot of very beautiful non-fiction books around at the moment; you will definitely be able to choose something fantastic as a Christmas gift for any small readers you know. What makes them beautiful is largely the illustrations. In fiction, pictures serve the demands of the story, which has its own challenges, but in non-fiction they do a harder job. They negotiate between demands that often pull in different directions: mediating objective reality, highlighting the message the text is focusing on and at the same time acknowledging what we don't yet know.

In the 1990s, Dorling Kindersley reset the bar for illustrated non-fiction with its iconic design of text wrapped around cut-out, high quality photos against a white background. It was the age of digital photography and photo-editing and the world was their oyster. We could show child readers exactly what something looks like in real, including an oyster.

DK Eyewitness Ocean

Close on the heels of photography came CGI: even things that we can't actually photographed could be presented as though they had actually been photographed. It gave us images of the inside of the Earth, the surface of distant planets and dinosaurs. But hang on. Is this really legitimate? An adult will know the parameters: we don't have photos of the inside of a volcano and never could have; we don't have photos of extinct dinosaurs and never could have. A child doesn't know how much we know, how much we can say with some degree of confidence will look right in these images, and how much is artistic licence. Where does non-fiction stop and fiction begin in an image like this CGI terror bird fighting wolves?

Titanis v. wolves, National Geographic
Today, photos are two-million-a-penny and you can see a video on YouTube of anything you can imagine, either real or CGI'd. That kind of realism has rather lost its grabbiness: unless the image is truly stunning, our attention slides over it. Kids are not easily impressed. On cue, illustrated non-fiction has rediscovered the power of illustration. Here things get interesting. Non-fiction is generally thought to be in the business of communicating the truth, showing facts (or at least consensus reality). Personally, I think its true business is getting readers to think about and question the truth and facts: this is what we think is true; why do we think this? how did we discover it? how certain is it? how could we test it? is there another explanation? The move towards illustration can support this much better than photography. But it's not a clear split, of course.

Some facts look indisputable. A chameleon has two toe: you can see them in a photo. Pretty clear, right?

No, a chameleon has five toes, but they are fused in two groups. You can see from the skeleton. Pretty clear, right?

Let's try that one again: how many toes does a chameleon have? It depends on how you define 'toes'.

Photography often closes off questions. A photograph has authority. CGI can be worse: it seems to have authority, but it can present as 'true' something that is our best-informed imagining (or even an ill-informed imagining, if the artist hasn't done their research). It has its uses.

These images are stills from a CGI rendering of the destruction of Pompeii by the volcano Vesuvius in AD79. It's pretty accurate in that we know exactly the behaviour of this type of volcano, the layout of Pompeii and the destruction evident in the ruins.

Video of destruction of Pompeii

Photorealism here makes it more immediate, more shocking — it packs a punch. We can imagine the terror of being caught in this.

On the other hand, CGI is obliged to visualize everything in a scene, even if it's not known — like the colour of a terror bird.

Artwork can highlight features in a way that photos can't. Photos are democratic: every feature gets the same shot at being noticed. Artwork comes into its own for creating an impression, or highlighting an aspect that is possibly lost in a photo. Here's an image from Shackleton's Journey (William Grill, Flying Eye, 2014):

Can you imagine an image that could convey the vast, bleak loneliness of Antarctica better than this? Antarctica not as it is now, with its colonies of researchers, but Antarctica when you are the only humans? No photo could give this view, or this sense of vulnerability.

Artwork can convey uncertainty, too. Here's an image from Dinosaur Atlas (illustrated by James Gilleard, Lonely Planet, 2017):

Here, the non-realistic style underlines the contingency of the information it contains. We know the shape and type of this dinosaur (Tuojongosarus), but we don't know exactly what it looked like. We certainly don't know what colour it was, and by showing it in improbable pyjama stripes, Gilleard highlights and plays with our ignorance. This image asks the child reader to imagine what colours dinosaurs were. If the dinosaur were shown in grey or green, the child wouldn't think about that question.

In the follow-up title, Animal Atlas, the subject is both more familiar and more known-about. A different illustrator was chosen, the pictures closer to reality. Children know what an elephant or a giraffe looks like and so do we. We don't need to make them wonder if perhaps they are blue, or whether they climb trees or make a nest. The artwork is more documentary, but here its aim is to give a kind of intensity to the essence of each animal. It wants to highlight what it means to be a leopard, a crocodile or an ant. The essence of leopardness is not found in how many toes it has but in the sleek, serene, confident pose and steady, direct of the apex predator, the beauty of the markings. The rounded feet, don't show the number of toes, or the claws, but get across the density of the fur on this animal that needs to keep warm in the freezing environment of the high Himalayas.

Crocodilehood is rooted in the gaping mouth with gleaming, scary teeth, carried through in the coldness of that yellow eye.

Animal Atlas, illustrated by Lucy Rose, Lonely Planet, 2019
Art in non-fiction walks a fine line between information and inspiration. It can't be wrong. It can't show the wrong number of toes, show an African elephant in India, or a South American snake in Africa. But it can take the real world and make it fizzles with super-reality, it can condense the wonder of its subject matter. And it can do this because it rests on the shoulders of decades of brilliant photography. We live in a world in which children know what things *look* like, so we have the opportunity to show them what they *are* like.

Buy a small person a beautiful non-fiction book this book Christmas — and choose one with illustrations that no only show facts but open up questions. Especially if the question is 'what would it be like to be a crocodile'.

Anne Rooney
Stroppy author

Lonely Planet, 2019

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