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Helen Capewell
OCA Learning Log
Student Number: 522802
Degree: Illustration
Current Level: 2

Courtroom Dramas

Exercise Two


The main goal and outcome of this exercise is to study the reportage works by Franklin McMahon during the trial of the two men accused of killing Emmitt Till, which he had been commissioned to document by Life Magazine, and to reflect on his approach.


How does his approach to drawing tie in with the notion of journalism and truth?

What do you think he’s managed to capture in these drawings and how has he done it?


I think to understand the power of drawing is the way to understand how McMahon's approach to drawing during the courtroom drama carries the notion of journalism and truth. Accuracy is not always the point in drawing, in fact documenting live action via drawings is incredibly difficult in the moment, even in a slow paced environment such as the courtroom, so to capture accuracy as if it is a photo is near impossible, and typically is not the desired look. What you draw are fleeting moments with minimal detail that best describes that. You draw upon the energy of a space and its occupancy, you convey the emotion or rather the tension. What is really the crucial thing to understand in drawing is how the artist can push these feelings through emphasis, something a camera cannot do.


Franklin's documentation shows incredible skill in being able to emphasise the feeling through over performing the body language throughout the case. For example, the sketches of Willy Reed where he is captured leaning forward, you can see a small part of his hands cupped together on his lap in one overarching sketch suggesting signs of stress and fear. In this drawing you have 3 studies of Willy Reed, each giving a different moment of him speaking out, his eyebrows for me tell more about the body language because in every drawing the are raised in an honest, almost scared way defending his right to be there, particularly the drawing on the far right. He was obviously putting his life at risk by testifying against the two killers.




The main illustration featured in the centre of the magazine spread is a particular powerful image which might have been the most iconic symbolic image from the court case. The uncle being stood up leaning into his pointed finger as he points blame on the two men is a historical moment. McMahon captures the moment far greater than a photo could have. The outstretched arm is long and assertive, the lean forward shows confidence and defiant energy, the energy of the room is captured whilst showing a mostly white crowd.


I had read that no cameras were allowed into the courtroom, hence the commission of McMahon for Life Magazine. However a photo by Ernest Withers shows the same moment that McMahon drew but from different perspective. Though it is great to have a photo for the historical moment, it does fall extremely flat, not giving half the conviction as McMahon's drawing.


Overall, you really get a sense of being present in the courtroom when looking at McMahon's drawings. You feel as though you are sitting in his seat observing what he is observing.


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