I’m not one of those who thinks that the use of optical devices like a camera obscura (Wikipedia) or photographic reference is in some way “cheating” or diminishes the value of an artist’s work.
Artists have always used whatever visual aids were available to them, from grids of string across viewing frames to the old “thumb on the pencil” sighting trick. Thomas Eakins and Degas experimented with photographic reference when photography was in its infancy.
Noted American illustrator Norman Rockwell never made a secret of the fact that he used extensive photographic reference for his illustrations. Unlike Eakins and many other artists who used photography, Rockwell did not take his own photographs, preferring to leave the technical aspects in the hands of various professionals.
He did, however, compose the photographs, and every aspect of them, from composition to lighting to poses of the models (who were Rockwell’s friends and neighbors).
In effect he composed the photograph as a preliminary version of the composition of the painting, in much the same way as a preparatory drawing or study. The finished works often closely follow the layout Rockwell has established in the photographs.
There is a new book titled Norman Rockwell: Behind the Camera that explores Rockwell’s process and makes many of the photographs available.
The Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge Massachusetts (which incidentally has a newly redesigned web site) has mounted an exhibition, also called Norman Rockwell: Behind the Camera, in keeping with the release of the book. The exhibit is open now and runs until May 31, 2010
There are several examples on the site of the reference photographs compared with the finished paintings, a comparison I always find fascinating. You can find some more on the PDN Photo of the Day column.
There is also an article on NPR.org that gives additional background and includes audio of the Weekend Sunday Edition radio story.
[Via Gurney Journey]