"Pictures of Longing: Photography and the Norwegian-American Migration" by Sigrid Lien, translated by Barbara Sjoholm; University of Minnesota Press (304 pages, $29.95)
Descendants of Norwegian immigrants know of the albums stowed somewhere holding old family photos from those earliest days of settlement. The solemn and still faces reveal family resemblances. Their settings fill in a few cracks of family lore. But mostly, they are soon shelved once again. In that way, "Pictures of Longing" seems familiar, but it's so much more.
Lien has assembled a collection of more than 250 remarkable photos taken mostly by fellow Norwegians who took up photography as a New World profession. There are the common family portraits, but there are also candid street scenes, "action" shots (in their own way) of workers, a minister reading wedding vows, a grieving couple with their infant's casket.
Lien, a professor of art history and photography studies at the University of Bergen in Norway, dissects these photos to reveal details that make them far more informative than they first appear. Some are "brag" photos meant to reassure - or lure - those still in Norway. She goes deep into collections by certain photographers such as Gilbert Ellestad, who documented early Lanesboro, Minn. She also highlights a surprising number of female immigrants who became photographers, born by the enterprising spirit of America.
One nit: Lien can at times seem to labor over finding meaning in each element in a photo. Was the ball of wool included to send a larger message - or is it simply a ball of wool? Sometimes, she provides the thousand words that the photo is meant to convey (ably translated by Barbara Sjoholm). But overall, her scholarship is keen and illuminating, as is her reverence and joy in the subject. Put this book on an easily reached shelf.
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