Photography Meets Illustration

A beautiful image can do a number of different things. It can capture a moment in time, spark treasured memories, decorate a wall and convey a message from a company or a writer. But it can also tell a story – and when put together, a sequence of images can sometimes tell a complete narrative and do it in a way that no other medium approaches.

It was that realization that led bestselling author and illustrator Mo Willems to turn to photography for his 2005 book, Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale.

Recounting the story of his daughter’s first words Knuffle Bunny uses illustrations superimposed onto photographs that Mo had shot in his Brooklyn, New York neighborhood. The idea, he says, was to encourage a feeling of reminiscence that couldn’t have been created using sketches alone.

“The realness of the images contrasting the cartoony characters made photography essential in my mind,” he told us.

Altogether, the book uses dozens of black and white photos depicting his local park, the school and the launderette in which Mo’s daughter loses her toy bunny.

Turning Images into Illustrations

Although he made his name – and picked up six Emmy awards – for his writing on Sesame Street and has created a number of cartoons for Nickleodeon and the Cartoon Network, Mo actually started his career in photography, shooting covers for medical textbooks. He also made several live-action films while studying at New York University and while working for Sesame Street.

“[S]o exposures, composition, and whatnot wasn’t completely alien to me.”

Nonetheless by the time Mo had finished his post-production work, which included spending what he called “an inordinate amount of time” removing air conditioning units, garbage cans and putting missing numbers and letters on signage, the images, he says, were “more Photoshop Illustration than photography.”

“The idea was to create the emotional truth, as opposed to perfectly document my neighborhood. The fact that the images are black and white made the manipulation much easier.”

That mixture of photography and artistry certainly worked. Knuffle Bunny topped the New York Times bestsellers list, won Mo a second Caldecott Honor and led to an equally successful sequel, Knuffle Bunny Too: A Case of Mistaken Identity. An animated version of the book using images left over from the initial shoot is also available, with the sequel in production, and Mo is now working on a third and final chapter in what will eventually be the Knuffle Bunny trilogy.

Teaming up with a Photographer

The lessons Mo learned while creating the first book made the second book easier and gave him the confidence to take on more challenging photos. He departed from his background sketches, shot at night, worked with reflective floors and interiors, included crowd scenes and played with more inventive angles. For one image though, a 24″ x 9″ spread of Grand Army Plaza, Mo conceded that he was out of his depth as an illustrator and brought in Tom Drysdale, a professor of photography at New York University.

“He was game to try and figure out the best way to get the shot, so after a few weeks of chatting, we spent the early morning hours on the roof of the Brooklyn Public Library with his 8×10 camera,” Mo recalled. ” I called the time out for the four seconds when our shot was traffic-free while Tom did the rest (which included keeping his huge device from being blown off the roof by a gust of wind).”

That sounds like the sort of traditional collaboration between two different types of artist that you might expect to be used on a book containing both photography and cartoons, and there’s no reason why other artists couldn’t work together in the same way. Pixish, for example was created by JPG Magazine founder Derek Powazek as a site to bring together image buyers and image producers but it’s also an active community and could be rich hunting grounds for a photographer who lacks drawing skills and wants to find a cartoonist to collaborate with.

You wouldn’t have to follow Mo’s method of combining photographic backgrounds with cartoon characters – there are plenty of other ways to incorporate photos into a sketched story – but the two approaches would have to blend smoothly to produce a specific effect that couldn’t be created any other way.

Marketing would be a little harder. Mo’s blog offers some dispiriting advice to writers/illustrators/photographers hoping to break into the children’s book market and notes that with six Emmys to his name, it “only” took him two years to find an agent. An alternative then might be to build an audience online first and win attention. For Breakup Girl, a comic strip about relationships, that strategy eventually led to a series on the Oxygen channel.

Ultimately though, it’s not the technique, the quality of the photographs or the balance between the images and the cartoons that matter the most in a collaboration like this.

It’s the story.

But your photos could be a very valuable way to tell it.

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