For generations, Maine people have looked forward to receiving L.L. Bean catalogs in the mail. The iconic company, with roots in the snow drifts and vast forests of the Pine Tree State, has never failed to display the spirit of Maine sporting heritage on each catalog cover, through colorful paintings and drawings of numerous artists.
In honor of this tradition and as a part of L.L.Bean’s 100th anniversary celebration, creative teams banded together to revive and re-create four classic catalog covers from years past. But this time, the images weren’t drafted in pen or paintbrush, they were constructed in real life and photographed by award-winning photographer Randal Ford.
“I’ve always thought that the best photos have the ability to tell stories with one single image, a narrative in one moment,” Ford said during a recent phone interview from his home in Austin. “In that regard, it was really a perfect assignment for me.”
To start off the project, it fell to L.L.Bean Vice President Creative Director Marcia Minter to pinpoint what cover art from the past would be re-created. She delved into the company’s archives in search for images that strongly reflect L.L.Bean products, history, philosophy and Maine roots.
“I really wanted to look for covers out of our archive that really resonated with the brand personality, that demonstrated the wit and humor L.L. [Bean, the company’s founder,] was known for,” said Minter.
She also searched for cover art displaying classic L.L.Bean merchandise — practical clothing items, tried-and-true sporting goods and traditional gear still sold by the company today.
Minter ended up with four covers for Ford to work with: the 1933 spring catalog cover, 1956 spring catalog cover, 1966 spring catalog cover and a cover yet to be revealed. She knew that Ford, with his commitment to authenticity, details and the American story, was the right photographer for the project.
“When [the L.L.Bean creative directors] approached me, I was thrilled do the assignment, and for a company as iconic as L.L.Bean, it was an honor,” said Ford, whose projects have ranged from portraits of exonerees and celebrities, to a woman in a bathtub of snakes, to videos for the Austin Humane Society.
Ford’s photo illustrations of these covers adorn L.L.Bean’s seasonal catalogs, three of which have already been sent out to the public.
Online, the project has received enthusiastic comments from L.L.Bean customers.
“This is one of the things that makes L.L.Bean an American classic,” posted L.L.Bean customer “Steve” on L.L.Bean’s blog in response to the 2012 spring catalog cover photo illustration by Ford, which was based on cover art from a 1956 catalog — a man holding just-caught fish up to his wife, his young daughter slung over his shoulder asleep.
Another commenter simply posts, “Camera magic.”
“It’s kind of like recreating a classic movie or something,” Ford said. “We wanted to stay true to the originals and pay homage to the original artist, while also photographically modernizing them.”
The third and most recent re-creation, the cover of L.L.Bean’s fall 2012 catalog, is based on the painting “The Perfect Spot” by Glen Fleischman, the original catalog cover from 1966. The painting is a familiar Maine scene: a car with a canoe fastened to the top parked on the side of the road, the driver and passengers piling out to enjoy a beautiful view of the Maine countryside.
“This family is pulled up to this beautiful spot. It’s a crisp fall Maine day. There could be a million different things going on,” said Ford, who conducted all three shoots at various locations in Acadia National Park during September of 2011.
Along with Minter and Ford, a whole crew of creative people were involved in the shoots, including a production team from New York City, L.L.Bean production specialists, prop and wardrobe stylists and Ford’s lighting crew and digital technicians.
“It’s definitely in the details,” Ford said. “There’s just so much effort and time and hard work put into the details in this shot to really make it happen.”
The three models in the composition are everyday people with L.L.Bean ties, and while their clothing style is from the ’60s, they’re actually wearing classic L.L.Bean attire that’s available in stores today.
The woman exiting the sleek red car and sporting a denim shirt dress from L.L.Bean’s Signature collection is freelance stylist Basha Burwell, who has worked with L.L.Bean for many years. Her husband, acclaimed writer Peter Behrens, is the one casually smoking the pipe. And the man with the binoculars is L.L.Bean employee Tom Cavanaugh.
“The fall cover was from the ’60s, so in terms of wardrobe, the car, the trailer, all of the details, we wanted to make sure all the items we used to re-create the cover, from a styling standpoint, were legit representations of that time,” said Minter.
The original painting looks down on the car and the people, a bird’s-eye perspective. So the most challenging aspect of the photoshoot was getting Ford high enough in the air. They turned to a construction company and used a boom lift, but they still couldn’t get him quite high enough.
“Any time you’re trying to photographically re-create a painting, the thing is — and I’m going to say the most obvious thing — paintings are not photographs,” Ford said. “Things aren’t always drawn and painted in a true life perspective, so you have to keep that in mind and have a little bit of flexibility.”
During the shoot, Ford didn’t simply place the models in position, he asked them to move, to walk and step out of the vehicle. He even directed a dog. The final photographic composition is actually several photos digitally combined and finessed. The end result is a photographic illustration that can easily be mistaken as a painting.
“I loved the fact that it required so many elements,” Minter said. “It felt like making a little mini movie. And [I loved] the creative process of getting things right from a historical context, and at the same time having some creative license with it.”
The fourth and final photographic re-creation will be delivered to mailboxes this winter for the holiday season. The cover was shot on Feb. 2012, because they needed snow and insisted on shooting all four covers in Maine.
“[L.L.Bean] is one of, if not the only, multichannel merchant — with online, in-store and catalog sales — that uses illustration as our primary communication vehicle with our customers,” Minter said. “It defines us as a brand and is an important part of our history.”
For free copies of the catalogs or to purchase a canvas print of Ford’s photo illustrations, visit www.llbean.com or call 800-441-5713. To stay up-to-date on L.L.Bean 100th anniversary events and products, visit 100.llbean.com. Visit Randal Ford’s artist website at www.randalford.com.
An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Randal Ford lives in Houston. He lives in Austin.