Photos document era

"Suburban World: The Norling Photos"

By Brad Zellar, published by the Minnesota Historical Society Press at $27.95.

An exhibit of 40 of the photos, along with other material related to the Norling family and Bloomington’s history, opened recently at the Minnesota History Center, 345 Kellogg Blvd. W., St. Paul.

By Tom Weber


When Brad Zellar first stumbled across the stash of photographs in the basement of the Bloomington Historical Society, he was mystified and amazed.

There were 10,000 photos and negatives, all neatly organized and stamped with the name of a photographer he didn’t recognize.

"I was obsessed with them immediately," Zellar, an Austin native now living in the Twin Cities, said. "I looked at them and left with so many questions that I wanted to go back immediately."

Over the ensuing weeks and months, Zellar turned his obsession into a detective-like search, and eventually tracked down the photographer himself, Irwin Norling.

For two decades, Norling, helped by his wife and three kids, photographed practically anything and everything that took place in the fast-growing suburb of Bloomington: parades, ballgames, pancake breakfasts and school openings, as well as accidents, fires and violent crimes.

The photos, Zellar realized, represented nothing short of a documentary look at an era in American life. He has published 135 of the photos in a new book, "Suburban World: The Norling Photos," published by the Minnesota Historical Society.

"Obviously, if you drive around Bloomington today, it’s a radically different place than it was then," Zellar said. "I wanted to capture the range of subjects and the timespan. Bloomington was really the classic example of the growth of the American suburb."

The photographs, all in black and white, are stark in their honesty. While they shed light on a suburban life in the 1950s and ’60s, they do so without nostalgia. That’s the way Norling, a Honeywell engineer, shot the pictures, Zellar said.


"They’re all very stand-offish," he said. "I wouldn’t call them intimate. He kept a certain distance. Everything is sort of approached as evidence of some sort or another."

Zellar’s search for the photographer eventually led to one of his sons. It turned out the entire family, including a daughter who now lives in Rochester, took part in the photography missions. The family rolled out of their Bloomington house at all hours of day or night to take photos of life — and death — in their suburb.

Finally, Zellar was able to meet Irwin Norling, who was living in assisted living facility. Norling died shortly after Zellar interviewed him.

"He was an extremely interesting guy," Zellar said. "He didn’t consider himself a professional photographer."

He also perhaps never realized the legacy of his photographic hobby. "He refused to even think of the photos as art," Zellar said.

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Suburban World exhibit

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