Saturday, June 18, 2011

James Montgomery Flagg Turns 134

James Montgomery Flagg was born on this day in 1877 in Pelham Manor, New York. Flagg drew from the moment he'd left his crib, and by the age of fifteen had joined the staff of Judge Magazine, for whom he worked for many years, while doing a great many other things as well. Above, Flagg horsing around with a studio aid of sorts. Somehow funny and creepy at the same time, the picture captures his rakish temperament.

Flagg's early work made use of the high contrast vocabulary of pen and ink, made possible by photoengraving technology in the era just after the technical regime of wood engraving.

Flagg mimicked Charles Dana Gibson, ten years his senior, until he'd outgrown the influence. But like Gibson, Flagg traded in images of lovely ladies–the hotties of the aughts, as it were. Presumably his consort above is a nod to his reputation.

I can remember someone saying "She's a dish," in reference to a comely woman, but this would seem rather literal, wouldn't it? For the time, this is pretty racy stuff.

I got these images from an oversize album of pictures published by Judge in 1907. Presumably these were all reprints from the magazine, which after a sputtering start in the 1880s was doing quite well in the first decade of the 20th century. Flagg's work figures prominently in the book.

As Flagg matured, so did the technical innovation of the half-tone screen. Halftones made it possible to photograph a piece of source art–say, an inkwash drawing–and reproduce those tones mechanically, by shooting through a screen or scrim which separated tonal passages into dots of greater and lesser densities. A big deal, that, as it eliminated the tradesman who otherwise would have had to manage that translation.

Here are a series of details to show increasing levels of magnification.

The inkwash drawing from which this image was reproduced relies on gestural strokes that remain quite visible in the halftone version. Flagg was a bravura paint-flicker, sort of a pop version of John Singer Sargent.

These screens were an improvement on early commercial versions in the 1890s, though they still hadn't gotten to the point of being able to reproduce the hottest whites photomechanically.

Hence the light gray tone which overlays the entire image.

James Montgomery Flagg is best remembered for his propaganda posters from World War One, including the instantaneous visual cliche, Uncle Sam wants YOU for the U.S. Army (which had been published on July 6, 1916–with a different caption–on the cover of Leslie's Weekly). Above, a poster from 1917.

These images represent a small slice of Flagg's diverse and voluminous output. He's worthy of further study.

But in the meantime: Happy Birthday, Monty Flagg.

Images: James Montgomery Flagg with female dummy, photograph, published by Bain News Service, April 26, 1913, from the George Grantham Bain Collection at the Library of Congress; Flagg, Kitty Cobb, pen and ink, 1912; Flagg, Good Enough to Eat, inkwash reprinted in "Yours Truly" and 100 Other Original Drawings, published by Judge Company, 1908; Flagg, Woman (who looks like a young Angela Lansbury), 1902; series of halftone screen details; Flagg, Civilization Calls Every Man, Woman and Child, World War One recruitment poster, 1917;

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