The Norling Archive

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

One afternoon when Mike Norling was 16 and had just started driving, a phone call came to his school. "If something came up and Dad was at work," he remembers, "the police would call the school and the principal would come and get me out of class to go take pictures. He'd show up and hand me an address, and off I'd go.

"So this one day he shows up at the door of my class and tells me there's been a murder-suicide in Bloomington and they need me to go over there to take pictures. I get over to this house and there are all these photographers and reporters from the big newspapers and television stations standing outside, and this police sergeant comes to the door and waves me in. I went in there and took the pictures, and when I came back out all these other guys are wondering what the heck is going on. What's this kid doing here?"

"Mike was a big boy that day," Irwin told me. "Here are all these other guys who are old enough to be his dad, and they're peppering him with questions and he just says, 'Sorry, fellas, you'll have to talk to the police.'"


If all Irwin Norling had done was haunt accident and crime scenes with his camera, he still would have left behind an astonishing photographic record. But what distinguishes the Norling collection is its startling range, the juxtapositions and contrasts that emerge again and again—small-town scenes so impossibly wholesome that they look like Hollywood movie stills will segue abruptly into scenes of the darkest noir.

Norling was active in the Bloomington scene, such as it was. He belonged to the Masons for 40 years and served as president of the Lions Club. He was also an active member of the local Episcopalian church and a founder of the city's emergency communications department. All of these associations--along with his ties to the police department--provided other opportunities to snap a few pictures and make a few bucks. During a time when Bloomington was experiencing rapid growth and development, building highways and courting industry and major league sports, Norling was in the middle of it all, documenting the city's transition from small American town to adjunct of a burgeoning metropolis. This transformation is one of the abiding subjects of Norling's photos.

The archive has the effect of a time-lapse historical newsreel. To quote the critic Walter Benjamin, who understood better than anyone the disorienting power of photography (as well as time's ability to obliterate the memories that photos strive to preserve), the "outskirts are the state of emergency of a city, the terrain on which incessantly rages the decisive battle between town and country." In Norling's photos you see the town of Bloomington losing that battle, step by step. Country roads become freeways. A charming old general store burns, and you see sports stadiums and businesses and the bland, unmistakable signposts of suburbia spreading across the countryside. In the contrast between the most intensely private moments--the unspeakably lonely spectacle of dead bodies on dark highways, or of priests performing last rites--and documents of the corniest public events, the Norling photographs capture a blurred and uneasy middle ground between imagination and experience.


"I think for all of us, but especially for Dad, photography was just a hobby," Dave Norling says. "A hobby that got out of hand, but still just a hobby. We took the photos and that was pretty much it. We didn't spend time looking at them or talking about them."

“It was mad money,” Irwin told me. “The Honeywell check went right to my wife, and whatever I could scrape together from photography went into my pocket. It paid for the kids’ educations and bought their cars, so it was good for something. And there was always a challenge to it that I enjoyed. A camera tells it like it is, and what it boiled down to was that I was taking still-life photographs. Sometimes literally so. I’d still be taking photos today if I could hold a camera.”


Irwin Norling died on February 5 at his home in New Brighton. His funeral, at St. Christopher’s Episcopal Church in Roseville, was an appropriately modest affair, attended by a small gathering of family and friends. His ashes sat at the front of the church in a plain cardboard box, with a white paper label bearing his name affixed to the top with packing tape. The minister at the service admitted that she had never met Norling. She mentioned his interest in photography merely in passing. Afterward, Mike Norling assured his grandson that Irwin would get a better box. As for the old man’s legacy, Mike recalled phoning his sister in Rochester and being oddly stirred to hear the reassuring squawking of her police scanner in the background.

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