Suburban World: The Norling Photos

At the Minnesota History Center
April 1 - June 15, 2008

Long Lost Photography Collection

Long before Bloomington became known around the world as the home of the Mall of America, it was a quintessential American community – one in which the transition from small town to suburb perfectly represented the postwar-era boom. When journalist Brad Zellar discovered a treasure trove of photographs by Irwin Norling in the vaults of the Bloomington Historical Society in 2002, he knew he was onto something special. As Zellar writes, among the 10,000 photos, “[I found] 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.”

Notable not only because of the sheer range and number of photographs, which were taken between the 1940s and ’60s, but also for the story behind them: in addition to Irwin Norling’s obscure and obsessive lifelong quest to chronicle life in the Twin Cities’ first suburb, there was the involvement of his entire family. Irwin Norling and his wife took a community college course in photography to foster a hobby that they could share. The hobby soon became an obsession with the entire family as they acquired seven police scanners. Whenever they went off, Mom, Dad and the three kids grabbed the camera equipment and ran out to the car – jumping straight out of bed in the middle of the night if need be – and the first to reach the front seat would get the prize of riding shotgun with Dad. Then they were on their way to the crime scene or accident, where everyone would help Irwin Norling get the perfect photo.

Norling was a perfectionist, often scribbling critical notes on the backs of his own pictures. And though he always considered himself an amateur, the artistry of his photographs cannot be denied.

The Exhibit

“Suburban World: The Norling Photos” exhibit features more than 40 images, most of which have never been displayed. There will also be recently discovered 16 mm home movies of the Norling family, plus excerpts from the KSTP moving picture archive showing how Bloomington looked in the 1950s-60s.

The Book

Borealis Books will publish “Suburban World: The Norling Photos” by Brad Zellar, with a foreword by Alec Soth, on April 1. In the book, Zellar collects 130 of the best of Norling’s images, creating a fascinating window into the uneasy contradictions in Norling's unforgettable and unself-conscious, funny and gritty portrayal of the not-too-distant past.