A Writer, a Photographer, a Life, a Town, a World

"Where is Brad Zellar?" you might ask, as his hiatus from The Rake has created quite a void. Happily, he’s been busy promoting his new book, Suburban World: The Norling Photos, from Borealis Books.

Zellar discovered Irwin Norling
in 2002, when he unearthed Norling’s neglected negatives from the
Bloomington Historical Society archives. Struck by the breadth and
depth of the subject matter — everything from family portraits,
Shriners, and donkey baseball games, to car crashes, drug busts, and
murder scenes — and by the "astonishing and remarkably comprehensive
record of life in one American community," Zellar unknowingly began his
quest to compile his first book. The result is an extraordinary photo
essay book featuring Bloomington, MN, from the late 1940s through the ’70s — and the beautiful irony of a veteran journalist exposing an amateur photographer who expertly documented an era.

Brad
Zellar is an accomplished journalist, a brilliant writer, and an
incredible human being. Some might call him a "character" even. And
they wouldn’t be wrong. So, here we have a great character, and a great storyteller, who happens to run into
another character — or at least his work — and gets blown away by it.
Why? Probably because he’s just as much a character, because he’s just
a good a storyteller, and because he has a similarly bleak underbelly.
If you’ve been following Zellar’s Yo, Ivanhoe! blog, you should know that underbelly quite well by now.

Norling
wasn’t your typical photographer. He was just a guy — a guy who took
photos, a guy who was clearly obsessed with documenting life in some
form, and a guy who sat for hours at his police radio waiting for calls
to come in so he could run out and photograph the latest accident, the
latest murder scene, or any other major event, no matter how bleak.

Seems to me he and Zellar would have made a mighty pair.

That
said, the book itself is quite an accomplishment. While it looks like
your typical coffee table book at first glance — something you can
impress your guests with perhaps, but that might serve no purpose
beyond that — this is certainly not the case. Suburban World: The Norling Photos will keep you enthralled from start to finish.

The forward, written by professional photographer Alec Soth,
presents a most honest and provocative perspective on the art of
photography. "Most great pictures aren’t about artistry," writes Soth,
as he goes on to explain how professional photographers have to get over themselves
and avoid pretense in order to take good photos. In the end, his
argument extols the virtues of amateur photography — a most
controversial idea coming from a professional photographer.

Following
Soth’s forward, Zellar steps in with his master story-telling skills.
But what story is he telling? Norling’s? His own? Bloomington’s? All of
the above. Zellar weaves together a story that takes us across
generations and paints a picture of the picture of the picture, and
more. And, frankly, it’s engaging at every level. Framed in his own
story of discovery, Zellar tells us Norling’s story, and shares with us
a fuller picture of Bloomington than Norling’s photos alone could ever
tell.

And then come the photos. Beginning with his first
accident photo in 1941 and ending with the opening of the Interstate
Highway 35W (which is actually one of very few photos placed out of
chronological sequence), the photos document the development of a city
and its people over a twenty year span. The beauty, however, is in the
juxtaposition of sweet everyday images and grotesque realities — the
local hardware store followed by an autopsy photo, a tea-pouring
housewife followed by a fatal accident, a wedding followed by a BPO
training and an electrocution. While it may seem an odd mix of photos,
the collection offers an unusually panoptic glimpse at the past. And
the photos of accidents and violence lend a telling air of disrupted
placidity — the clash of old and new, the perils of change, and the
backlash of progress.

You don’t need to be Bloomington obsessed —
or Zellar obsessed, for that matter — to enjoy this one. And to top it
off, the Minnesota Historical Society is kicking off the book release
with an exhibit featuring Norling’s photos and a recreation of his
darkroom. Don’t miss out.

Reception and book signing on April 1, from 5 to 8 p.m.; author presentation on April 8th at 7 p.m.; Minnesota History Center.

April 9, at 7:30 p.m., Richfield Borders Books and Music.

April 16th at 7:30 p.m., Magers & Quinn Booksellers.