There has been a great deal of interest in the recent exhibition and book “Norman Rockwell: Behind the Camera,” which explores Rockwell’s use of reference photography. NPR radio story here.
Author and curator Ron Schick points out that “his first extensive use of photography came with a 1935 commission to illustrate a new edition of Tom Sawyer.”
But until now the earliest known surviving photographic evidence doesn’t go back much before 1939, when Rockwell moved to Arlington, Vermont, Mr. Schick told me in a phone conversation. The bulk of the earlier documentary records and photos were presumably lost in the 1943 Arlington studio fire.
A newspaper article has just surfaced which reveals what appears to be the earliest known reference photo commissioned by Rockwell. The painting (an alternate version from the one published in the Tom Sawyer edition) shows Huck Finn presenting the dead cat to Tom Sawyer. The photograph was taken by Richard Wyrley Birch, a photographer who has not yet been mentioned in any of the books on Rockwell’s process.
In the 1974 article, Mr. Birch recounts working for Rockwell as photographer, model, and model scout.
According to Birch, when Rockwell was living in New Rochelle he was “having trouble finding a photographer.” Learning that Birch could handle a camera, the artist commissioned him to help on the Tom Sawyer project. Mr. Birch claims that “almost all his art work from the beginning has been done from photographs.”
When Birch delivered the reference shots, made with the benefit of reflectors and lit like a movie shot, “Rockwell flipped. He’d had no pictures like this before. The detail was beautiful. I was his man from then on.”
Mr. Birch worked with Rockwell for about six years photographing “everything from beautiful young girls and children to aging and wrinkled men and women and from chickens and horses to cats and dogs,” until Rockwell moved to Vermont in 1939.
Although Rockwell agonized over his decision to use reference photography, he made no secret of it, at least not after 1940. And as I mentioned in an earlier post, he made extensive changes from the photo reference. But this new evidence pushes back the earliest surviving photo by almost five years, confirming the 1935 date. It also implies that Rockwell may have been using photos at least a few years before that time.
If anyone can put me in touch with Alison Wyrley Birch or Mr. Birch’s descendants, please send me an email (jgurneyart (at) yahoo.com).
“Richard Wyrley Birch of Kent Once Was The Photographer Behind the Artist’s Brush” by Alison Wyrley Birch. Sunday Republican of Waterbury, CT. November 17, 1974