2.1 Courtroom dramas

The purpose of the exercise was to reflect on the work of American reportage illustrator Franklin McMahon (1921–2012) and answer a number of questions.

Key words from the brief:

  • Reflect on how McMahon has approached the task of documenting a courtroom drama
  • How does his approach to drawing tie in with the notion of journalism and truth?
  • What do you think he’s managed to capture in these drawings?

A short biography

Franklin McMahon (September 9, 1921 to March 3, 2012), was an American artist-reporter whose work was produced on-the-spot from some of the most momentous political and cultural events in the 20th Century.

He worked on location in charcoal pencil and produced more finished work in his studio using acrylic watercolours.

Throughout his career he produced a huge volume of work, 8,000 to 9,000 drawings as well as films and books.

Analysis of the Emmett Till murder trial illustrations

During the 1950s the Mississippi Court did not allow cameras into the courtroom, so Life Magazine sent McMahon along to capture the drama.

Court proceedings are often long, dull drawn-out affairs with many interruptions for legal and technical points of order. Courtroom interiors are equally uninteresting, desks, tables and chairs arranged in a peculiar but recognisable fashion.

The drama of the event comes from the people involved and the overarching narrative of the case.

The trial was of two white men accused of the murder of a 14-year old black teenager Emmett Till, after he allegedly ‘flirted’ with a white women Carolyn Holloway in the highly segregated Deep South US state of Mississippi just before the Civil Rights Movement gained prominence; it’s argued that the reports of the Emmett Hill case brought-to-life through McMahon’s evocative images was a catalyst that helped mobilise the Civil Rights Movement.

How has McMahon approached the task of documenting a courtroom drama?

McMahons approach was to tell the story of the trial through its key characters; the accused, key witnesses, the judge and jury.

His charcoal pencil drawings capture the expressions, posture, interactions and relationships of the key protagonists within a courtroom setting. These sketches are sometimes supplemented with written notes providing personal details about the subjects or quotations from the trial.

McMahon takes the pencil studies and works them up into more finished artwork using ink and wash on paper. It’s interesting to see how the original sketches are organised to make the more finished pieces.

How does his approach tie in with the notion of journalism and truth?

Wikipedia defines journalism as ‘the production and distribution of reports on recent events’. It outlines a number of journalistic principles: truthfulness, accuracy, objectivity, impartiality and fairness.

All journalism is subjective to a lesser or greater degree, with the interpretation of the illustrator sitting between the sketchbook and objective truth in front of them. The journalist, illustrator or photographer is reporting with a conscious or unconscious bias. The aim of the journalist should be to be as objective as possible whilst using their skills to describe the event of situation in a clear, compelling and honest way.

What do you think he’s managed to capture in these drawings and how has he done it?

The idea of illustrating the truth does not necessarily mean depicting the subject in a photorealistic way. As well as literal truth, there is also emotional truth, the truth that describes the drama, narrative and tensions in an unfolding situation.

McMahon uses the relationships between the characters illustrated through posture and body language as a powerful device to create narrative and capture emotion: An all-white male jury, the testimony of Willie Reed on the witness stand, wide-eyed and intimidated, the key moments in proceedings when Mose Wright, at great personal expense stands up and points at the two accused defendants to identify them to the jury and the cross examination of Carolyn Holloway the shopkeeper and wife of one of the accused, who Emmet Hill allegedly flirted with a day before his murder.

McMahon attended the trial observing the proceedings over a period of time and capturing what he saw. The results are a distilled picture of a huge injustice that unfolded over 4-days and ended with the two accused men, (who later admitted to committing the murder), being acquitted.


  • I like the courtroom illustrations a lot. My own reportgage practice has mostly taken place when I’ve been commuting to and from work and that mostly involves drawing and studying people Assignment 1 – Recording and sharing your own work from Illustrating Sketchbooks has some examples. So I can really appreciate what he’s managed to achieve.
  • My own practice is moving from simply trying to sketch a person to thinking much more about posture and narrative.
  • I like his use of written notes to supplement and extend the drawings. It’s an easy way to add more context and valuable information to the images. I tried this out on some sketching on a Easyjet flight.

Easyjet reportage

  • I like how he’s taken the pencil and developed these into finished artwork using ink and wash painted onto paper, thereby completely changing the visual language. I’ll experiment with this method.




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