The Norling Archive

Suppose one of the great lost American photo collections were sitting in a basement in Bloomington...

 The dank little room is crowded with shelves and trunks stacked with all manner of inexplicable stuff. History, I guess. Norling's negatives are filed in a smaller cabinet, all collated by number and date and immaculately indexed in a fat three-ring binder. The trail of their captions, which commence in the late 1940s and trail off in the early '80s, is fascinating: Suicide at airport. Polio victim dancing with girls. Mrs. Hughes using chopsticks. Mrs. Don Anderson and turtle. Baby born with teeth. Accident, 78th and Xerxes, 13 injured. Paul Bunyan getting a Beatle haircut. Slugging at 90th and Penn. Joe Williams and mushrooms. Christmas party for retarded. Ruby Peterson found dead in yard.

The sheer range of subjects is mind-boggling. There are hundreds of portraits of Shriners, shots of donkey baseball games, parades, rodeos, city council meetings, fires, and horrific car crashes. There are family Christmas-card photos, documents of drug busts, and periodic shots of Met Stadium going up; there are pancake breakfasts, weddings, and murder-suicides.

I'm guessing you've never heard of Irwin Norling. But then, until recently, neither had I.

 

The Bloomington Historical Society is located in the old town hall at 102nd and Penn. The place is run by volunteers and is open only for a few hours on Sunday afternoons. One weekend I decided to drive out there and root around. I was hoping to find some photos of the 494 strip from its salad days as the local epicenter of bright lights, big city swank. The little Bloomington museum features plenty of interesting local history, but not, unfortunately, much of more recent vintage. I was told, however, that somewhere in the basement there was allegedly a collection of contemporary images donated to the society by a local photographer's family some years ago.

Let's take a look, I said. I followed my guide down into the basement and we poked around in a couple of storerooms crowded with boxes. Finally we made our way to the last room at the end of a hall, and it was there that I found the remains of Irwin Norling's obscure and obsessive lifelong quest to chronicle life in the Twin Cities' first suburb, from its days as a relatively isolated little community on the outskirts of Minneapolis to the boom years that saw the construction of 35W and 494, Met Stadium, Met Center, and the strip of industry, hotels, restaurants, and nightclubs that put the city on the metropolitan map for good.

I wasn't more than a couple hundred photographs into the bottom drawer of the file cabinet and I knew that I was looking at an astonishing record of life in one American community. I spent much of the afternoon wading through those files, incredulous. What the hell was this? Who was this guy? And, a more pressing thought: What had I gotten myself into?

The fellow who was holding down the fort that afternoon had never heard of Norling and knew nothing about the collection. Back home I typed the photographer's name into various Internet search engines but found no matches.

A few days later I made an appointment to get back into the Historical Society to take another look at the photographs. They were even more mind-blowing the second time around. I uncovered all sorts of marvelous photos I had somehow missed during my first visit. I also discovered prints that were credited to other Norlings: David, Mike, and June. In the index I noted that nearly every photograph of the Norling family, along with the negatives, had been removed from the archive, the citations carefully crossed out with a marker. I did, however, find one picture of the Norlings, filed out of sequence--a portrait of the family taken in a living room. In the photo a cord is clearly visible running across the floor and disappearing into the cushion of Irwin's easy chair; you can see the button for the self-timer clenched in his fist. There are five people in the picture--Irwin, June, Patricia, Michael, and David Norling, according to the inscription on the back--and a sleeping dog is slumped at Irwin's feet. The flash of the camera is reflected in the photographer's glasses, and the framing is slightly off--the want ads from the Sunday Tribune are inexplicably splayed on the floor in the lower right-hand corner--making this family portrait easily the most incongruous photo in the entire Norling collection.

 

Over the next week I made calls to random Norlings in the phone book, as well as the community newspapers and the Bloomington City Hall, but didnít manage to turn up any further information on the photographer. I eventually talked with Ron Whitehead, the cityís acting police chief. Whitehead had gone to school with one of the Norling boys, it turned out, and he also recalled Irwin as someone who had done work for the department back in the day. He came up with a phone number for Dave Norling in New Brighton, where he was a CPA. More astonishing, Whitehead informed me that Irwin was still around, living in an assisted care facility somewhere in the suburbs. I talked with Dave Norling a few minutes later and he seemed both mildly amused and nonplussed by my interest. Irwin, he told me, was 86 years old and confined to a wheelchair with muscular dystrophy, but was otherwise plenty sharp. He gave me the old man's number. When I called the photographer he was talkative, modest to a fault, and as sharp as advertised. We chatted for a while and set up a time for me to come out to visit him.

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