As the Norman Rockwell Museum of Vermont explains, “One Day in the fall of 1912, a talented 18-year-old art student named Norman Rockwell walked into the offices of Boy’s Life looking for work. When he left, he had his first commission to do a magazine illustration and had begun a relationship with the Boy Scouts of America that would last for more than 60 years. Rockwell became the visual spokesman for scouting, bringing its spirit and ideals to life through hundreds of now-classic paintings.”
In 1941, to illustrate an element of the Scout Law, Mr. Rockwell created one of his most endearing illustrations, “A Scout is Helpful”, depicting a scout helping during a 1938 hurricane that hit New England. As a tribute to Mr. Rockwell, I wanted to produce a photo essay offering a modern day interpretation of that original illustration. I was not trying to literally reproduce it by finding a hurricane and a scout in the midst of it, but rather to show how scouts are still helpful today.
Further, in preparing to take the photographs, I spent months studying Mr. Rockwell’s painting style and composition, reviewing scores of his illustrations as well as various reviews. My goal was to capture something of the expressions he sought in characters, as well as his use of light and shadow, color, framing. I looked for his sense of the moment and the basic message he sought to convey. Look carefully, for example, at the first image: the framing, the actions of the kids, their expressions and the lighting all mirror the style Mr. Rockwell often employed. See the young girl in the middle with her hand up: she can’t resist participating with the boys.
To get started, I considered how the Scout handbook interprets being helpful: “A Scout cares about other people. He willingly volunteers to help others without expecting payment or reward.” The boys in Troop 804, Zionsville, Indiana, sponsored by Post 79 of the American Legion, spent their summer doing just that, and made a great subject for the essay. Together they worked over 300 hours serving in color guards, placing flags on soldiers’ graves for Memorial Day, building park benches, trails and bridges and improving the baseball fields at the local Lyons Park. Further, in keeping with the Boy Scout Motto to “Be Prepared”, they spent hundreds more hours learning skills that would allow them to help others, such as first aid, emergency preparedness, and environmental science.
Service is a requirement for rank advancement, culminating in a major service project for the Eagle rank. After watching the boys digging holes to anchor park benches for a couple hours, I asked one of them if he had put in enough time to earn his next badge. The boy just looked at me blankly, and then a light came on as he realized this work would satisfy his service requirement. Since the scout obviously didn’t come for the badge, I had to ask, why did you do it? The scout shrugged his shoulders and said, “I dunno, my friend asked me to help.” It was really that simple. I think Mr. Rockwell would be proud.
(c) Bradley Merrill Thompson