Pictures of Longing

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The photographic culture of Norwegian US immigrants

Lengselens bilder (Pictures of Longing) by Sigrid Lien is a photographic image of America – as seen through the eyes of Norwegian immigrants. Many have been interested in and much has been written about the Norwegian US emigration, but few have focused on the images as historical sources like Sigrid Lien. Between 1870 and 1930 around 700,000 Norwegians immigrated to the United States.

Forde home, Winneshick County, Iowa
Forde home, Winneshick County, Iowa

There was a fierce competition for work at home and plenty of jobs “across the pond”. Due to the demand and relatively inexpensive equipment some started their career as photographers after they had moved. Also women were well represented. However, the photographic profession was one of the few that could provide a good decent livelihood at the time.

High Seas (from Sigrid Lien's book)
High Seas (from Sigrid Lien’s book)

In spite of that, many traveled around and photographed, for example, Indians and railway construction. Some even commuted between the United States and Norway to sell their pictures.

Image from the American dream
Image from the American dream

Such photographs have documented the modernization of the American continent and also participated in helping to create our notion of America. They also helped to maintain the ties between those who moved and those who remained behind.

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Although there were strong forces at work to stop people from moving, there were many who were lured by the letters and pictures from “over there.” Photographs of America and American living may thus have been a contributing factor to the massive exodus.

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In Sigrid Lien’s book Lengselens bilder (Pictures of Longing) letters and images complement each other. One letter may tell that a little child has passed away, while the picture shows a desperate father with a dead child in his arms. This powerful story and many others are visualized in the book.

Sigrid Lien
Sigrid Lien

About the author
Sigrid Lien is professor in art history at Department of Linguistic, Literary and Aestetic Studies at the University of Bergen. She has written several books on photographic history and the art of reading images.
Pictures of Longing, written by Tor Kjolberg

Feature image (on top): Not from the book, courtesy Lars Andersen, private collection.

Related article:
The Great Scandinavian Exodus

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