Stanley Meltzoff And The Value Of Artistic Illustration

Last week was not a good week for conservation minded people.  Japan (consumer of some 80% of the endangered tuna caught) led the charge to stop a CITES listing for the endangered Atlantic and Mediterranean bluefin tuna. It now seems probable that this species will become extinct.  But meantime, it will continue to be served with relish in sushi restaurants all over Tokyo.

Stanley Meltzoff was one of the foremost artists/illustrators who painted fish in their undersea environments.  The once mighty bluefin tuna was one of his subjects.

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Meltzoff’s work was sought after as illustration by many technical/scientific magazines such as National Geographic, Scientific American and others. In more recent years, the widespread availability of photographic illustration reduced the commercial demand for the work of illustrative artists such as Melkoff.

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This and other illustrative artwork, including the vast bulk of ‘wildlife photography’ and ‘nature photography’, raises questions about how such work should be evaluated artistically, and about the impact of such illustration on conservation efforts.

Much illustrative work (painting or photography) aims to be a faithful reproduction of ‘reality’.  In the early days of nature conservation, this served to bring a romanticized view of nature to a public that had little or no opportunity to travel and appreciate the beauty of nature.  The Hudson River School of painting in the US was one such movement.  In photography, Ansel Adams was among the first to use his images for activist conservation purposes.

These days, many have the opportunity to interact directly with nature in one way or another so the relevance of bringing such imagery to the public is significantly diminished.

Also, what is the impact of straight reproduction without artistic interpretation? It may serve a useful purpose as illustration or documentation but is it capable of making us think?

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