"Suburban World" is about compelling stories, not cul-de-sacs
April 28, 2008 - 02:45.
Of the 417 students in my graduating class at Austin High School, Brad Zellar wasn’t one I knew very well. He was a caste above me socially, the student council president. I don’t know if we said a word to each other in four years. Gregarious and handsome, he appears six times in our senior yearbook, not counting the front and back covers. In one photo, he is crowning the homecoming queen. I had no idea he was smart.
Then one day I heard Brad’s voice on Minnesota Public Radio, and I called in to say hi. He was the owner of a bookstore at the time, and he was recommending gift books for the holidays. I don’t recall their titles, but I do remember thinking, “He likes the dark stuff.”
After that, I started noticing Brad’s byline here and there, in City Pages, or the Twin Cities Reader, perhaps, and The Rake. He wrote book reviews, articles about baseball, and social commentaries, all with a bit of an edge.
So when I got the notice from the Minnesota History Center about Suburban World: The Norling Photos, an exhibit based on my high school classmate’s new book, I called up friends from Austin, along with my parents and said, “Zellar is writing about suburbia? Weird. Let’s show up for this.” I’m glad we did.
Brad gave a talk about researching a story at the Bloomington Historical Society and stumbling upon a collection of more than 10,000 black-and-white photos taken by a man named Irwin Norling (1916-2003). The photos were of life (and death by all sorts of disasters) in 1950s-1960s Bloomington. At first, that sounded pretty boring. I live in Bloomington, but even so, I couldn’t care less what used to be where the Super America station is now.
The reason I kept listening was that I have come to understand, from afar, that Brad Zellar has a very sharp mind and a humanistic, if somewhat cynical perspective, so it stands to reason he might also have a keen eye. That’s what it takes, after all, to sift through 10,000 images and to select only 125 of them for publication in a book. (Forty photos made the exhibit.)
The project took years and was fraught with dead ends and delays, but the result is a treasure—not only in the historical sense, as a record of those people and events that were accessible to a geek wearing Coke bottle lenses and glued to his police band radios, but more so as a curated collection of photojournalistic art. Brad chose photos that not only memorialize the making of a city, but that tell compelling stories on their own.
I’ve got my favorites: a police officer rescuing a dog trapped in a cellar; an accident scene in which a car has smashed into a phone booth; the mayor’s family at Thanksgiving dinner; pot confiscated in a drug raid; a police department training exercise in which a mannequin hangs from a noose; and a very serious young man holding a fantastic-looking model airplane. Buy the book.
Brad said his favorite photo is of two guys named Larry and Arnie sitting stiffly in plaid shirts against huge rolls of speckled linoleum flooring. What I like about that one, aside from its pleasing composition, is the mystery hand in the photo. At least I think it’s a hand, and its placement calls for guessing at the details that will never be known unless someone tracks down Larry and Arnie alive.
On the night I was there, visitors to the exhibit at the History Center looked at the pictures out loud. Strangers turned to each other, smiling, offering their version of what might have been the story. Each time an older person exclaimed, “That’s so-and-so! I knew him!” everyone would gather ‘round to take a look. It was fun, and that has nothing to do with the fact that I live in Norling’s suburb. Today Bloomington looks and feels quite unlike these pictures.
No, I enjoyed the exhibit because I like the notion that some journalist or great-grandchild could discover any one of us after we’re gone, for the most mundane talents and collections; for the habits and the hobbies with which we drove our families or communities crazy; for the recollections, observations and obsessions that were ours alone. And that people would gather around that mosaic of moments, that dotted-line evidence of our lives, and find meaning in the images and spaces.
ART IS ALIVE. It is completed not when paint dries or photos are framed or the last step is danced, but when the audience observes and becomes part of the creation.
If you’ve seen the exhibit or if you bought the book, please let me know what you thought of it. What’s your favorite photo and why? Leave a comment below.
Suburban World: The Norling Photos runs through June 15 at the Minnesota History Center, 345 Kellogg Blvd W, St. Paul ($10 adults; $8 seniors/students; $5 kids age 6-17). On May 15, the exhibit is featured in one of the History Center’s periodic RetroRama events with music, food and cocktails ($15; MHS members $12). Details and tickets here.