Barbara Norfleet Souls of the Rich
By Gay Block
(The following is a discussion of the recent work of Barbara Norfleet, whose photographs were shown at the Houston Center for Photography during July.)
The group of photographs proves that human beings in every strata have their own sets of problems and celebrations, that having great wealth may be costly, that everything has its trade-offs and great wealth is no exception"
Have you ever wondered what life would be like if you had more leisure time and money than you knew how to spend? We all know that there exists a class of people who are so fortunate. In a way they must be terrified of the outside world, afraid of envy, or that other people will take from them what they have. So they insulate themselves at their private clubs or at gatherings at each others' estates. With great persistence, Barbara Norfleet has gained entry into some of their social functions and photographed with precision and insight what she calls "The Hidden Upper Class in America."
When I look at these pictures I am overwhelmed by their clarity and depth. I see at once the many dichotomies in the subjects: they are arrogant and brazen at the same time that they are afraid and vulnerable. Their lives as depicted are at once exciting and dull, the people are both good and bad, happy and sad, having fun and enduring routine, habitual social rituals. Their homes are beautifully furnished, full of people but cold and uncomfortable. They are isolated from the large world, but connected to one another, albeit superficially; we can't detect real emotional connections between them. The details of these pictures — the gestures, facial expressions, and body postures of the people and their environment
— are the clues to Norfleet's passionate interest in her subjects, and it is her passion for content in art which makes the pictures (he exciting documents that they are.
During the month of July, 25 of these photographs of America's aristocratic and entitled graced the walls of HCP. The pictures are grab-shots, akin to street photography, almost all done with flash. They are not related to studio or formal photographs "I think of all photographs as social documents,'' says Norfleet. We have seen many photographic essays of the very poor in America, many of the middle class and some of the upper middle class. But this is only the second one of which I am aware, the first being Mary Lloyd Estrin's collection. Of The Manor Born — of the lives of the elite aristocracy. They are usually quite protected and hidden behind the walls and doors of their homes. In this essay, not only does Norfleet enter these walls, but she reaches the souls of the people. She shows us in one photo a dowager walking in her very formal, manicured gardens and in another, young boys in formal riding attire sitting smugly with two elegant older women in an antique buggy. In the photographs of lawn parties, the people are elegantly dressed, the men always have on ties, the children are quite properly dressed up. We can see the rules which govern their lives; Norfleet has circumvented the rules and found a way to reach the human beings. It is her ability to expose human qualities in these snapshot candids of social events that evokes my strong response to these photographs.
There is one photograph. "Private House," New Providence Island, The Bahamas, of a black maid whom Norfleet said she encountered in the act of cleaning the bathroom. A wet young man in a brief bathing suit smiles at her through the glass door. She laughs, embarrassed. A subsequent photo shows the maid sitting on the young man's lap, this time he's dressed in white slacks and knit shirt. Norfleet explains, '"I saw the bathroom scene and grabbed it fast. Then the young man asked. 'Oh — you want a picture of me and Rosie?' and he came inside, got dressed, sat down and posed Rosie on his lap. Only a man who had been raised by black women servants, perhaps by that black woman servant, would have been able to enact that drama with comfort and even a kind of love and respect. And Rosie understands his gestures, or at least tolerates them; she laughs in both photographs and everything seems very natural and comfortable.
There is one curiously ambiguous photograph, "Wedding Reception Lincoln. MA. 1982", of a beautiful white woman in maid's uniform serving at a wedding reception. She could easily be one of the guests, judging from her appearance, but she is clearly the maid on this occasion. She is so extraordinarily beautiful that I resist thinking of her as a servant. I wonder what kind of people would have servants who look like that.
In some of the faces, we see cockiness and self assurance, mostly in the young men. as in "3 Brothers: Cambridge Boat Club,' and "Arriving at the Ritz-Carlton for the Windsor School Prom." In some we see depth and intensity as in "Chilton Club. Boston. MA." A young woman stands in front of a huge antique tapestry, by a large floral arrangement. It appears to be in an entrance hall and Norfleet has photographed it from about knee level, looking up. The woman is posed, staring directly into the camera, but seems a bit nervous as she picks on the fingers of one hand and holds a glass of champagne in the other. Her hair is casually tousled, but she is dressed formally in her velvet jacket. This is a strong portrait of a complex woman, one who may be both comfortable and ill at ease in this society. Norfleet told me that the woman likes this photograph very much, and I can understand why. She is one of the few people who seem to have maintained a sense of personhood, of strength and frailty, of real personal depth in this sometimes frightening society. By contrast, the man in "Eating Club, Princeton Reunion" who stands in suede Tyrolean short pants and a pointed hat, holding his drink and staring blankly at the camera, seems lost forever. He has become a pawn of the events and rituals which make up his life; all vitality and knowing connections to his real self seem gone.
At the other end of the spectrum in terms of age but not in terms of vacancy is "A Plantation. Mississippi 1984 “, of two young girls in a formally appointed library. They are wearing shorts and sit casually talking, their blond hair still wet after swimming. Are they aware that every one doesn't live like this? Are they so well cared for that the life energy that most children use to make themselves happy and comfortable becomes dull and dormant? I can see all these things in this photograph because Norfleet has given us clues in the environment, clothes, and gestures.
And then there are the dowagers. They have created this world, they own it, and the young people pay their respects. Norfleet has let us see that. They stare blankly or are engaged in conversations. They are heavily wrinkled but well cared for. I can see the fear which may have originated with them, the fear of the outside world and the need to make their world secure and insulated.
Now just how much of what I have said is true? Here is where we get into trouble putting words to photographs. I have some connections to a moneyed society, albeit a fraction of the amount of money possessed by these people, so my observations certainly reflect my own experience. That is why I asked Norfleet for her words and here are some of her random reflections; These people are as complex as any ethnic group, and they are like an ethnic group in the way they stay together. They are happiest at home when surrounded by other entitled people. These are the people who are accepted not for what they do with their lives but for who they are. They're very mild mannered unless something goes wrong."
Norfleet has just been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship to finish this series. She wants to photograph more servants, more dowagers surrounded by their servants. She hasn't yet been allowed to photograph a debutante ball, but wants to very badly. The wealthy children take dance classes as a group and she wants to photograph them. She wants more yacht clubs and sailing events, though the series already contains some of these plus some at fox hunts and riding clubs and horse-drawn buggy events.
Norfleet writes to individuals asking to be allowed to photograph at a party, usually sending her book. The Champion Pig. to show she's interested in pictures of people. She very generously gives people prints of the photos she takes after working. Recently, on a plantation in Mississippi, she sent them a book of 30 photographs. Still, she only has a one percent acceptance rate from her requests. So it isn't easy.
Nor are the photographs easy to make. These people are very hard to photograph," said Norfleet in a recent interview in Vanity Fair. "It is not cafe society. There's no outrageous behavior or fabulous clothes, and they're very private, very family oriented. That's one thing I really like — all the generations are included in everything."
We see evidence of the generations in lawn party pictures where ponies provide rides for children and balloons keep it festive. "Is the family orientation motivated by a desire for in breeding, so the children will marry friends’ children?" I ask. She hesitates, hedges, and says, “Probably. They're very afraid of the outside world,"
In spite of their need for privacy and protection, these people seem glad to be photographed just as most of us would be. After all, as Diane Arbus said, we all want attention, and "that's a reasonable kind of attention to be paid."
To understand even more fully Norfleet's orientation, we must know that she has a Ph.D. in Social Relations (Psychology), teaches anthropological field work and photography in the Visual and Environment Studies Department at Harvard University, For twelve years she has been curator of photography at the Carpenter Center for Visual Arts at Harvard: she founded and now directs the Photographic Collection there. She has curated many exhibits and authored important publications while there. She is a wife, and the mother of three grown children. In her curatorial work as well as in her own photographs, she is fascinated by the possibilities of what we can learn from photographs of people. Whether they are posed studio portraits or informal candids. she knows that photographs are visual communication to be read with as much depth and understanding of human construction as the best Henry James novel. And she seems to me to have a deep understanding of human beings, their lives, and the visual clues which promote understanding.
"The Hidden Upper Class in America" proves to us that human beings in every strata have their own sets of problems and celebrations, that having great wealth may be costly (no pun intended), that everything has its trade-offs and great wealth is no exception. Can aristocrats remain vitally engaged in life, performing the kind of tasks which make us feel proud of ourselves even if they aren't required to be productive? Does a life of indulgence devoid of almost all personal yearnings preclude intense feelings and therefore cause life to be somewhat flat and meaningless? I believe Norfleet has posed these questions and made important discoveries. The photographs do not make us envious: we are not asked to criticize or judge her subjects. They are true reflections of the universality of the human condition in yet another unexpected arena.