The Murky Waters of Photography vs. Illustration

When 60-year old Diane Nyad recently swam from Cuba to Florida, there were plenty of pictures to be seen in the news footage.  We saw video footage of her swimming and treading water by the boat, as well as shots of her exiting the water in Florida.  We know that her team was taking pictures of this historic moment.  (Now if the team had only taken continuous video footage of the entire 110 mile long swim, there wouldn’t be allegations that she cheated.)  In this day and age, we expect this type of video coverage.


from A Girl Challenges The Sea, v. 11, p. 79.

It was different back in 1926, when American swimmer Gertrude Ederle, on her second attempt, became the first woman to swim across the English Channel.  Her successful crossing is documented in the 1972-73 series America : An Illustrated Diary Of Its Most Exciting Years.  In the two articles that feature Ederle, there are several black & white pictures including :

  • two of Ederle on the beach before her swim
  • one of Ederle during the parade in her honor
  • one of Ederle receiving the key to the city

No pictures of her in the water swimming.  Odd.

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from A Girl Challenges The Sea, v. 11, p. 74.

The image that the America series chose to use was a painting by Cliff Condak.  It’s the very first thing you see in the article, right before the title page.

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from A Girl Challenges The Sea, v. 11, p. 79.

A Google search revealed that there were pictures of Ederle crossing the Channel.  Sports Illustrated For Women has posted an image credited to Associated Press. has posted a photo credited to Bettmann/CORBIS.  The pictures in the Ederle articles are credited to UPI ; however, an article on Dizzy Dean, just before the Ederly article, used an AP picture, so we know the publishers of the America series were getting permission for some Associated Press photos.

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from What For?, v. 11, p. 81.

So why the Condak illustration?

Were the publishers unable to get permission for the “in-the-water” photos?  Did they decide that they didn’t like the photos of her swimming?  Or was there another, more artistic reason? We may never know the answer.

The series used illustrations from many artists, including Condak and another MGHL artist, Robert Weaver. Although called “The Illustrated Diary”, the use of the word “illustrated” just means that pictures are included, not specifically what we think of as “illustrations.”  Most of the pictures in the multi-volume set are, in fact, photographs.  It seemed that the publishers preferred photographs.

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illustration of Al Capone originally planned for v. 10.

One of Condak’s illustrations for the Gangsters section of the series is of Al Capone leaving one of his establishments.  Condak has noted on the bottom of the image the corresponding volume. However, the Capone article in that volume only uses pictures.

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The use of the illustration in the article adds come color to the book, after pages and pages of black & white photos.  It also captures the emotion of the moment.  The expressionist brushstrokes of the water look more dramatic than a black & white photo of the water.  With the water being drawn on a diagonal, there is a sense that the swimmer has an “uphill” battle to succeed in this challenge.

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From Jesse Owens : Golden Boy Of The Thirties, v. 12, p. 17.

The Ederle illustration wasn’t the only sports-related image drawn by Condak in the series.  An article on Jesse Owens includes one painting: Owens running off the page, as if caught in slow motion.  The article does include one black & white photo of Owens racing, but most of the photos are of Hitler.

The last line of article is”But maybe the biggest thrill Jesse got was chasing Adolph out of his own stadium for it was to be a long time before anyone chased Hitler out of anywhere again.”  While the publishers may have been able to get another photo of Owens running, it was more emotional and symbolic to use the illustration with the golden hue as the “last word.”

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from How I Shall Beat Joe Lewis, v. 11, p. 44.

Another Condak sports drawing is for an article on how German boxer Max Schmeling successfully beat Joe Louis in a 1936 match.  By creating a diagram of Schmeling’s strategy, the drawing captures the thought process before the fight and informs the viewer in more detail than a textual account would.  The quick, light lines also capture the fast intensity of boxing moves. Plus, the color illustration is possibly more visually interesting than of a photo of the actual fight (which is not included in the article).

While both painted illustrations and photographs have their place in recording and recapturing history, they provide different visual information in the retelling of the historical event.

Modern Graphic History Library has many of Cliff Condak‘s original artwork used in America : An Illustrated Diary (plus many of Robert Weaver‘s artwork for this series, as well).  MGHL has five volumes of the set (v. 3, 6, 10-12) which include Condak’s artwork ; the volumes featuring Weaver’s artwork (v. 1, 8-9) are available through MOBIUS.


Churchill, Allen.  America : An Illustrated Diary Of Its Most Exciting Years. A.F.E. Press, 1972-1973.

Vol. 11: Sports And Sports Heroes, Book 1

  • Pegler, Westbrook. A Girl Challenges The Sea, p. 74-79.
  • Pegler, Westbrook. What For?, p. 80-86.
  • Schmeling, Max. How I Shall Beat Joe Lewis, p. 41-45.

Vol. 12: Sports And Sports Heroes, Book 2

  • Jesse Owens : Golden Boy Of The Thirties, p. 10-17.

About the author

Andrea Degener is the Visual Materials Processing Archivist in the department of Special Collections at Washington University Libraries.