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Norling exhibit: Suburbia in all its gore and glory

If you look closely at a 1950s film of two guys pouring concrete for one of the first so-called Anderson homes, you can see the beginnings of suburban America and the foreshadowing of the baby boom.

Rodeo queen contestants and kids, 1956
Photo by Irwin Norling
Rodeo queen contestants and kids, 1956.

One of the first things visitors see at the Minnesota History Center’s new “Suburban World: The Norling Photos” exhibit is a pristine 16-millimeter film of two guys in white T-shirts pouring concrete for one of the first so-called “Anderson homes,” which sprang up on the Bloomington prairie like wildflowers in the 1950s.

The film is newsreel-stark and otherwise nothing special, but if you look closely, you can see in that wet concrete the beginnings of suburban America and the foreshadowing of the baby boom. Juxtaposed with the rest of the film montage and the dozens of photos of various characters and oddities that dot the museum walls, the birth of the cookie-cutter home becomes both valuable document and poetic elegy for suburbia in all its promise, simplicity, conformity and strangeness.

“They knocked off those [Marv] Anderson homes one after another,” says Brad Zellar, author of the book, “Suburban World: The Norling Photos” a couple of days after the exhibit’s opening last week. The opening brought out the likes of Bloomington Mayor Gene Winstead, former Bloomington police chief Jim Brekken, members of the Norling family, and many of Zellar’s friends, family and colleagues in the writing and alt-journalism racket.

“In postwar ’50s, everybody was throwing up homes in those new developments, and that was their big dream,” says Zellar. “And [photographer Irwin Norling] had taken block-by-block photos of these generic developments going up. It’s almost like the middle-class version of the projects.”

A treasure trove of prints
Norling’s photo collection was originally the subject of a 2003 City Pages cover story by Zellar. He had visited the Bloomington Historical Society to research the heyday of the Interstate 494 strip in all its dinner-theater glory. But he knew he was on to something when he opened a cabinet and discovered the treasure trove of 10,000 prints and negatives that suggest Diane Arbus doing “Wisconsin Death Trip.” Or, as photographer Alec Soth writes in the book’s forward, “Irwin Norling spent his life photographing a single, first-ring suburb in the northern Midwest. In doing so, Norling makes Bloomington as distinctive and absorbing as Atget’s Paris or Weegee’s New York. And while that might come as a shock to Parisians and New Yorkers, he makes Bloomington just as meaningful.”

Irwin Norling
Photo by Irwin Norling
Irwin Norling

No hyperbole, there: Norling was an obsessive photographer who spent all hours of the day and night in the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s shooting everything from mug shots to car crashes to weddings, parties, anything. He was always on the job, and because he lived in a time when cameras weren’t the omnipresent point-and-click presence they are now, he gained all sorts of access to all sorts of situations. As such, his subjects often give off the air of being taken seriously — perhaps for the first time.

“Everybody sees something different in those photos; that’s been the most interesting part about doing the book and the exhibit,” says Zellar. “Some people see it as sociology, or history, and as this time-lapse glimpse of American society and the acceleration of growth and change. Some people love the weirdness and the mystery of the photos, which is how I see it. [Norling] wrote very terse, very factual captions and that’s it, so you’re looking at it going, ‘What the hell is going on here?’ Those are the ones I like best — the ones that are sort of disorienting.

If it happened, he photographed it

“I’m still staggered by how a guy who was a full-time Honeywell tool designer and father of three managed to go out and shoot that many photos and involve the whole family in it. I mean, he didn’t just take the photos; he processed them, too. The guy literally shot everything. If it happened out there, he seemed to shoot it. You could do four or five books. He had just building shots, from ground-breaking to completion. He had hundreds and hundreds of shots of civic meetings, crime scenes, fires, parades, baseball games. There were tons of shots of the (Minneapolis) Millers. You could do an entire sports book.”

Bloomington Shrine Club officers, 1960
Photo by Irwin Norling
Bloomington Shrine Club officers, 1960.

His work done (or is it?), Zellar admits he’s “haunted” by the photos that didn’t make it into the book or exhibit, and that to some degree Norling’s “style” — which involved not engaging the subject, but asking them to look away from the camera so as to procure a more “natural” shot — hasn’t been fully represented. 

“You really have to see all of the photos to get the full impact,” sighs Zellar. “It’s an obsessive monument the likes of which I’ve never seen.”

One photo that did make it into the book is a shot that depicts the aftermath of a 1950 plane crash on Dupont Avenue and the Minnehaha Parkway, a little-known tragedy that has long been part of South Minneapolis lore.

“There’s some 16-millimeter film of that that [Norling’s wife June] shot that is really grisly,” says Zellar. “A lot of that 16-millimeter stuff is pretty shocking. There was nothing subtle about it then. There was one film where there were seven people in a car accident, four were dead, and cops and bystanders were just grabbing these people and pulling them out through jagged car windows. It’s just like, ‘Holy shit. If they weren’t dead, they are now.’ “

What: “Suburban World: The Norling Photos”
When: Through June 15, 2008
Where: Minnesota History Center, 345 W. Kellogg Blvd., St. Paul
Call: 651-259-3000

Brad Zellar will read from “Suburban World: The Norling Photos” (Borealis Books) April 16 (7:30 p.m), at Magers & Quinn Booksellers, 3038 Hennepin; 612-822-4611