Book review: In Search of Norman Rockwell’s America

Copyright Kevin Rivoli

Can Christians see no evil? Some folks probably think that.  And not without reason. In my experience, some Christians do avoid negative topics. But in almost photographic terms, many Christians see the evil but choose to focus on the good.  Indeed, as discussed more fully below, that’s what the Bible requires.

In his recent book entitled In Search of Norman Rockwell’s America, photographer Kevin Rivoli focuses on the good. According to the book’s introduction, Rivoli’s goal is to prove that the world Norman Rockwell saw exists in reality. Disturbed by critics who dismissed Rockwell’s art as romantic fantasy, Rivoli collected photographs he had shot as a freelance photojournalist over 20 years, and paired his images with classic Rockwell illustrations. The result is both a book and a traveling art exhibit of those juxtaposed images.

I chose to review In Search of Norman Rockwell’s America at least in part because it represents a very different part of Christian documentary photography from the photo essays on missionary work I have previously reviewed. I’ve tried to make the point, and I’ll make it again here, that Christian documentary photography encompasses much more than documenting the work of Christians. As exemplified by In Search Of Norman Rockwell’s America, this genre also encompasses any photography dedicated to showing what is virtuous in the world. In this particular case, Rivoli’s photographs do an admirable job of capturing the essence of what we are all called to contemplate.

The Work

The Book

In this 128 page book, Rivoli pairs his photographs with Rockwell’s illustrations, partly by subject matter, but mostly by the pathos and humor the subjects convey. The goal is clearly not to simply mimic the substance of the Rockwell illustrations, matching a Christmas tree with a Christmas tree, but rather going deeper into the style elements to the very essence of what the images are intended to communicate.

Obviously, there are limitations. Rockwell’s illustrations were all carefully staged to create the effect he wanted. Mr. Rivoli, a photojournalist by profession, took the world as it is. And I admire the results. At the same time, I must admit some bias here. Several years ago, I tried to do the very same thing, and created a photo essay called A Scout is Helpful modeled after an iconic image Rockwell created for the Boy Scouts of America.  I’ve been a Rockwell enthusiast for years, and believe that Rockwell has a lot he can teach to photojournalists.

The book is beautifully designed, with dozens of quotations laced throughout it: some from famous people, others from those who knew Rockwell personally, and even a few quotations from the illustrator himself.  While they add a bit of interest, I found myself mostly focused on the imagery.

The Traveling Exhibit

At the same time Rivoli released his book, he and his wife organized a traveling exhibit of 70 images, also matched pairs. Many are the same as contained in the book, but some are different.  While I am not an art critic, I understand that some visitors were disappointed because the Rockwell portion of the exhibit included a number of reproductions. But to me, the exhibit and the book are really more about the photographs. The exhibit has traveled around United States and Japan and will end up in Canada later this year. Presently it’s in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

Basis for This Review

As a Collection of Features

In the photojournalism world, these images are all what would be called feature pictures. As explained in the Forward to the book written by Andrew Mendelson, an associate professor of journalism at Temple University:

Kenneth Kobre, author of a leading photojournalism textbook, explained that “feature photos provide visual dessert to subscribers who digest a daily diet of accidents, fire, political, and economic news… [they] record the commonplace, the  everyday slice of life. The feature photo tells an old story in a new way,” often providing a more humorous or optimistic view than a news photo does.

The key to a good feature photograph is a spontaneous situation focused on one aspect of everyday life. Photojournalist David Labelle even cites Rockwell as an example photojournalist should emulate: “Norman Rockwell didn’t paint pictures; he painted moments.” … Many writers on photojournalism emphasize the need for strong emotion, especially humor.

It is within this Rockwellian tradition of feature photography that Kevin Rivoli’s work clearly falls.

Over the last 10 years, Rivoli has been a freelance photographer for the AP, New York Times and USA Today, among others. I noticed, for example, that just before Christmas he shot a Syracuse University Orangemen basketball game.  Earlier in his career, he was a newspaper photo editor in upstate New York.

While the images in his book were shot quite individually over two decades, the collection tells a remarkably cohesive story. They reflect a composite picture of the good in small town life. They are not balanced with evil, to be sure. But they weren’t intended to be. Shot as feature images, while they would naturally reside in a newspaper that includes hard news, the collection is not meant to convey that whole picture. It is meant to focus on the good. Here, given that context, that’s okay with me.  In other photo essays I’ve argued for the need for balance, but here the author plainly expresses his purpose to show the existence of the good.

The Book’s Purpose to Prove Rockwell’s World Exists

Having just noted that Rivoli’s expressed purpose is to prove the existence of Rockwell’s world, as unfair as it might be, I don’t plan to evaluate the book by whether it fulfills that purpose. To me, that sets the bar way to low to make for an interesting review.  Of course Rockwell’s world exists, and I don’t think the claims of a few art critics are worth dignifying by publishing a book such as this to refute them.  The New York Times reviewed the book from the perspective of the book’s purpose, as though the book was exploring some remarkable new land as Christopher Columbus did.  The review struck me as a bit silly.

Rockwell’s world isn’t some foreign land we can only know about by reading the likes of National Geographic or the New York Times.  Rockwell didn’t limit his vision to rural America or obscure settings.  Quite the opposite, he chose the most common of people and places to make his point.

Instead of evaluating whether the book proves its point, I want to review the book by assessing whether it meets a higher purpose– whether the book constitutes good Christian documentary photography.

At the same time, it is legitimate to assess how well the photographer succeeds at offering a modern interpretation of Rockwell’s art, capturing the humor and pathos Rockwell captured. So as a part of my overall assessment, I will address that specific criterion.

Christian Role

As I often say in these reviews, I have no idea whether the photographer intended any Christian purpose to his work.  But I choose to review his work under that prism because quite frankly I think this book provides an excellent example of Christian documentary photography.  To me, Rivoli’s decision to focus on the good helps us all live by Phil 4:8– “[W]hatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.” 

Since that passage is so central to my review, I’d like to parse it a bit more carefully.  Much of this is taken from a particularly good article by Pastor Steven J. Cole on The Christian’s Thought Life (1995). Here’s what I think that Bible passage does and does not say. 

What it doesn’t say.  There is no Biblical basis I can find for any of the following.

  • Christians should see no evil.  Actually, quite the opposite is true.  We are to fight injustice, and how can we do that if we don’t see injustice?
  • The power of positive thinking.  Loosely interpreted, this means we should use thoughts to will good things to happen for ourselves.  This is trendy tripe found nowhere in the Bible.
  • Christians should always be positive, not negative.  Sorry, that’s also nowhere to be found in the Bible. We are to emulate Christ, and Christ was routinely critical. Further, we are to correct our brothers and sisters when necessary.  But it is true that we are to do so with love.

What it does say.

  • This is about mental discipline.  Phil 4:8 isn’t some syrupy, romantic notion. We must use considerable effort to overcome our natural instincts toward thinking about sin.
  • These are concepts of virtue, not pleasure.  Mr. Cole goes through definitions of each term, each reflecting an element of what is virtuous in the Bible.
  • The purpose of Phil 4:8 is to head off evil thoughts before they become evil actions.  Actions always start with thoughts.  So if we use self-discipline to think good thoughts, good actions should follow.

What makes Rivoli’s project ideal for embodying this Bible passage is that Rockwell’s work reflects these ideals in the first place, so a modern interpretation through photography would be expected to capture these same ideals. According to the Resource Guide provided to school classes visiting the exhibit when it was at the Ringling Museum of Art at Florida State University:

Rockwell’s work provides impetus to consider the issues of conflict and resolution, belief systems, human and social rights, justice, politics, race and ethnicity, commonalities and diversities. While the concept of “all men are created equal” has been part of our cultural heritage since the Declaration of Independence, the creation of a society that accurately reflects this value has been an ongoing social struggle, reflected in some of Norman Rockwell’s later works. He “pictures” individuals acting on their beliefs to achieve these social and democratic ideals in daily life.

According to David Kamp in a recent article on Rockwell, “From where we stand today, the appeal of these pictures transcends nostalgia or any wishful thinking that we can teleport ‘back’ into scenes that were exhaustively posed and staged in the first place. It’s the thought behind them that counts: What does it mean to be an American? What virtues are ours to uphold? What are we like in our best moments? For Rockwell, the answers to these questions lay in the idea, as he put it, ‘that everybody has a responsibility to everybody else.’ His pictures were about family, friendships, community, and society. Solo scenes were rare, and individual self‐interest was anathema. To the concept of ‘the town,’ he devoted himself as zealously as a groom does to a bride…” People rarely live in isolation. They are interdependent, organizing themselves into communities, villages, nations.

To me, that sounds like the body of Christ, and captures many Christian ideals.

Indeed, the connection between Rockwell’s work and themes of faith has been recognized in at least three other books.  While not limited to faith in God, a more general theme of faith dominates a book entitled, Norman Rockwell’s Faith in America by Fred Bauer.  More recently, Christian author Margaret Feinberg has written two books where she uses Rockwell art to illustrate books on faith and hope. Interestingly, in those two books, Ms. Fienberg uses a journalist approach to tell true stories of faith and hope that are well illustrated by Rockwell’s pictures.

Does Rivoli Succeed?

Based on the criteria I’ve laid out, I would say Rivoli succeeds commendably in capturing what Rockwell saw and was trying to communicate, and in doing so Rivoli focuses on the virtues we are called upon to think about.

What Rockwell Saw and Was Trying to Communicate.

In Rivoli’s image entitled Home from the War, he nails the same pathos that Rockwell achieved in his 1948 Saturday Evening Post cover on Christmas Homecoming. While the settings are different, and the photograph focuses on a returning veteran while the 1948 Rockwell image simply focuses on a son coming home for Christmas, the reaction of the family is the same: utter, overflowing joy. We can all relate to such homecomings.

Similarly, in Officer Lumb, Rivoli captures the moment a police officer is earnestly trying to help a young boy who seems lost. We don’t know if the boy is lost geographically, or is simply in the wrong place doing the wrong thing at the wrong time. But whatever the cause, the officer is down at the boy’s level trying to be helpful in a mentoring sort of way. That image captures the exact same feeling as the Rockwell 1958 Saturday Evening Post cover entitled Runaway, featuring an officer trying to befriend a young boy who has obviously run away from home.

Copyright Kevin Rivoli

Copyright The Norman Rockwell Licensing Company

In Grandma Reads a Story, I think Rivoli surpasses the counterpart image from Rockwell on Mother Reading to Children. Rivoli’s grandmother has an expression of caring mixed with delight that we all recognize.  The enjoyment and focus of the children in Rivoli’s picture is palpable. If I were to be critical, Rockwell’s mother and children do not express anywhere near the same genuine love and joy.

On the other hand, in his selection of his Election Day image, while Rivoli picks a setting similar to Norman Rockwell’s 1944 Saturday Evening Post cover called Undecided, he decidedly misses the point of the Rockwell image. Rivoli opts for the cuteness of the child peering up at the election worker, which has nothing to do with the earnestness expressed by the voter in Undecided.  Rockwell’s voter has stuffed his pockets full of political information so he can be well-informed on Election Day. His face conveys his intent to carefully make his decision, in a race that was very tight. I was disappointed by the mismatch, the Rockwell image conveying a much more important point than the photograph.

Focus on the Virtuous. 

Here I should emphasize that virtuous does not mean religious.  I am not looking for churches, or choirs or the like, although they are in there.  I’m looking for human traits of virtue courtesy of the Lord.  Rivoli capture those virtues.

One of Rivoli’s most powerful pictures is of the mature lady’s hands on the Bible in Enduring Faith. Second only to the face, the hands convey much information. These are the hands of a devout person who has lived through much. The book pairs that image with one of Norman Rockwell’s most famous images, the Freedom of Worship contained in a 1943 Saturday Evening Post issue. That painting, one of the so-called four freedoms Rockwell produced during the Second World War, conveys a multitude of people each expressing faith in their own way. The painting is powerful, and Rivoli’s image lives up to that high standard.

As a father, I find Rivoli’s image entitled Fishing with Dad to be simply powerful. The image contains mostly water and land, but for a small part of it that contains a father and son, alone, fishing. The power of the image is in its simplicity. We only see their backs, but we know exactly what they’re doing. They’re spending time together that is so precious. Personally I think Rivoli’s image overpowers the companion Rockwell image from the 1929 Saturday Evening Post entitled Catching the Big One. That painting focuses more on fun, and perhaps a business person playing hooky to go fishing with perhaps a grandson. But the man is having all of the fun, with the young boy simply along to hold the spoils. I much prefer Rivoli’s image for the feeling that it conjures up in me. A father and son bond is truly precious.

In Rivoli’s Pledge of Allegiance, he captures the utter sincerity and patriotism of what appears to be something like a VFW meeting. The older gentlemen in the room obviously, by their faces and body expressions, have an enormous connection to their country. This is not simply mumbling words by rote. This is heartfelt.  Rockwell captures much of that same feeling, but in the younger generation, in his image from Concord to Tranquility. The image includes various ages of Boy Scouts as well as an astronaut reciting the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag. The seriousness of the young boys, who would otherwise be playing, signifies they understand the importance of their country and their patriotism.

Copyright Kevin Rivoli

Copyright The Norman Rockwell Licensing Company

When Rivoli pairs a photo with The Problem We All Live With, he encounters an enormous challenge from a photojournalistic standpoint. In that painting, Rockwell captured an incredibly poignant moment in time with enormous social significance. As explained in the Florida State guide to the exhibit:

 Rockwell’s The Problem We All Live With first appeared in Look magazine on January 14, 1964. This was Rockwell’s first cover illustration for the magazine. He had left the Post and its emphasis on the sunny side of life to have the ability to create more socially meaningful work. This cover was published to commemorate the tenth anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, the landmark Supreme Court decision that stated that “separate but equal” is not sufficient. Yet, ten years later, the struggle was ongoing. The triggering even for the image was the implementation of integration of New Orleans schools. Four girls were allowed to attend all‐white schools, three at one, and Ruby Bridges at another, accompanied by federal marshals. All the other children in the class refused to come to school, and Ruby had to run the gauntlet of screaming people, yelling at her. Rockwell used local neighbors in Stockbridge as models.

Now I have a confession to make. When I first looked at Rivoli’s image, I thought it came up well short.  I thought it was simply a picture of a young African-American boy in a cemetery looking sad, but not conveying much else. When I raised this concern with the photographer, he gently pointed out that I had missed the name on the gravestone, and the connection to history.  According to Wikipedia, 

Harriet Tubman … was an African-American abolitionist, humanitarian, and union spy during the Civil War. After escaping from slavery, into which she was born, she made thirteen missions to rescue more than 70 slaves using the network of antislavery activists and safe houses known as the Underground Railroad. She later helped John Brown recruit men for his raid on Harpers Ferry, and in the post-war era struggled for women’s suffrage.

Ok, now I get it.  At the same time, the boy’s sadness does not quite match the enormous bravery displayed by Ruby Bridges. Indeed, Ruby does not appear to be sad, but determined. While I understand the relevance of the Tubman image, I do find more power in The Problem We All Live With. Frankly that’s a moment that would be very difficult to match.

The Bigger Picture

Rivoli has done us all a significant service by getting us to slow down and not just see the good, but really focus on it, appreciate it.  In that sense, the book as a whole helps us achieve some balance in a world where the media is definitely not focused on the good.  Further, in more biblical terms, this book allows us to really contemplate the good, and hopefully emulate it.

Further, Rivoli brings to light the connection between Rockwell and documentary photography generally.  Through the Forward and the examples in the book, we learn a little bit about how to take documentary photos that communicate clearly.  A master of storytelling, Rockwell designed each image to make his point succinctly and believably.

As this book shows, Christian documentary photography need not simply be about mission trips and exotic places. Ordinary people living out ordinary parts of their lives can display such virtue as to give us all hope, and something to think about.

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