Norman Rockwell: The Original King of the Photoshop

Back when Norman Rockwell ruled Saturday evenings, Adobe wasn't even a gleam in some nerd's eye, but a new book shows that the painter was, nevertheless, a photoshop god.

Very few Gizmodo readers were even born when Rockwell painted his last Saturday Evening Post cover, but we all know them. You hear that name and suddenly you can picture those overly detailed, cartoonishly dramatic but ultimately kinda corny depictions of American life. Well, Norman Rockwell: Behind the Camera, written and compiled by Ron Schick, has given me immense newfound respect for the man, for the meticulous photography, the real people and the unintentionally hilarious DIY props and sets that he required to make his painted fantasies of Americana come true.

The book is not about painting. Rockwell's oil-on-canvas work feels like an afterthought for Schick, who mostly documents Rockwell's photography and art direction. Throughout the book, you see a painting, then you see the photographs he took to make that painting. In most cases, many shots comprise the different elements, and are joined together only in paint. It's almost sad: Vivid interactions between people, remembered jointly in the country's collective consciousness, may never have taken place. Even people facing each other at point blank range were photographed separately, and might never have even met.

The photos are as memorable as the paintings: There's a little boy whose feet are propped up on thick books, a walking still-life; there's a naked lady who ended up a mermaid in a lobster trap; there are men and women in various states of frustration, concentration and bliss, whose facial expressions defined Rockwell's style. These were mostly not agency models, but friends and neighbors who were pleased to help out, but not always thrilled by the finished product.

Since Rockwell was one of the most commercially successful artists of all time, you can imagine the rights to all of his images (paintings and photos) are carefully managed. The publisher was kind enough to let us show you the book cover plus two additional pairings, below. I encourage you to buy the book ($26.40 at Amazon)—what you see here is just a quick lick of the spoon:

Norman Rockwell: The Original King of the Photoshop

Going and Coming, 1947
You'll notice the book jacket shows a painting of a family embarking on a summer vacation—Granny, Spot and all—coupled with a photo of a similar scene with far less action. There's a kid sticking out of the car in both, but many family members are missing. This is because they were photographed separately, in Rockwell's studio, and painted in where needed. (You'll also notice that the photo on the jacket is reversed—the car was pointed in the other direction but I suppose that wouldn't have looked as cool.)

Norman Rockwell: The Original King of the Photoshop

Circus, 1955
What I liked about this picture is that you get to see how ridiculous Rockwell's sets could often be. He needed real faces, but he could fill in the rest. Hence piling chairs up on top of an old desk to simulate bleachers at the circus. Good thing nobody fell off the back and sued ole Rocky for millions—that twine used to hold the little girl's chair in place doesn't look OSHA certified. If the geeky looking fellow in the front looks familiar, it's because Rockwell himself served as a model for his paintings all the time.

Norman Rockwell: The Original King of the Photoshop

The Final Impossibility: Man's Tracks on the Moon, 1969
Yep, here's proof that the moon landing was faked. At least, Rockwell's commemorative portrait of it was. NASA loved his work, so they loaned him spacesuits and helmets whenever he wanted, and for this, he got permission to photograph his models moonwalking around an Apollo Lunar Lander, with a black tarp doubling for infinity and beyond. Remember, this is when Apollo was new and the Cold War was in full swing, so getting access to the latest NASA toys took clout.

Behind the Camera covers many aspects of Rockwell that I had not known about previously. He was an outspoken civil rights activist, and many of his paintings dealt with race relations. There is a painting of two murdered men, one black and one white, accompanied by an almost absurd photo of two very alive guys lying side by side, eyes closed, on a carpet. There's another painting of a little black girl being walked to school by US Marshals, and the many different closeup shots Rockwell required to paint the extreme detail of the tense, potent—and fabricated—moment.

I wish I could run a gallery of 100 shots from this book, because each page startled me in a different way. Meeting the real people behind the paintings, and learning that every painting was composed of masterfully planned photographs—always black and white, since the artist let his imagination add the color—I will no longer take Norman Rockwell for granted. In fact, I'm gonna kinda worship him from now on. [Amazon sales page; Little, Brown product page]