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George Eastman House presents Norman Rockwell: Behind the Camera

Exhibition showcases the artwork of Norman Rockwell alongside the photographs he staged for reference and inspiration

Rochester, N.Y., June 3, 2011—Experience the iconic paintings and illustrations of artist Norman Rockwell alongside the staged photographs on which he based his work, with the exhibition Norman Rockwell: Behind the Camera, on view June 25 through Sept. 18, 2011.

Norman Rockwell (1894-1978) adopted photography in the mid-1930s as a tool to bring his illustration ideas to life in studio sessions. He carefully orchestrated the photographs, hand-selecting the props, locations, and models. Rockwell created an abundance of photographs for each new subject, sometimes capturing complete compositions and other times combining separate pictures of individual elements.

For the first time, Norman Rockwell: Behind the Camera presents more than 100 study photographs with his drawings — and related tear sheets of magazine covers plus photography equipment, archival letters, and an introductory film — offering an in-depth look at the artist’s working process. The camera brought a new flesh-and-blood realism to his work, and opened a window to the keenly observed authenticity that defines his art.

“Norman Rockwell was a natural storyteller with an unerring eye for detail,” said Stephanie Haboush Plunkett, chief curator of Norman Rockwell Museum, which organized the exhibition. “This groundbreaking exhibition shows how that narrative instinct found its first expression in the artist’s meticulously composed photographs.”

In addition to original art from Norman Rockwell Museum’s collection, several works are on loan from such noted institutions as Taubman Museum of Art and The National Air and Space Museum. The result is a compelling frame-by-frame view of the development of some of Rockwell’s most indelible images. At the same time, the photographs themselves are fully realized works of art in their own right. Over the 40 years Rockwell used photographs as his painting guide, he worked with many skilled photographers, particularly Gene Pelham, Bill Scovill, and Louis Lamone.

Rockwell became one of the most famous illustrators of his generation through his naturalistic, narrative paintings done in a readily recognizable style, which appeared in national magazines that reached millions of readers. Among the magazine covers in the exhibition are several from The Saturday Evening Post, for which Rockwell produced 323 covers over 47 years. He later turned his attentions to more socially relevant subjects for LOOK magazine, with which he had a decade-long relationship.

The Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass., organized the exhibition in collaboration with author and guest curator Ron Schick, whose companion book of the same name was released in 2009 by Little, Brown and Company ($40). Schick is the first researcher to undertake a comprehensive study of Norman Rockwell Museum’s newly digitized photography archives. This repository of nearly 20,000 images encapsulates Rockwell’s use of photography over four decades. The fragile acetate negative originals were prioritized for digitization under ProjectNORMAN, Rockwell Museum’s long-term digital preservation project. Also on view in the exhibition is the 1957 Kodak Colorama titled Closing Up a Summer Cottage, for which Rockwell served as art director.     


“The Kid with the Camera Eye”

Early in his career, Rockwell hired professional models to pose for the characters in his paintings. However, the evolving naturalism of his work led him to embrace photography, which had increasingly come in vogue as a useful tool for fine artists and a natural ally of commercial illustrators working on tight deadlines. For Rockwell, who had been called “the kid with the camera eye,” photography was more than an artist’s aid.

“Photography has been a benevolent tool for artists from Thomas Eakins and Edgar Degas to David Hockney,” Schick said. “But the thousands of photographs Norman Rockwell created as studies for his iconic images are a case apart.”

He worked with friends and neighbors rather than professional models, which fueled Rockwell’s imagination by providing a wide array of everyday faces. He carefully directed each element of his design for the camera, even getting in on the action to pose and perform. In fact, Rockwell’s photographic archive reveals that the artist himself is his most frequently captured model. Rockwell staged his photographs much as a film director works with a cinematographer, instructing his cameramen when to shoot, yet never personally firing the shutter. He created dozens, sometimes hundreds, of photographs for each new subject. Photography brought the essential elements of Rockwell’s art completely under his direct control. For an artist with a “camera eye,” narrative genius, and commitment to painstaking perfectionism, no better tool can be imagined.

“There were details, accidents of light, which I'd missed when I'd been able to make only quick sketches of a setting,” Rockwell said, in regard to his use of photography. “For example, in Rob Shuffleton's barbershop in East Arlington, Vermont — where Rob hung his combs, his rusty old clippers, the way the light fell across the magazine rack, his moth-eaten push broom leaning against the display cases of candy and ammunition, the cracked leather seat of the barber chair with the stuffing poking through along the edges over the nickel-plated frame. A photograph catches all that."


Americana: Hollywood and the American Way of Life

This companion exhibition illustrates the Americana of Hollywood as depicted in motion picture publicity stills. These images evoke Norman Rockwell’s illustrations of America to such an extent that they might appear as photographs from an old family album. Americana: Hollywood and the American Way Of Life features 150 images from the vast collection of publicity stills conserved at George Eastman House, from films such as On the Town, It’s a Wonderful Life, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, and Junior Miss. Together they create a montage of familiar faces and scenes that reflect the unacknowledged importance of life’s swiftly passing moments.

The exhibitions are sponsored by M&T Bank with additional support provided by The Robert Lehman Foundation.

Admittance to the exhibition is an additional $3 to regular museum prices. For more information, visit eastmanhouse.org or call (585) 271-3361.