I was art director of the New York Times Op-Ed and Letters pages from around 1974 to 1977 until I switched over to the Times Book Review section. I moved on because my editor and I did not get along, or more to the point, and to put it bluntly, we could not stand each other’s guts. One of our conflicts was her taste in illustration. She had none. But that’s another story, for another time.
This story is about a forgotten collagist named S.Harmon who on occasion I used on the Op-Ed and Letters pages when I ran exceeding low on my meager annual art budget. You see, as much as I hate to admit this, he worked for free. And in the final month or two of the fiscal year, if I filled the pages with free art a couple of times a week, I could afford to pay the others. He didn’t seem to mind. He said it would help his career just to be in the paper and I was willing to oblige. As a matter of fact, I saw my limitations in him. He wasn’t particularly good but he wasn’t particularly bad. He was an aspiring artist with some talent but not enough to make a significant mark. Yet he wanted so badly to be a published illustrator, I felt that I was doing him a kindness (and he returned the favor by saving me a few dollars per month). That’s the way I felt about my own ability (or lack thereof) as an illustrator. Recently, I found some of his work in an old file folder and wondered whatever happened to him.
I’ll tell you what I know about S.Harmon in a moment. But first, it might be useful to relate a short history of collage in newspapers as illustration, if only to add a little context to this story.
Popular in the nineteenth century, collage was made by adhering individual image fragments together to form a discrete image. Collage could be representational or abstract; it could be art or craft. Despite the nineteenth century use of collage-like techniques, art historians insist that collage did not really emerge as art until after 1900 during the early stages of modernism: Cubism, Futurism, Dada and Surrealism, among the modernist movements, used collage techniques to achieve ironic and fantastical juxtapositions (think Max Ernst). Collage introduced collisions of content sometimes serious and other times comic, a useful tool for illustrators and cartoonists, especially working for newspapers and magazines. European modernist posters and graphics were awash with collage and montage for most of the twentieth century.
Although the most popular illustrative style was stylized realism, at least in the United States, collage was a common method in editorial and advertising. It never really fell out of fashion since it was a useful way to alter reality. But it did become a tired trope until during the late 1960s it made a big comeback. The advent of cheap photostats and photo-offset printing made it easier and faster to accomplish artistic outcomes. The Dada-Surrealist style of retrofitting nineteenth century engravings enabled results that were easily reproduced via offset and provided a mysterious veneer.
A slew of illustrators in the 60s, 70s throughout the 80s, influenced by surrealism, etc., found a market for collage. That’s how S.Harmon got his chance. His work appeared briefly in the late 1970s in the New York Times because with its quick deadlines and the need for ambiguously artful spot illustrations, collage was a perfect tool. S.Harmon was often available when no one else was; when deadlines were too just too tight for a good pen and ink drawing. With scissors and X-Acto, wax or glue, S.Harmon created some fairly competent conceptual ambiguities from vintage engraved “cuts” cherry picked from Dover books full of original nineteenth century publications. His average completion time was 30 minutes from manuscript to artwork. His spots never appeared anywhere other than the Times — only my pages in the Times — and rumor has it that he was not even a trained illustrator. He appeared in Times art department at the right time (which in the late 70s is how a number of Times illustrators got jobs).
When I uncovered this small cache of S.Harmon’s clips produced in 1977 I was surprised how clever they were. Witty, although nonetheless conceptually limited, these collages represent a period when the engraving style was frequently employed by the Times because it was the perfect medium for black and white newsprint.
S.Harmon only did a few dozen from 1975 to 1977 (and apparently these are all that remain). Then he disappeared — vanished without a trace. I never again used him when I transferred to the Book Review (which had a higher budget) and none of the other Times art directors ever asked about his whereabouts. So his brief career as a cut-rate (in fact, no-rate) illustrator came and went, like so many other lesser known illustrator-cartoonists of that period. Maybe someday, S.Harmon will reemerge (perhaps if he reads this) or hopefully he is already doing different kinds of work somewhere else. Perhaps this fragment of a memory will force S.Harmon back into public view. . . .or probably not. In any case, whatever he’s doing, wherever he is, whoever he’s become, I hope he’s getting paid.