Norman Rockwell may be best known for his Saturday Evening Post cover illustrations and homey paintings of idealized Anytown, USA scenes, but in terms of sheer numbers he was primarily a photographer. Now the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, has digitized and uploaded a trove of 50,000 photographs that Rockwell took while preparing his paintings and drawings. The cache of photos reflects the broad range of images and subjects Rockwell portrayed throughout his career, from celebrities, political figures, and historic scenes to vignettes set in diners, suburban dining rooms, and bustling city streets.
The process of archiving and scanning the images, which had been stockpiled in 239 boxes until Venus Van Ness, the Norman Rockwell Museum’s archivist, did a preliminary survey of the photos in 2011, took a full two years and was completed in August 2014 with the help of a $150,000 grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.
“The initial sorting and selection of the photos was very difficult and took quite a long time,” Van Ness told Hyperallergic via email. “About half of the photos had corresponding negatives that had been digitized several years earlier. This project was to digitize those photos without a negative. So essentially every photo in the collection had to be reviewed and compared against images already in our digital collections. There were also duplicates that had to be sorted out since Rockwell would frequently have photos developed at multiple exposures.”
The photos, which have been added to the Norman Rockwell Museum’s online collections, include images of the artist with John F. Kennedy, John Wayne, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and other major figures in modern US history as he prepared to capture their likenesses. Others show the same model captured in the artist’s studio or outdoors in innumerable and slightly varied poses, with and without various props and accessories. I counted more than 25 snapshots of a boy standing barefoot on the beach, all of which were eventually synthesized into “Boy Running on Beach” (circa 1970).
“Fortunately, there was some level of organization to the photos before the project began,” Van Ness said. “They had been somewhat grouped and labeled with some identifying info and there was a box and folder list. However, one of the problems was that, in many cases, there were photos for the same painting in several different boxes. Before the project officially began, I spent time going through the boxes (more than 200) to try and make sure that items that should have been together were placed in the same box.”
To anyone who saw the exhibition Norman Rockwell: Behind the Camera, which was organized by the Norman Rockwell Museum and opened at the Brooklyn Museum in November 2010, the importance of photography to Rockwell’s practice is not news. That show juxtaposed some of Rockwell’s best known paintings like “New Kids in the Neighborhood” (1967) and “Boy in a Dining Car” (1946) with the many, many studio and documentary photos the artist took and spliced together before putting pencil to paper or paintbrush to canvas.
“I had used the collection fairly extensively for about a year prior to this project, so I wasn’t necessarily surprised by the photos that I saw,” Van Ness said. “However, there were a couple of subjects that I really enjoyed looking through. One was Rockwell’s 1956 trip around the world for Pan American airlines. He traveled all over Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. It was really fascinating to look through these several hundred photos of interesting people and places at that particular period in time. The other subject was NASA and astronauts in 1965. There are a number of candid photos of astronauts Gus Grissom (who tragically died in a training mission 2 years after these photos were taken), and John Young preparing for the Gemini 3 space mission. I wasn’t around during the ‘Space Race’ so it was a really intriguing inside look at that era.”
Now the public and art historians can get a better sense of the laborious preliminary photography work that went into each of Rockwell’s images, and the exceptional level of access he was given to his subjects.