Book note: Two volumes of photography capture mid-century Minnesota


With the sesquicentennial upon us, it’s time once again to go searching for the soul of Minnesota. The last time we did this was in the state’s centennial year of 1958, and two books of photography published this spring take us back to that era. Both contain vivid images and serve as time capsules of mid-century Minnesota, but there the similarities between the two volumes largely end.

The Face of Minnesota by John Szarkowski, published by the University of Minnesota Press (1958; new edition, 2008). $49.95. Suburban World by Brad Zellar, published by Borealis Books (2008). $27.95. A selection of Irwin Norling’s photos are on display at the Minnesota History Center from April 1-June 15.

The Face of Minnesota is a photographic survey of the state’s people and places, originally commissioned by the University of Minnesota Press and the Minnesota Statehood Centennial Commission. John Szarkowski was an established photographer who set out to capture the breadth and depth of life in the centennial Gopher State. Szarkowski would go on to legendary status as director of the photography department at New York’s Museum of Modern Art from 1962 to 1991—and yet The Face of Minnesota has been out of print for decades. The University of Minnesota Press has now reissued Szarkowski’s book in a new edition painstakingly prepared with the cooperation of Szarkowski, who died in 2007.

© Estate of John Szarkowski
courtesy Estate of John Szarkowski and Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York

Szarkowski’s astonishingly beautiful images hit all the iconic bases, from farm families to towering pines to greasy miners to church-going children. Everyday life has rarely looked so good. Szarkowski’s work is impeccable from a technical standpoint—his framing and tone control are consistently pitch-perfect—but he is also a careful craftsman of emotion. The photographs in The Face of Minnesota feel honest, simple, and affectionate. Although the reader is left with an overwhelmingly positive impression of Minnesota and its people, there’s hardly a whiff of chamber-of-commerce boosterism in Szarkowski’s images and accompanying text.

There were, however, photographic possibilities Szarkowski didn’t pursue. For those, we fortunately have one Irwin Norling, self-appointed town photographer for the boomtown that was Bloomington in the 1950s and 60s. Norling’s work, discovered in the city archives and edited by Brad Zellar, is now available in the book Suburban World.

Norling slept next to the police scanner, and when a Chevy missed a turn or a pot dealer was busted, Norling was there with his Speed Graphic. It was a thrill for Norling and his family (“we were always rockin’ and rollin’ 24/7,” remembers his son), and the police appreciated the evidence. Norling’s work, however, went beyond crime scenes: he documented smiling Shriners and proud parents, subdivisions and service stations, weddings and rodeos. Suburban World captures a broad swath of life in mid-century Bloomington, from placid domestic tableaus to grisly tragedies.

Photo by Irwin Norling, courtesy Borealis Books

Some viewers (including Zellar, in his introduction to Suburban World) have sought to assign Norling to an aesthetic, likening him to his contemporary candid crusader Weegee. Reading Suburban World back-to-back with The Face of Minnesota, however, tends to support Norling’s own assertion that he was no highfalutin artist. Norling’s photos have a charm and, as Zellar observes, a consistent style, but he did not aim to seduce the eye as Szarkowski did. He pointed and he shot. Whereas The Face of Minnesota feels like the coffee table tome it is, Suburban World feels a bit like a family album—albeit the album of a family with a peculiar history of accidental violence.

Suburban World, then, is a useful complement to The Face of Minnesota. For all his honesty, Szarkowski approached Minnesota as a Big Subject—and the text accompanying the images sounds a pleasantly purple tone. Referring to Szarkowskian phrases like, “time does not consecrate that in which she has been denied,” Verlyn Klinkenborg (in a new introduction) notes that “this is not a rhetoric we smoke any more.”

Norling had no such agenda, and his candid shots thus speak with a less ponderous form of honesty. Cops hanging out, waiting to nab speeders…what could be more authentically Minnesotan? That said, Szarkowski’s gorgeous volume suggests that perhaps from time to time—say, on the occasion of a centennial or sesquicentennial—approaching our state as a Big Subject isn’t such a bad idea.

Jay Gabler is the Daily Planet’s arts editor.