Lost images of a “catastrophic suburb”


Several years ago, local journalist Brad Zellar was poking around in the damp, poorly lit basement of the Bloomington Historical Society. He was looking for photographs documenting the construction of I-494. He had tried several other repositories of historical records: each a dead end. In the last room in the Historical Society basement left to search, Zellar found a pair of big filing cabinets standing amid a crowd of clutter. He opened the first drawer, and thumbing through its contents, quickly realized the value of his discovery.

For more information online, see Suburban World at Borealis Books, the Norling exhibit at the Minnesota Historical Society, Brad Zellar’s City Pages article on the Norling archive, and the Norling collection at the Bloomington Historical Society.

“Basically, the range of stuff that you see in the book was evident immediately from that first file drawer,” he told an audience at Magers & Quinn Booksellers on April 16. “In my first glimpse, in the first ten minutes, I saw car accidents, I saw dead bodies, I saw parades, I saw Christmas dinners: the entire range of American community life in the 50s, in one segment of one drawer.”

Also in the Daily Planet, read Jay Gabler on Suburban World and The Face of Minnesota.

Zellar had discovered the work of Irv Norling: an ezpansive collection of 8×10, black-and-white photos from Bloomington’s boom era—the 1950s through the 1970s. Many of the photos were taken on a bulky, old-time camera, capable of two shots per film cartridge. Take a picture. Flip the cartridge. Take another picture. Change the film. The collection totals over 10,000 prints.

Zellar first wrote about the collection in a City Pages feature story. The book, Suburban World: The Norling Photos, was published this year, and photographs from the collection are currently on display in an exhibit at the Minnesota Historical Society. And yet, all of these together barely skim the collection’s surface.

Norling was not a professional photographer. He designed tools at Honeywell until he retired in the late 70s. A couple of months before the City Pages feature came out—and just weeks before Norling’s death—Zellar visited Norling in his assisted living facility. Norling showed Zellar handfuls of his old time cards from Honeywell, where Norling regularly clocked 50- and 60-hour weeks.

With his photography, “[Norling] was clearly on some sort of obsessive mission,” Zellar said. “He did all this in his spare time.” Norling’s wife June and their kids assisted him in setting up equipment and taking pictures. Piling in the car in the middle of the night, they’d race to car crashes and crime scenes. Each of Norling’s three children recalls, before turning ten, having seen splayed corpses. One son claims to have taken his first picture of a dead body at the age of six. With Suburban World, Zellar said he wanted to capture the photos’ disorienting, weird feel—what one radio interviewer called “the Twilight Zone effect.”

Norling’s style was lurid, “whether he was taking portraits or Christmas cards. So everything looks like a car accident.”

Norling studied the work of Twin Cities photojournalists of his time, those who worked for the Associated Press and the two St. Paul papers. Their photos were garish and sensational: typical of tabloid news. But Norling’s style was similarly lurid, said Zellar, “whether he was taking portraits or Christmas cards. So everything looks like a car accident.”

Five distinct veins surface within Norling’s work: architecture, community events, family gatherings, portraiture, and crime scenes. Always ready, Norling loved the chase and often beat police to the scene of crimes. He kept seven police scanners for the purpose, and even slept with one under his pillow. When asked about Norling’s compulsion, Zellar said, “the kids are just like their dad: ‘I dunno, it’s just what we did.'”

One possible motive, Zellar suggested, is that Norling was aware of Bloomington’s accelerating growth and was compelled to capture it. “From the time he started taking these photos in the early ’50s to the time he stopped, none of [the original Bloomington] existed anymore. The place was just completely blown up and made over.”

Zellar describes Bloomington as a “catastrophic suburb.” In the period the book documents—not quite 20 years—Zellar notes that Bloomington went from being a town of 7,800 to being the fourth largest city in the state. Bloomington “had been a very self-contained community,” said Zellar. “As soon as it got plugged in through the arteries of freeways and highways, it was suddenly, wholly transformed. All the locations of his photos, we’d drive to these places and you couldn’t even tell that you were in the same place anymore.”

“A lot of people,” continued Zellar, “just approach it as history, or as their lives. They lived through it. I didn’t. I just wanted interesting, startling images and juxtapositions.” The book is structured, said Zellar, so that the pictures work together to tell a story. “I filtered. I liked the mystery of it. And even despite [Norling’s] captions, after six or seven years [of research], I still don’t know the story behind most of the stuff.”

Norling lived for two decades after he stopped taking photographs. “By his own admission,” said Zellar, “when he retired from Honeywell, he retired—and that meant putting down the camera as well. He bought a Winnebago and he was going to travel. I don’t think he did much of that. His health went downhill pretty quickly.” Norling’s children donated the collection to the Bloomington Historical Society when their father moved into assisted living.

Zellar has made a flurry of appearances to promote the book and the exhibit. His talk at Magers & Quinn was his last scheduled event, the final stop in what Zellar calls “two weeks of craziness.” To handle book promotion, Zellar scheduled ample time off, some months ago, from his regular writing gig with The Rake. In the meantime, The Rake‘s print publication folded. “It hasn’t set in that I’m not working, that I’m unemployed.” Zellar remains uncertain about his prospects, “I really don’t know. It’s a weird market. I’m wide open. I know so many people who are unemployed. I’ve been [writing for a living] for more than 15 years, and the landscape has changed.”

“I owned a used bookstore for a while,” he adds. “Maybe I’ll go back into the book business.”

Daily Planet contributor Jason Ericson (jasondericson@gmail.com) lives in Minneapolis.