'American photographs' in new book tell story of Norwegian-American migration in the Red River Valley

Ole E. and Clara Flaten, self portrait, Moorhead, 1880s. The portrait suggests that Clara must have been highly involved in the business of her husband Ole's photography studio. Courtesy of the Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County, Moorhead / Special to The Forum

FARGO — While Norwegian culture seems commonplace to our area today, Norsk pioneers settled in the Red River Valley and North Dakota and Minnesota at large in the late 1800s.

They often came alone, leaving behind families back in Norway as they tried to make better lives for themselves.

In the days before Skype, Snapchat, Facebook, texting or even email, they sent letters back home telling their stories. When possible, they’d include visual evidence of their health and well-being or hardships in the form of photographs.

These pictures came to be known as “American photographs” by the recipients and were cherished back in the homeland.

Sigrid Lien grew up with one of her young grandfather, Tor Lien, on a horse in Montana in 1915. He’d left his family in Norway to find work, but he returned after his wife died to care for his two small daughters. Years after he passed, his American adventure was almost forgotten, until the photo re-emerged as proof of his time as a cowboy.


The photo didn’t just rekindle his story — it sparked Sigrid’s interest in hearing about other family histories enriched through photos.

The final product is a book called “Pictures of Longing: Photography and the Norwegian-American Migration.”

The Norwegian author returns to Fargo-Moorhead, where she did some of her research at the Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County and Minnesota State University and North Dakota State University libraries. She’ll sign copies of her book Wednesday night at the Sons of Norway.

She estimates 80 percent of the photos she studied for the project were from Minnesota and the Dakotas, including the works of regional photographers of the day, such as Moorhead’s Ole Flaten, Hawley, Minn.’s Sylvester Wange and Haakon Bjornaas from the Underwood, Minn., area.

Lien talked about their photos and the project recently.

Q: What impact did these "America photographs" have on people back in Norway? Why were they so important to send these back home?

A: For the immigrants as well as the families back home, photography was a way to reconnect. Although the letter-writers were cautious in encouraging their friends and relatives to follow them over the Atlantic, they nonetheless showed what could not be directly expressed in words by enclosing images of the bountiful fields and material prosperity in America. If letters emphasize fertile lands and their economic potential, the photographers’ version of the same subject can assume an almost poetic character. Through photographs, they could, and perhaps in a more subtle way than in words, convey that their choice of leaving Norway, probably the most important choice of their life, had been good and sensible.

Q: After doing research on the "America photographs," do you have a new favorite image or story?


Mina Westbye in a possible self-portrait, circa 1906. Glenn N. Durban / Special to The Forum

A: Yes, I am particularly fond of the story about Mina Westbye. I found a photograph of her as a young woman sitting alone in front of her tiny little homestead shack on the prairie in North Dakota. Then a colleague, a professor at the French department at the University of Bergen, told me that she was her great aunt, and that she later in life became a professional photographer. It was an adventure for me to meet her 90-year-old Danish American son-in-law, Glenn Durban, here in the United States. He not only showed me other images of and by her, but also provided me with the letters that she had written while sitting out there alone on the prairie, waiting for life to begin. She was such a resourceful and intelligent young woman, and her life was like a novel.

Mina Westbye pictured in a possible self-portrait on the prairie, Trysil, N.D., in the early 1900s. Glenn N. Durban / Special to The Forum

Q: In the book, you touch on Sylvester Wange from Hawley, Minn., taking photos at funerals. Was funeral photography common?

Sylvester Wange's photo of parents with infant's casket, in Hawley, Minn., circa 1915-20. Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County / Special to The Forum


A: I think these images are beautiful, touching and respectful in every sense. That was also my first reaction to them. Yes, funeral photography was more common then. It was also common back in Norway. When a close family member died in the home country, the immigrant who did not have a possibility to attend the funeral could be sent a photographic record of the event. In that sense, he or she could in a sense also “be present,” even from a distance. Likewise, it may have been easier to send a beautifully arranged post-mortem photograph of a deceased child back to Norway than to express sentiments of grief and loss in words.

Q: Another regional photographer, Haakon Bjornaas, made a name for himself with novelty postcards. Were those popular at the time?

Haakon Bjornaas, "Farm scene near Underwood, Minn.," postcard photograph, circa 1909. Northwest Minnesota Historical Center, Minnesota State University Moorhead / Special to The Forum

A: I do not know how popular they actually were. I know that he struggled to make a living. But I think he was a creative and wonderful photographer with a strong sense of humor. I really love his surreal postcard montages, which with ironic playfulness comment on the clash between gilded dreams of America and everyday realities.

Q: The cover of the book is a photo of Ole E. Flaten and Clara Flaten. Why did you want this photo for the cover?

A: I wanted it because it is a wonderful photograph that is playful and warm. The couple’s presence is so strong. But I also like it because it materializes the presence of women in the commercial photographic practices of its time, a theme which even now is understudied. There is plenty of evidence that they were there, running businesses on their own. But they tend to “disappear” behind their husband’s and brothers’ names. In the book I write about how some women in fact ran studios that held their husband’s name even though these men did not at all participate in the studio work. I do not think that was the case about Ole E. Flaten and his wife Clara. Their double self-portrait seems to speak about closeness and collaboration.

If you go

What: Sigrid Lien discusses “Pictures of Longing: Photography and the Norwegian-American Migration”


When: 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, May 8

Where: Sons of Norway, 722 Second Ave. N., Fargo

Info: This event is free and open to the public; books will be on sale at the event

For 20 years John Lamb has covered art, entertainment and lifestyle stories in the area for The Forum.
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