Kevin Rivoli '83 Puts A Stamp on Norman Rockwell's America
Kevin Rivoli ’83 submitted his own black-and-white images for this feature of his “Norman Rockwell” moments, including this self-portrait of him looking into a mirror.
By Jennifer Wilson
GLEN HAVEN, N.Y. — It was a purely Norman Rockwell moment.
Inside a quaint, one-room schoolhouse, energetic book author Kevin Rivoli ’83 gesticulates through his slide presentation. Rapt listeners, representing a cross section of small-town America, squirm in tiny, child-sized, school-desk seats or lounge in woven lawn chairs they had so astutely carried in from the deck overlooking the southernmost end of Skaneateles Lake.
Off to one side, Charles W. Jermy ’68 ’70, a Cornell University dean, proudly scans the mid-September gathering of the Glen Haven (N.Y.) Historical Society. A 30-year society member, he has invited Rivoli this evening to discuss his passion for photographing Norman Rockwell vignettes.
“I’m showing you images you see every day, but if you’re not paying attention that you might miss,” Rivoli tells his audience. “My twin sons, Jack and Nick, bounding down the stairs on Christmas Day. A slice of life from my in-laws’ large Italian family.
“Norman Rockwell educated us about how we see the world,” observes Rivoli, the recipient of more than four dozen state and national photo awards, including the New York State Associated Press Bruce Cromie Award in 1999. His work has appeared in Sports Illustrated, The New York Times, The Associated Press and USA Today.
In 2008, Rivoli wrote a book called In Search of Norman Rockwell’s America (Simon & Schuster Adult Publishing Group). In June 2009, he began a two-year traveling exhibition in the U.S. and Japan that featured his works alongside Norman Rockwell paintings.
While debate has circulated over whether Rockwell’s art depicted life or merely artifice and propaganda, Rivoli’s book vigorously asserts that the idealistic, all-American views found in Rockwell’s classic illustrations are accurate and timeless representations of the nation.
This black-and-white photographic image by Kevin Rivoli ’83, titled “Old Friends,” appears side-by-side with a Norman Rockwell graphic in Rivoli’s 2008 book, titled In Search of Norman Rockwell’s America.
“I always enjoyed Rockwell’s work, but I only knew what everyone else knew about him,” Rivoli says. That was until his own self-taught camera work opened his eyes to how portraits can celebrate the everyday lives of ordinary folks.
“I did not take a Rockwell picture and then look for a copy of it,” admits Rivoli, who explains that Rockwell’s staff created illustrations out of life experiences by painstakingly photographing staged portraits and then designing the graphic images from those preliminary studies.
“I, on the other hand, work in fractions of a second,” Rivoli says. Despite those significant differences, he began to notice patterns between his work and Rockwell’s themes. One day he and his wife, Michele, sifted through his work and extracted contemporary photos that hearkened back to Rockwell’s yesteryear sketches — prom couples relaxing at an all-night diner; a youngster meeting the imposing-but-kind police officer; tots in droll costumes comparing their Halloween loot; kids and animals; and animals and kids.
“Norman Rockwell advised that if a picture wasn’t going very well, put a puppy in it,” Rivoli tells the amused audience. He flashes Norman Rockwell prints on the projection screen paired with his own black-and-white photos culled from two decades as an upstate New York professional photographer. He worked closely with the Rockwell estate for permission to do so.
“They loved the concept,” Rivoli says. “It was new. It was fresh. It would introduce Norman Rockwell to a new generation.” The picture book caught Jermy’s attention.
“Before the Prom,” a photo take by Kevin Rivoli '83 is featured in his book, titled In Search of Norman Rockwell’s America.
Reflecting on his own experience, Rivoli says his connection to Rockwell-like images began long before his time at SUNY Cortland and can be traced to his memories of watching his Italian uncles gather around the table during the holidays for a lively game of cards.
“My father passed away when I was 8 and my mother never remarried,” he concludes. “She did her best to give me a Norman Rockwell childhood.”