Hank Willis Thomas and Emily Shur Update Norman Rockwell’s American Dream

Hank Willis Thomas and Emily Shur Update Norman Rockwell’s American Dream

In a series of photographs, the artists update Rockwell’s iconic American paintings with a heterogeneous group of strangers.
In a series of photographs, the artists update Rockwell’s iconic American paintings with a heterogeneous group of strangers.

I n 2018, Norman Rockwell’s 1943 ‘Four Freedoms’ painting series took a two-year tour across America and to Normandy, France. For part of it, so did a set of images inspired by Rockwell’s – but that look and feel a lot different than his.

When artist Hank Willis Thomas saw the originals, he knew something was off. “These four freedoms that Norman Rockwell illustrated missed out on including a lot of the people who were in the country at the same time,” he said.

So he teamed up with photographer Emily Shur, in collaboration with Eric Gottesman and Wyatt Gallery of For Freedoms, to create pictures of America that aligned with what he, and many others, knew it to be. That series of work is on view in Visions of America at Sotheby’s 12-19 January, while For Freedoms – a related organization founded by Thomas and a consortium of artists – has grown to include hundreds.

Four Freedoms Photographs, by Artists Hank Willis Thomas and Emily Shur in collaboration with Eric Gottesman and Wyatt Gallery of For Freedoms

How did the idea for “Four Freedoms” come about?

Thomas: I was probably at the National Museum of American History in DC when I saw a poster of a white family in the forties sitting at a Thanksgiving table with a giant turkey. The poster said “Freedom from Want,” and I was bewildered about what that meant. But I knew that the image was compelling. Much later, I found out that this was a poster of an illustration by Norman Rockwell, who is demonstrating FDR’s concepts of the four basic freedoms.

And “Freedom from Want,” in his description, was the suggestion that everyone should have plenty, at a table full. And I was curious about that history. So I decided it would be really important to reinterpret Norman Rockwell’s “Four Freedoms” in a way that kind of highlights what I’ve been calling a more heterogeneously-empowered United States of America.

Emily, when and how did you get involved?

Shur: Hank and I first talked about the idea in 2016, leading up to when we shot it in 2018.

Thomas: The shoot was really cool because I think we have very different ways of working and doing things. For myself and I think for Emily – with whom I do have a very deep, long running relationship and a lot of trust – this was kind of the best-case scenario where it was the perfect middle ground for us to be able to kind of converge around something that was conceptually important, but also very technically challenging, and a lot of creative decisions to be made that would have a lasting effect.

Norman Rockwell’s “Four Freedoms” series (Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, Freedom from Fear), all 1943
“The ethos of these images, which is that everyone should be valued and that the community should be seen as inclusive, is something we all subscribe to.”
- Hank Willis Thomas

So I’d imagine a critical part of this is the people you recruited for the images. How did you initiate that process?

Thomas: There was an event in LA that we decided would be a kind of a great place to be a casting hub.

When we thought about making these images, we thought we were going to try to make four very good images. And it quickly… Emily, you can describe that experience.

Shur: I think we photographed over 100 people. We weren't turning people away.

How much did you want to preserve from the original Rockwell images?

Shur: We were trying to make it very clear that these were reimaginings of those particular Rockwell “Four Freedoms” paintings. So we did make efforts to be accurate in ways that we were able to in photography.

Thomas: The creative gesture of choosing to remake history with hundreds of strangers was kind of his own artwork. We were trying to be both sensitive to various political perspectives, but also to create a sense of a circumstance where the ethos of these images, which is that everyone should be valued and that the community should be seen as inclusive, is something we all subscribe to.

Four Freedoms Photographs, by Artists Hank Willis Thomas and Emily Shur in collaboration with Eric Gottesman and Wyatt Gallery of For Freedoms

Did you have an idea for a broader platform for these images at the time?

Thomas: We knew we wanted the “Four Freedoms” billboards. And ironically, we didn’t really use them for billboards. The first place it was widely distributed was on the cover of Time magazine.

And in the end, rather than having four versions, we wound up having 16 different versions of Rockwell’s “Four Freedoms” with different people featured. And that was a really critical thing because when we started to photograph, we realized there shouldn’t be one archetype of a person who has each platform. So the fact that we were blessed with so many people showing up actually gave us a reason or the responsibility to actually show more.

Would you consider remaking other works? 

Thomas: I thought about it. But I think it has to be the right thing at the right time in the right way.


Visions of America

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