Haunting and revealing photographs sent home by Norwegian immigrants in America as visual document and collective expression of the emigrant experience
Between 1836 and 1915, in what has been called history’s largest population migration, more than 750,000 Norwegians emigrated to North America. Writing home, the newcomers sent thousands of pictures—America–photographs, as they are called in Norway. In these photographs, the emigrant experience unfolds as framed by thousands of Norwegian transplants in towns, cities, and rural communities across America.
Pictures of Longing brings more than 250 America–photographs into focus as a moving account of Norwegian migration in the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, conceived of and crafted by its photographer-authors to shape and reshape their story. To clarify the historic nature and the cultural function of the America-photographs, art historian and photography scholar Sigrid Lien located thousands of the photographs in public and private archives and museums in Norway and the United States. Reading these photographs alongside letters sent home by Norwegian immigrants, Lien provides the first comprehensive account of this collective photographic practice involving “the voice of the many.”
Pictures of Longing shows, in fascinating detail, how the photographs, like the accompanying letters, contribute to the cultural grassroots expression of Norwegian migration. They steer us toward multiple, fragmented, and dispersed histories and also complement the existing fabric of established historical narratives, demonstrating photography’s potential to engage with history.
Sigrid Lien is professor of art history and photography studies at the University of Bergen, Norway, and a leading authority on Norwegian photography. She has published extensively on modern and contemporary visual culture and is the author of the first extensive history of photography in Norway.
Barbara Sjoholm is a translator of Norwegian and Danish, as well as the author of several works of fiction and nonfiction, including Black Fox: A Life of Emilie Demant Hatt, Artist and Ethnographer.
"This exhaustively researched book, written in a highly readable style, presents a gold-mine of material for anyone interested in Scandinavian-American history, immigrant history, history of the Midwest, Norwegian history, and the history of American photography. Developments in photographic technology and distribution at the turn of the last century made it possible for the great wave of Norwegians arriving in the United States at that time to keep up contact with their homeland and present detailed records of their encounter with a new country. This excellent study brings these people and the experience of immigration to life."—Linda Haverty Rugg, University of California, Berkeley
"Pictures of Longing provides an intriguing new perspective on the immigration story, told both through Sigrid Lien’s careful selection of photographs and through her accompanying text which brilliantly interprets these visual images. Instead of using photographs to illustrate the text (as in most immigration histories), the text is used here to show the reader how to interpret them. After reading this book you will never look at photographs the same way again."—Solveig Zempel, author of In Their Own Words: Letters from Norwegian Immigrants
"This meticulously researched book resituates photography and its development into the American narrative, specifically the historicity of these pictures within immigration history."—Michigan Historical Review
"Sigrid Lien’s scholarship is keen and illuminating, as is her reverence and joy in the subject. Put this book on an easily reached shelf."—Star Tribune
"Throughout the book, Lien guides readers in this continuing work (or perhaps pleasure) of making meaning with photographs. Pictures of Longing will reward both the casual viewer and the serious student of photography and Norwegian immigration."—The Annals of Iowa