||08-08-2011 12:41 PM
For a newspaper that for more than a century celebrated the lack of images within its pages, it is surprising to note that the Wall Street Journal's signature mark is the dot-ink portrait.
In explanation of that visually-averse legacy, former executive editor Fred Taylor famously said, "I've always thought that one word was worth a thousand pictures."
But while the paper's world-class reporting has propelled the Journal brand, it's the stipple drawing, pioneered by Journal artists 30 years ago, that has become a trademark.
"It's an icon," says staff artist Nancy Januzzi, of the miniature portraits. "It really is the look of The Wall Street Journal."
Since 1979, the drawings, or hedcuts, have become much more than the currency and certificate engravings they were modeled on. So many likenesses of prominent figures have been featured that to have one's hedcut appear in the Journal is, for most, a seminal moment.
"It sort of became a status symbol," says staff artist Hai Knafo.
Knafo was one of the first hedcut illustrators to have ever worked at the Journal and with 27 years of service he's also the longest-tenured.
"There's nothing more complex, more interesting and, in a way, varied than the human face," says Knafo.
Like all staff artists, he used to work at the Journal's headquarters in downtown Manhattan, next door to the World Trade Center. Then the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks happened.
As the chaotic morning unfolded, staff artists scrambled to not only make sure everyone was safe but also that hedcuts would appear in the next day's paper.
"We rallied very quickly," says Laura Levy. "By the end of the day, we had somehow managed to network into work."
Staff artists have plied their trade remotely ever since. At first, they worked from the Journal's South Brunswick, N.J. office. Now they work from home, using modern technology with one prominent exception:
"We don't use computers," says Novak. "Everything is done by hand. And we keep the process sacred."
Each intricate portrait can take up to five hours to complete, with countless little dots. But in an emergency, artists can produce one in as little as two hours, with more lines and fewer specks.
"We have our little tricks," says Noli Novak, who has been with the Journal since 1987. "A portrait with less dots will take less time."
A busy day consists of two "live" hedcuts, drawings that are due to run in the next day's paper.
The process looks "deceptively simple," says Knafo. "But there's a certain discipline."
Every morning, artists are emailed their assignment – a photograph. After printing it out at around 3 x 5 inches, they work on tracing the photograph with ink dots on a fresh sheet of vellum or white paper. Once they're done, artists scan and email back the finished product.
"Because we are essentially tracing the photograph, a lot of people think it's not a big deal," says Knafo. "But it is."
It's a painstaking and deliberate process, dot by dot, as an image complete with contour and shading emerges.
Because artists work from home, their efforts are often overlooked – if not altogether forgotten, they say.
"People at the Journal don't even know there's a whole department doing this," says Novak.
But working from home has brought its own rewards.
In January of 2009, a suspicious white powder was mailed to the Journal's New York office. The scare prompted two of the four floors of the newspaper's offices to be evacuated. While the ensuing investigation caused disruption in the newsroom, the artists weren't affected.
"I was able to coordinate and work from home with (the artists)," says Dilcia Martinez who doles out hedcut assignments. "There were no problems with getting the hedcuts out."
Martinez has worked for the Journal since 1997. She's seen a lot of changes in the Journal as more and more photographs have made their way into the print edition. While there is concern among the artists that the hedcut is becoming gradually outmoded, she says there's still a demand.
"We can get busy," says Martinez who has a team of four staff artists and four freelance artists at her disposal.
It's that sheer number of assignments, the artists say, that has led to so many memorable moments over the years.
Like the time when artist Noli Novak received a thank-you note for choosing to straighten out the eyes of a cross-eyed rabbi in a hedcut.
"She gets a note from him saying, 'Well you succeeded at doing what seven surgeries were unable to do,'" laughs Knafo.
Or the time in 1984, when Knafo was assigned to draw the portrait of a rising political figure from the Soviet Union.
As he drew, Knafo eliminated what seemed like a fleck of dust on the man's forehead. Only after the portrait had run in the paper did he realize his mistake.
The political leader was Mikhail Gorbachev, and the "dust" was, of course, the man's well-known birthmark.
The artists also recall the many tour groups that paid visits to the Journal offices in New York. Inevitably, they would reach the graphics department -- a fan favorite.
"We had a lot of people come in, curious about what we were doing," says Knafo. "They would ask me, 'why did the Journal come up with this?'"
"I would show them an ad," he says.
The ad was for a car rental company. It showed a man sitting at a café table in Paris, reading the newspaper.
"So I asked them," says Knafo. "What paper is he reading?"
Though the masthead of the newspaper was obscured, visitors quickly spotted the answer, he said.
"There were these tiny portraits unique to The Wall Street Journal."