Norman Rockwell's Cast Of Characters Revealed : The Picture Show You've probably seen Norman Rockwell's iconic illustrations of Americana. But what you may not know is that before each painting was a photograph. See a new side of Rockwell's story, as told by his reluctant photographer and a cast of models who p...

Norman Rockwell's Cast Of Characters Revealed

Hear the Weekend Edition Sunday story by NPR's Jacki Lyden:

Norman Rockwell's Cast Of Characters Revealed

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Who can forget the vulnerable childhood experience of going to the doctor? I remember sitting nervously on that white butcher paper, feeling like a particularly choice deli cut, and staring at a painting of a little boy pulling his pants down for a shot — a foreboding image of what might be in store. That image, a Norman Rockwell illustration, stuck with me for years. And that's the nature of Rockwell's legacy: his work is everywhere, and has become an indelible part of American culture. So, as someone who looks at photos all day, imagine my shock when I saw a photograph of the exact doctor's office scene in that painting.

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The Runaway, 1958, is an example of Rockwell's photorealism. (Norman Rockwell Art Collection Trust) hide caption

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The Runaway, 1958, is an example of Rockwell's photorealism. (Norman Rockwell Art Collection Trust)

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Rockwell used photos, taken by a rotating cast of photographers, to make his illustrations — and all of his models were neighbors and friends, including that little boy! Rockwell never kept it a secret, but for some reason this little fact has been neglected in recent decades. Although he may not have clicked the shutter, Rockwell directed every facet of every composition.

A little girl with a black eye, an elderly woman saying grace with her grandson, a boy going to war: Rockwellian scenes represent a certain sentimental America — an ideal America, or at least Rockwell's ideal. Over the course of 47 years, he had more than 300 cover images for Saturday Evening Post magazine. Then he went on to create more for Look Magazine. But those illustrations might never have existed without the help of photography.

A new book, Norman Rockwell: Behind the Camera, reveals Rockwell's use of photographs in his illustrative process. There's also a companion exhibition at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass. While getting permission to use some of the photographs for an online gallery, I was told that for two of the images, I would need to speak to Clemens Kalischer — a name that appears nowhere in the book or in the exhibition. On the other end of the phone line came a gravelly and reticent voice — a voice with quite a story. NPR's Jacki Lyden went up to Stockbridge to speak to him in person.

Ed Locke (from left), Mary Whalen Leonard and Wray Gunn, former Rockwell models, at the Norman Rockwell Museum (Jeremy Clowe/Courtesy of Norman Rockwell Museum) hide caption

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A German immigrant and young artist-photographer, Kalischer, now 88, moved to Rockwell's small town of Stockbridge in the 1950s. He was approached by one of Rockwell's usual photographers, Bill Scoville, who had a nervous condition and needed support while working. Kalischer reluctantly assisted Rockwell through the years — driving him to the White House to photograph Lady Bird Johnson, for example. But he has kept the photographs to himself and has remained quiet until now.

Read more and view a gallery of Kalischer's personal photographs, after the jump:

To Kalischer, the American mainstream has misunderstood Rockwell. "There is a difference between advertising and art," he wrote in an e-mail. "Good artists have total control over their work and express their own vision, while searching for truth." And, Kalischer repeatedly emphasizes, Rockwell never considered himself an artist, but rather a commercial illustrator. An artist-photographer himself, Kalischer was at odds with the tracing techniques and saccharine subject matter in Rockwell's work. After all, Rockwell never painted freehand, and almost all of his paintings were commissioned by magazines and advertising companies.

But others who knew Rockwell have a different opinion. Mary Whalen Leonard, who modeled for several of Rockwell's photographs, has nothing but fond memories and admiration. She spoke to NPR's Jacki Lyden about Rockwell's warm affability, his obsessive eye for detail, his mastery of light and composition and, most of all, his gift as a director. Even if he was a photorealist, he had an artful vision.

Clemens Kalischer stands in his studio in Stockbridge, Mass. (Jacki Lyden/NPR) hide caption

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For years, Rockwell has been dismissed as kitschy and cliched. But lately, critics and collectors alike have reconsidered his work. Directors George Lucas and Steven Spielberg will contribute their Rockwell pieces to a Smithsonian exhibit next year, and one Rockwell painting recently sold for $15 million. Rockwell's rosy America and literalist technique might polarize opinions, but there's no denying the permanence and influence of his vision. And at least now, homage can be paid to the photographers who made that vision a reality.

A note by NPR correspondent Jacki Lyden:

There are stories — and then there are stories. To visit Stockbridge, Mass., is to see Norman Rockwell's subjects walking around. You look at a face and think, "Could it be?" And upon occasion, it is, indeed. Rockwell had so many of his townsmen photographed for his paintings that the Town Hall is setting up an exhibit, asking people to identify themselves. The Town Hall is in the old school in which Rockwell, with the principal's help, photographed so many children. That would be a far more difficult thing to do today.

Also, the rediscovery of the very fact that Rockwell used photography so precisely is fascinating — and we owe Ron Schick and the Norman Rockwell Museum for their work. Clemens Kalischer, a world-renowned photographer, did not want to be identified as a Rockwell photographer, and shouldn't be. Though the two were neighbors, they had little in common by way of aesthetics.

Life is not a photograph or a painting, though, and it tends to throw people together who might not otherwise have interacted. I like the idea of seeing Rockwell in multiple ways and do not, myself, think that finished works need to do more than speak for themselves. Clearly, Rockwell speaks for a wide swath of Americans. That he himself suffered an ill wife; an obsessive habit of seeing and working; a creation, in his mind, of some kind of American sanctuary others wished to share — this all speaks to the complicated machinations of art: It is a way of remaking a world. Do check out the digitized photographic archive when the Norman Rockwell Museum puts it online at the end of year, and catch the show in Stockbridge. And don't forget to stop in at Clemens Kalischer's Image Gallery, right on Main Street

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