Rockwell's America in photos

AUBURN, N.Y. — More than once during Norman Rockwell's prolific career, detractors belittled his iconic images of America as too idealistic, too nostalgic, too composed.

In his new book, "In Search of Norman Rockwell's America," veteran freelance photojournalist Kevin Rivoli debunks that indictment with his own slice-of-life snapshots paired side-by-side with Rockwell's paintings and illustrations.

"Critics said the America that Rockwell painted didn't exist, that it was conjured up in his mind ... and that's just not true," said Rivoli. "I know because I have many of these same images captured on film."

Rivoli's photos don't mimic Rockwell's images — that would have meant staging shots and undermining the book's ambition to demonstrate that Rockwell's America exists spontaneously, said Rivoli's wife, Michele, a Rockwell aficionado who helped her husband put together and market his first book.

Indeed, Rivoli took most of the photographs without even knowing a similar Rockwell example existed.

"Rivoli makes photographs that reveal the same types of scenes Rockwell made famous, images that speak to us through a common visual language and help people appreciate and better understand who they are," said Andrew Mendelson, an associate professor in the School of Communications and Theater at Temple University, whose research and writings have dealt with visual literacy and documentary photography and who wrote the book's foreword. He had never met Rivoli before reviewing the book and writing the foreword.

"Besides Rivoli, there are probably very few photographers who would claim lineage from Rockwell, but really Rockwell taught photographers, and viewers, how to see, what to value and what is worth recording," Mendelson said in a telephone interview.

The 48-year-old Rivoli, raised in upstate New York since age 1, has spent more than two decades as a photojournalist, working for papers in Rochester, Auburn, and for The Associated Press and New York Times.

While much of his work — due to the nature of the job — has dealt with "death, destruction and human despair," Rivoli filled his spare time with documenting the more affirming aspects of life, photographing family, neighbors and strangers in scenes similar in spirit to those Rockwell portrayed.

"The moments in our lives that are usually the most significant are the quiet moments, but we are usually too busy to notice," said Rivoli, who became a father of twin sons three years ago and credits them with a newfound appreciation of life.

"We are too busy paying attention to all the stresses and worries that we have and sometimes we forget to cherish these moments," he said. "They are so simple that they are easy to walk by and not notice. But they are the most significant. My hope is the book represents those moments."

Rivoli said his childhood was straight out of Rockwell's America and he's always felt linked to the artist and Rockwellesque images. He thinks others are, too, even if unwittingly.

"We are so connected to Rockwell that we don't even know it," he said. "He's so ingrained in our American society, in our life, the way we live, the way we see ourselves, the way we photograph ourselves. Look at your family photos and you'll see Rockwell starting to come through. It's everyday life. It's the first date. The Thanksgiving dinner. It's your first dog."

Those are the types of scenes reflected in the 68 photographs that fill the book: two toddlers bundled in snowsuits, peering up a chimney as they stand next to a red-suited Santa; a high school girl kneeling in a diner booth as she tries to pin a corsage on her nervous beau just before they head off to the prom; a young child playing peek-a-boo from behind a voting booth curtain with a grandmotherly voting inspector.

Rivoli first began musing about a book in the early 1990s after he and Michele visited the Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass.

"It was at the museum where I first heard that critics weren't favorable to Rockwell. ... I began tucking away photographs," he said.

Without her husband's knowledge, Michele contacted the Rockwell museum in May 2006 and sent them some of his photos. Grandson John Rockwell was enticed by the idea and the Rockwell estate gave its full blessing — and cooperation — to the project.

"Kevin's photographs captured the spirit of my grandfather's work, that there are a multitude of moments we can feel good about and celebrate and that you just have to have your eyes, and your mind, open to them," Rockwell said.

The original idea was to put together a gallery exhibit with a book to follow. The exhibit would feature a mix of Kevin's photos and Rockwell prints. The Rivolis encountered some of the same prejudices that Rockwell faced when they began searching for a gallery. The first two they approached both told them the concept was too upbeat and not socially relevant enough.

But as the book came together, the gallery exhibit eventually evolved into a two-year national tour to follow the book.

It will begin next October at the Woodson Art Museum in Wausau, Wis., and will visit at least a half dozen cities, said Amanda Cane, senior exhibitions manager for International Arts and Artists, which is handling the tour.

And instead of just prints and lithographs, the tour will now include original Rockwell paintings and drawings, many loaned by private collectors and several pieces never before seen publicly, she said.

Meanwhile, the Rivolis contacted several publishers who expressed interest, but who conceived the book as something different.

"They envisioned it as a traditional $80 coffee table book geared toward the photography or art connoisseur," he said.

"We wanted it to be affordable for middle America. That's who Rockwell painted and that's who I photograph, the ordinary people doing ordinary things. Those are the people who are going to connect with this."

The Rivolis eventually signed with Howard Books, a division of Simon & Schuster, which agreed to sell the book for $24.99.

Each set of Rivoli-Rockwell images is accompanied by a quote from a famous or not-so-famous American, including several by Rockwell.

The more recognizable names include Hollywood legend Debbie Reynolds, golf great Arnold Palmer, NBC News anchor Brian Williams, Apollo astronaut Buzz Aldrin, fitness guru Jack LaLanne, singer Dolly Parton, racing king Richard Petty and former President Jimmy Carter.

"We wanted to show that regardless of your sex, or your race, or your socio-economic class or anything of those things, that Rockwell touched so many people," Michele said. "So we thought we would talk to people who knew him, who worked with him, who collect him, who admired him, who felt impacted by him."

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