Norman Rockwell: Artist behind a camera

Friday, Nov. 06


Ron Schick looks at photos -- lots of them. He does it for a living.

He looked at 18,000 of them for the exhibition he curated "Norman Rockwell: Behind the Camera," opening Saturday at the Norman Rockwell Museum, and for his newly released book of the same name.

But that was nothing, he said in a telephone interview last week. He examined nearly 100,000 NASA images from Apollo-era space missions for a book and exhibition he produced with his wife titled "The View From Space: American Astronaut Photography, 1962-1972."

"I'm used to doing this," he explained, dismissing the notion of image fatigue. "To me there's nothing more exciting than being the first to explore a body of work."

The work, in this case, is the archive of nearly 20,000 negatives that Norman Rockwell kept of the models, props and situations he had photographed over his career as visual aides to creating his illustrations.

They are the same images anyone with a computer will be able to see at home once the museum puts the archive -- which has been digitized over the past six years -- online later this month.

Schick is the first, however, to make a comprehensive study of them, and to offer new insights into how Rockwell used them, and their own value as works of art.

"Rockwell worked with his cameramen like a director works with a cinematographer," Schick said. He didn't take the pictures himself -- he had three photographers working for him over the course of his career -- or consider them more than visual tools, but "he poured so much of his creative energy into [staging them] that they have the same qualities as his art."

Those qualities, he went on, include vivid characterizations and facial expressions, impressive detail and the look of a moment or pose stopped in time.

That kind of spontaneity, he said, would never have been possible with posed models, of whom even the best would be challenged to hold exactly a desired pose or facial expression for hours on end.

But the camera could capture a laugh, a startled look, an angry gesture and deliver it to Rockwell as a fixed image that he could use immediately, or file away and retrieve later.

Schick said he found the early photos from the 1930s were often separate takes of models, settings and props that Rockwell would piece together for a final composition, but later pictures would be complete scenarios, identical to the illustrations they gave rise to.

Viewers will be able to compare a number of these photos and corresponding illustrations in the exhibition. Among them are "The Runaway," "Little Girl Observing Lovers on a Train," "Soda Jerk," "Tattoo Artist," and "Shuffleton's Barbershop" (the latter on loan from Berkshire Museum).

Rockwell used the camera, Schick said, because he was "a literal artist." He could paint accurately what was before him, but not from his imagination. He said so himself in his writings.

Moreover, Schick said, he was up front about it. While many illustrators and even fine artists as disparate as Edouard Manet, Winslow Homer and Andy Warhol used cameras as tools, most kept quiet about it, as if it was illegitimate.

"Rockwell wrestled with it at first," he said. "Then he was completely open about it."

His usual method, Schick writes in his book, was to create a rough charcoal sketch, then transfer it, using a projector called a Balopticon, onto a big sheet of paper hung on an easel. Next, again using the Balopticon, he'd project the photos onto the big sketch and trace their details into the black-and-white composition. From that, he'd do a color version on paper then a finished one on canvas.

Schick, who is an independent writer and photography researcher, formerly with the Aperture Foundation and Portfolio magazine, said he had hopes as a youngster of becoming an illustrator himself, and was an admirer of Norman Rockwell, before his career path took him in other directions.

Always on the lookout for new photo archives that could expand the boundaries of photography as art, Schick said he caught a PBS special on Norman Rockwell about 12 years ago that showed how the illustrator used the camera as a creative tool.

"I was amazed," he said. "As the photos came on the screen, they were so literal to the paintings. They had all the hallmarks of Rockwell's art ... improptu expressions, natural demeanor, unrestrained liveliness."

Schick immediately recognized their importance, he said, and resolved to research the archive for a book. It wasn't until 2006, however, that he had the time to approach the museum with his proposal.

Fortunately, he said, by then, the museum had already contracted with the Chicago Albumen Works in Housatonic to digitize all the negatives for an archive that could be accessed by computer -- and, later this month, online.

This made it much, easier, he said, to look at the negative images frame-by-frame and to see them as positives on the computer screen.

It took him nine months, working two or three days at a time on trips to Stockbridge once every couple of months, he said, to get the job done.

"Ron's work dispells the notion that Rockwell's work was a simple matter of ‘copying' his photos," said the museuum's director, Laurie Norton Moffatt. "Rockwell's working process was actually a series of complex creative steps that involved his keen observation of human nature, his creative ideas and storytelling, his talent for ‘casting' and ‘directing' his subjects, and of course his extraordinary talents as a painter.

"To achieve Rockwell's level of success, being solely a good painter would not be enough," she said. "His pictures come to life as a result of his skills as observer, narrator and director."

Schick's scholarship also shows, Moffatt said, "how essential the community around Norman Rockwell was to help him think up fresh ideas and cast his characters."

And, she went on, "We now see that better, more interesting and successful ‘dramas' emerged through Rockwell's skillful handling of the medium and his subjects."

Even as the show opens this weekend and the book has been published, Schick says the job really isn't done. More Rockwell negatives continue to be discovered in private collections.

It's unusual, he said, for any artist to assemble such an extensive photo archive, but Rockwell was successful and he had the resources to create and organize it.

"His paintings, for most of his career, really began as photos," Schick said. "They were the first expression of an idea. And so many of his characters [viewers may be surprised to discover] were real people."

To reach Charles Bonenti: (413) 496-6211,


If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.

Powered by Creative Circle Media Solutions