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 didn’t manage to turn up any further information on the photographer. I eventually talked with Ron Whitehead, the city’s 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.

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."

In the early days Norling would often be called to an accident scene to document the evidence--location, relevant road signs, skid marks. "I learned pretty early on, though," he said, "that 30 feet of skid marks were a whole lot more interesting as a photograph if there was a wrecked car sitting at the end of them."

Judging by Norling's photographs from this period, the roads around Bloomington in those days were mean streets indeed. Much of his early work predates the construction of 494 and 35w, and his archives are crammed with documents of head-on collisions along dark two-lane roads littered with impossibly tangled vehicles, auto parts, and dead bodies.

 

As Norling’s pastime grew more demanding, it became a family affair. “When that police scanner went off, it didn’t matter what time of the night it was,” Dave Norling told me. “In a matter of minutes all of us were up and in the car.” There were occasions when the family would beat the police to the scene, which, Irwin’s daughter Pat told me, was considered bad form. From the start June Norling took some of the pictures herself, and as soon as the three kids were old enough to hold a camera they started shooting too. Most of Irwin Norling's early work was done with a big Speed Graphics camera, a cumbersome, wholly manual piece of equipment that could hold only two pieces of film at a time, one exposure on either side of a Bakelite holder that needed to be flipped between shots. The hot flashbulbs had to be changed after every exposure.

"Eventually we had police radios and scanners in pretty much every room of the house," Mike says. The middle of the Norling children, Mike now lives in Virginia and is recently retired from a career as a photographic analyst in the military. "We were rockin' and rollin' 24-7. Dad literally slept with a scanner under his pillow, and the emergency tone on those radios was like an alarm clock. It would go off and we'd all run out in the dead of night, and we'd be changing out of our pajamas in the car. The first guy out of the house got to ride shotgun with Dad."

June and the kids would tote the gadget bag, shuttle film back and forth to the car, and generally serve as Irwin's gofers. Irwin had a collection of light-sensitive solenoids and would send the kids out to ring an accident scene. "We'd spread out 50 or 60 yards around the scene," Mike recalls. "And when Dad would shoot, his flash would set off all these solenoids, so we could illuminate a huge area."

"We'd all take pictures," Dave says. "But we were really there for one reason: to be Dad's legs and to help out with whatever he needed."

 

The experience of accompanying their father to car accidents, fires, and crime scenes in the middle of the night made for a curious childhood. All of the Norling kids confess to having witnessed breathtaking carnage at an age when most of their peers were still playing with dolls and toy soldiers. Mike recalls that he was six years old when he shot his first fatal accident. His older sister Pat, now a research librarian at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, says she didn't see her first dead body until she was 10, and Dave admits that he saw and photographed so many casualties that he can't even recall the first one anymore. "They just kind of all blurred together after a while," he says. "We all understood from a very early age that this was an important job. It was just a way of preserving evidence and documenting a moment, and in time it just became sort of matter-of-fact. You had to learn to disassociate yourself emotionally from the scene or you couldn't do it."

Irwin Norling professed to be unfazed by the grim tableaux he often saw through the lens of his camera. "I was solely interested in what sort of information the photos needed to convey if they were going to be of any use to the police department, or in the event that they ended up as court exhibits," he said. "I tended to keep my distance, but if a close-up had some bearing on the story, I'd get it. If there was an open beer can in the front seat I took a picture of it. When I looked into a camera, I was looking for what was there. I wanted to tell the truth, and it wasn't my job to get in the way or try to get too cute."

June Norling never learned to drive, and daughter Pat never developed much interest in taking photos herself. Mike and Dave, though, caught the spirit from their father, and before they were old enough to drive they would accompany Irwin or (when he was at work) race around Bloomington to accident scenes on their bikes. By the time they had cars of their own--outfitted with police scanners and CB radios, of course--the boys were often meeting their father at accident scenes, or even beating him there. With so many family members in on the hunt, the actual images started going out to newspapers bearing the ambiguous credit "Photo by Norling."

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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