New York Photo Review
NYPR Archives - 2010

Partners in Deception
Norman Rockwell
Behind the Camera
R. Wayne Parsons
Norman Rockwell, Louie Lamone, New Kids in the Neighborhood, 1967, Look Magazine

If you are like most New Yorkers who pay some attention to the current art/photography scene, you probably don’t have much interest in Norman Rockwell, that hopelessly passé illustrator of wholesome, small-town, middle-American virtues (pretty much describes me). But you don’t have to like Rockwell’s cheery boosterism to find “Norman Rockwell: Behind the Camera” to be a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at one particular aspect of the creative process.

Rockwell admitted that he found it difficult to paint entirely from his imagination. To overcome this limitation he used the camera to record scenes he would incorporate in exacting detail in his paintings. He began with an idea for a painting, planned it thoroughly, then photographed elements of the desired image in as many as 100 different shots using a 4x5 Speed Graphic camera. Models were photographed separately, usually in the studio. He was a perfectionist, determined to get even the most mundane details exactly right, demanding props be authentic. He got what he wanted from his models by explaining the concept: directing, posing, and modeling the desired facial expressions. (One section of the exhibition has amusing photos of Rockwell showing the poses and expressions he wanted for his models). After the preliminary photographs were made, he used an opaque projector to display the images (always black and white); he would sketch in elements from each photo, gradually building up a composited image until the design was complete. Color was added in the final painting. Not terribly different in principle from what can be done today using Photoshop. This process served Rockwell well for much of his career. He created an astounding 321 covers for The Saturday Evening Post from 1916 to 1963.

 by unidentified photographer.
Norman Rockwell, John Stuart Cloud, The Dugout, 1948. Cover illustration for The Saturday Evening Post

Rockwell was not his own photographer; he preferred and could afford to hire skilled photographers to do the actual shooting and processing for him. Three men did most of the work: Louie Lamone, Gene Pelham and Bill Scovill –- all credited in this exhibition, but not, of course, when Rockwell’s work was published.

But surprisingly, Rockwell expressed great ambivalence about his modus operandi. He described his use of photography as “… a low form of cheating, a dishonorable crutch for lazy draftsmen, a betrayal of artistic principles,” characterizing his opaque projector as “… an evil, inartistic, habit forming, lazy and vicious machine … I use one often –- and am thoroughly ashamed of it. I hide it whenever I hear people coming.”

This exhibition, organized by the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, includes numerous examples of some of the many photos that went into creating an illustration, paired with the final result –- sometimes the original painting, but also tear sheets of the corresponding Post covers. You can have a good time by figuring out how Rockwell seamlessly composited segments from the photos into the final illustration.

About that cheery boosterism: it seems that Rockwell was a bit more complex than the naïve Americanism celebrated in his Post covers would suggest. In 1963 he terminated his decades-long relationship with the Post because he tired of restrictions prohibiting him from exploring more complex subjects. He then went to work for Look exploring darker sides of American life, such as the civil rights struggle of the 1960s. One of the strongest images in the show is an illustration for Look based on the 1964 Chaney-Goodman-Schwerner murders in Mississippi –- no sugar-coating here, fortunately.

So if you want a reprieve from the contemporary art scene, or are just interested in the fascinating interplay between photography and other art forms, head for the Brooklyn Museum.

Norman Rockwell
Behind the Camera

Brooklyn Museum of Art
200 Eastern Parkway
Central Brooklyn         Map

718 638 5000

Tuesday, November 9 to
Sunday, April 10, 2011
Hours: Wed - Fri, 10 to 5; Sat Sun, 11 - 6