The Norling Archive

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

I met Irwin and Dave a few days later at the elder Norling's apartment in New Brighton. There were paintings on the wall, and I noted a cluttered desk and an old Commodore computer. There was not, however, a single photograph in evidence. Irwin didn't look much different from the man in that 1956 family Christmas-card photo.

Both father and son clearly had fond memories of Norling's photographic career, such as it was. It quickly became apparent that Irwin never thought of taking pictures as anything but a hobby. Because although Irwin Norling shot thousands of photos of life in and around Bloomington for more than 30 years, and sold these pictures to newspapers, television stations, insurance companies, and lawyers, he didn't really consider himself a professional photographer. Norling did have a long freelance association with the Bloomington Sun newspaper, but for 38 years his real job was as a measuring specialist, tool designer, and draftsman for Honeywell.

When I made the ridiculous mistake of asking him about his aesthetic, Norling scoffed openly and professed to be unsure what the word meant. I may as well have asked him if he enjoyed wearing women's underwear.

 

Norling’s photos nonetheless have a consistent style, marked by a slight standoffishness and a perfectionist’s obsession with framing. There’s nothing quirky or self-conscious about Norling’s work; if anything, there’s a stubborn reticence that calls attention to itself through the photographer’s refusal to intrude on the scenes he’s documenting. With very few exceptions Norling’s photographs were all taken around the community. He rarely strayed outside Bloomington and the surrounding area. His darkroom was in his basement, and he did almost all of his own processing. There was no one, he said, that he could point to as an influence; the only other photographers he concerned himself with were the locals he ran into when he was out shooting a story.

What drove him, he admitted, was the desire to beat those guys at the big papers, guys who had once upon a time denied him membership in the local professional photographers' association. "I never considered myself a professional photographer," Norling told me. "But I was sure competing with professionals, and it was a point of pride to beat them on a regular basis. There was nothing I liked better than to get to a scene and shoot my pictures, and then when the guys from the big papers showed up I'd say, 'What took you so long?'"

Norling grew up in south Minneapolis and attended Roosevelt High School. He was born with a rare genetic form of muscular dystrophy--limb girdle md--that would flare up and then go into remission. After graduating high school in 1935, "I was into a little bit of everything," he said. "This was during the depression, and my dad was having a hard time making ends meet, so I did whatever I could to help out. I hauled ashes to the dump, worked as a punch press operator, and sold insurance for Minnesota Mutual. Then I went to work for Honeywell, and I ended up working for them for 37 years, three months, and 17 days."

Norling married his wife June in 1943. "We were looking for a hobby that we could both enjoy," he said. "So we took a photography course at Bryant Junior High. The teacher was an Associated Press photographer, and I discovered that I had a natural aptitude for taking pictures. It came easy to me, and I really enjoyed the technical aspects. One thing led to another, and before long whenever this ap guy would have to go out of town I would take over teaching the class for him. Eventually I started going out on assignments with him as well, tagging along and taking pictures. I can still remember the first time the ap sent one of my photos out nationwide. It was a photo of a labor strike, and it went out under this other guy's name, of course, but it was still quite a thrill."

It didn't take Norling long to catch the bug, and by the time the family moved out to Bloomington in 1953 Irwin had a police radio that he never turned off. "I was going out to shoot photos at all hours of the day and night," he remembered. "And all this time I was still working eight hours a day at Honeywell, plus overtime." He learned the business side of the photo racket pretty quickly as well, and started submitting his pictures to the Sun. Norling also offered his services to the police, free of charge, and cultivated a mutually advantageous relationship with the bpd. "If they wanted photos," he said, "I always provided them gratis. A lot of these accident or crime scene photos would come in handy as evidence, and the cops eventually became my best salesmen. If an attorney or an insurance company wanted photos, the police department would refer them to me, and these people would have to pay for them. I knew I liked to take pictures, and I discovered that I liked it even more when I realized I could make money at it."

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