Norman Rockwell was a feel-good painter, and nothing epitomizes this so much as his iconic series Four Freedoms. Published by The Saturday Evening Post in 1943, the images depict an idealized vision of society: Citizens assembling at a town hall, worshippers closing their eyes in prayer, relatives gathered around the Thanksgiving table and parents tucking their children into bed. They illustrate the basic freedoms—of speech and religion, and from want and fear—that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt told Congress belong to people “everywhere in the world.”
And yet, despite this uplifting message, Rockwell’s paintings don’t always make everyone feel good. They’re populated by a cast of mostly straight, white characters that hardly reflects the country’s diversity. “America didn’t look like that then,” says Hank Willis Thomas, a conceptual artist based in New York. “It definitely doesn’t look like that now.”
This inspired Thomas and artist Eric Gottesman to found the nonprofit For Freedoms in 2016, creating a hub for “artists, arts institutions, and citizens who want to be more engaged in public life.” This year, they updated its namesake paintings—with help from Thomas’ long-time friend, photographer Emily Shur.
“It was kind of a no-brainer,” she says. “Who doesn’t want to see themselves represented?”
Shur and Thomas put out a call for participants of all races, ethnicities, religions, and political and sexual orientations. Ultimately, more than 150 friends—and friends of friends—showed up for the shoots, including recognizable figures like actor Rosario Dawson, musician Saul Williams, and filmmaker Robert A. Nakamura, who lived in a Japanese-American internment camp as a child (clearly, FDR’s freedoms didn’t extend to everyone).
But turning Rockwell’s masterful paintings into equally powerful photographs wasn’t easy. Though his work has a cinematic quality—he actually referenced snapshots of scenes he staged with family and friends for models—the perspective sometimes defies reality. The people in Freedom From Want, for instance, look equally sharp whether in the foreground or background—something a camera doesn’t do. To remain faithful to Rockwell’s composition, Shur borrowed the artist’s own tricks, creating composite images out of multiple frames.
She tackled a different painting each day during two shoots in Los Angeles. Shur pre-lit the scene with strobes, keeping the lights hot so she could shoot her models as they trickled in. Thomas stood at the monitor, giving creative input, while Shur wielded the Hasselblad, directing the subjects in a variety of poses. “Sometimes it was a matter of giving them some notes on the mood we’re trying to create,” Shur says, “other times it had to be more specific, like, ‘Furrow your brow a little more.'”
Then came the hard part—turning a hard drive with a bunch of folders and JPEGs into something worthy of Rockwell. Shur and Thomas enlisted an army of re-touchers who Frankensteined together up to 40 separate images for each composite in Photoshop. They combined different people from different days and scaled plates, hands, and other details up and down in size. Initially, they were happy to complete just one set of freedoms, but after hitting that milestone, they kept going … and going. The final project contains 82 separate compositions featuring Native Americans, immigrants, LGBTQ people, and so many others left out by the originals.
That effort, then, turns Four Freedoms into an ever-evolving series—not a stagnant one. Even Thomas admits his reimagined Rockwells might one day need updating. “Seventy years from now,” he says, “people might look back and say, ‘Hmm, that was missing.'”