Sunday Mailbag- Pre-Internet Photo Reference?

December 21st, 2014 | Posted in Mailbag

Sunday Mailbag!

Q: Prior to the internet and image search, how did you gather reference material for caricatures?

A: Internet search engines have certainly spoiled me. If I want to do a caricature of Jennifer Lawrence, I am only a few seconds away from having literally thousands of photos of her to choose from… some even show her wearing clothes. Back in the days before Google, Yahoo and their ilk, it was a lot more time consuming a process.

I used to keep what was called a “morgue file”. I believe the term was originally used to refer to collections of old police files and reports, but illustrators used it for their photo reference collections. I used to subscribe to just about every entertainment magazine there was, and after The Lovely Anna was done reading it I would clip out the pictures of celebrities, sort them by the individual, and paste them onto 8.5″ x 11″ pieces of heavy paper into a sort of collage. Then I’d either put them into their existing folder, or create a new folder for them. Thus, when I had to do a caricature of Tom Cruise, for example, I’d pull out the Tom Cruise folder and it would contain a number of pages full of pasted-up pictures. I’d take just about any picture I found, but really looked for different angles or unusual expressions. The best sources for pictures were the tabloids or the trashiest of the entertainment mags like OK. They didn’t airbrush their pictures like Entertainment Weekly or US did, so you got the real deal. At one time I had a very large file cabinet full of celebrity folders, from the super-famous to the mostly obscure.

This method really became a challenge as my autistic daughter, The Animated Elizabeth, became obsessed with tearing paper. Many autistic kids have overwhelming OCD issues, and for a while one of her’s was ripping up paper into tiny pieces. Her favorite thing was to tear the FACES out of magazines. If she got hold of one of those entertainment magazines, I’d find it later with EVERY SINGLE FACE torn out and shredded. I remember thinking “why can’t she be obsessed with tearing pictures of FEET out of magazines???” She eventually moved on to other OCD issues, but now I have the internet!

I often get the question “What did guys like Mort Drucker or Jack Davis do to get references for movie parodies back before the internet?” I’m sure they had multiple sources including their own morgue files, but I know of at least one resource that I saw evidence of having been used. Movies used to have these kits they sent out to theaters that included not just movie posters, but many 8 x 10 stills from the film, actors head shots, etc. About 14 years ago I was working on a piece that included a caricature of Matthew Broderick, and an internet search for him resulted in a link to an eBay auction for a vintage one of these theater kits from the film “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”. I was looking through the various uploaded scans of the photos from the kit, and they looked very familiar to me. I pulled out my boxes of old MAD Magazines and found the parody of Ferris Bueller, drawn by Mort Drucker. I compared the photos from the movie kit to Mort’s panels. Every single photo was obviously used as reference by Mort for the parody, right down to the poses and in some cases the backgrounds. It was very cool to see the actual reference he was working from. Movie studios used to send MAD their press kits in hopes the magazine would parody their film, since that was great publicity. Maybe that’s where Mort got it, or maybe he was friends with a local theater owner.

My morgue file is long defunct. No need for it anymore. Image searches certainly make life easier.

Thanks to Paul from Omaha for the question. If you have a question you want answered for the mailbag about cartooning, illustration, MAD Magazine, caricature or similar, e-mail me and I’ll try and answer it here!


  1. Jack Myhervold says:

    I have saved a few of your caricatures along with possible reference image’s. With your Leslie Nielsen caricature and what might have been one of your ref’s, I see that you, like Mort and others, bring something very fun to these images. I was looking at Mort’s Godfather II art the other day, and I counted 28 Al Pacino’s, and I’m sure that’s not even a record. Speaking of ref picture’s, I was at Hallmark yesterday, and they have an Adam West Batman ornament in the Life magazine pose like your multi Batman pic.

  2. Desmond Devlin says:

    Pre-internet, and even pre-Tom, from Frank Jacobs’ “The MAD World of William M. Gaines” (1972):

    “When MAD does a movie or TV satire, it is [Associate Editor Jerry] DeFuccio who digs up the photographs on which Mort Drucker and Angelo Torres base their caricatures. In the early days, studios and networks refused to cooperate, believing that a MAD take-off could only downgrade a property. This didn’t faze DeFuccio, who merely contacted one of the many young women he knew who worked at Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue, and McCall’s. The chosen miss would request the desired photos for her magazine, then send them on to DeFuccio.
    Such subterfuge is no longer required. “Today, movie companies are delighted when MAD satirizes one of their films,” he says. “So are the TV outfits. This is because the studios and networks are filled with people who grew up on MAD as teenagers.”


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