Norma Holt surveys her subjects
with the eye of a purist, her direct and intelligent gaze looking at
life from childhood to old age. Her focus is often on the artists around
her, some well-known, others, less noted, but all alive with the spirit
of the place in which they live and work. Other images are reminders
of women's projects in Third World countries as far away as Egypt,
India, Napal, and Tunisia; places where women are helping to build developing
societies, working at tasks such as grinding peanuts in Africa, mixing
cement, raising bees for honey, or weaving rugs in Tunis. Much of her
work was done while on assignment for the United Nations.
For the past 10 years Holt has been photographing older women. "These
women appealed to me. They were so beautiful," she says. "Though
most people attribute this attraction to the fact that I am getting
older, I believe it is more that I like their behavior and the way I
can communicate with them. Many of them were lonely and we found much
to talk about. Their faces were not covered with layers between who
they were and what I could see. I could relate to them and make an honest
and enriching statement."
Holt has strong political views and the first women she photographed
were of English, Irish, and Portuguese origin. They were between 85
and 100 years old, women who had stayed home and raised their children
but had never, she believed, received the recognition they needed and
deserved. "But they were courageous women," she says, "gutsy
and independent." In one photograph an elderly New York painter
sits naked in her studio. "She was very proud of her body and
she walked with dignity and pride," Holt remembers. "When
I arrived at her home she was getting dressed, wearing a beautiful white
camisole and pantaloon underwear. I asked her to pose that way and she
answered, `Of course not. In my underwear? Underwear is bad taste--nudes
are art.' And that is how that photograph came about."
Holt had been considerate and had drawn the blinds, and she was concerned
that in the printing the blinds might look washed out. It made the picture
very hard to print and several of her printers declined the job. She
finally found someone who spent the required time on the print and was
able to give her the shadow detail she was looking for. "This
is a black and white issue that I often run into in my work,"
Holt says, "the problem of retaining shadow and highlight detail
at the same time. But black and white is my preference in most cases
since I feel that color is too often what people look at rather than
the content. Color, unless it is really a contributing factor to the
understanding of my photograph, is detracting."
Linda McCausland of Exposure Lab in Eastham, Massachusetts, is currently
printing Holt's photographs of Lower Cape artists for a soon to
be released book, and says, "Holt has a particular style and she
really pushes the envelope. She takes her film right to the edge of
its capabilities and sometimes even beyond, but it is because she is
always `there,' catching the moment regardless of what the
film can do. The negatives are varied and require more than just a commercial
application. I use a lot of double filtration to keep the shadows and
capture the highlights. The work is high contrast and she photographs
often in brilliant sunlight. She is a dramatic creature and it shows
in her images. Even when the sunlight is raking across a sitter's
face and is not complimentary (especially if they happen to be older),
she doesn't say `I'll soften that or come back at
another time or I'll use a little fill flash or put on a soft
filter.' She is saying, `this is who this person is in all
her glory and this is how I will photograph her.'"
Holt began her career 40 years ago for the sheer pleasure of photographing,
she says. "It was a way to contribute to the world around me.
I had wanted to take pictures of political issues and of people living
in poverty in New York and when my son was a teen-ager I went to school
and learned what photography could yield." Her children's
portraits were in demand and Holt found she could make a living at what
she loved to do.
Using an old Rollieflex camera she soon discovered that she was only
shooting the bottom strip of the square, so she switched to a 35mm and
a secondhand Nikon that she has been using ever since. Everything is
shot in available light with Tri-X film, using 35, 50, and 105mm lenses.
There are no gadgets and Holt shoots anywhere between 1/60 and 500 and
from f/16 to wide open. "I had to give up my darkroom when I sold
my house in Queens," she explains, "and since I was propping
and assisting other photographers, I was able to use their printers
and darkrooms. I finally found my own select group of one-person operations
in New York and they knew what I expected. I could often just call them
and tell them to print what they liked best and ship it to my client.
Since my work is straightforward and I like backlighting, I expose for
the shadows and have them print for the highlights. Getting the balance
is hard, though, and it takes time and a good printer, not someone who
is just fooling around."
Holt recalls how the big turning point in her career came when she happened
to be with a group of photojournalists and magazine photographers who
were giving their work to a particular printer. He invited her to watch
him work in the darkroom. Looking at a contact sheet that was primarily
out of focus with perhaps only one or two good prints on it, she asked
to whom it belonged. "Cartier Bresson," he answered. "I
was astounded and I thought he was kidding. Then he asked me what my
problem was. `I don't know how you shoot,' he told
me, `but Bresson sees something he wants and shoots and shoots
and shoots until he gets it. He misses a lot but eventually gets his
shot. The people who taught you said you had to get it quickly and it
had to be right--and that's impossible. If you are really looking
for something and want to make an honest statement, you will need to
shoot many times before you get what is really there.'
"The doors opened," Holt recalls. "The load was lifted
from my shoulders and I thought about how writers would type on a piece
of paper, then rip it out of their typewriters, or how an artist would
put paint on a canvas and then wipe it off to start again. It made sense
and I thought I have the same right of searching and seeking out what
I want and I can fail and fail--I was freed.
"I had looked enviously for years at a photograph that Ruth Orkin
took, showing a very pretty girl in Rome walking down the street with
men ogling her. I had always wondered how long it took her to get that
image, how she must have waited for that moment to happen. Then I found
out that it wasn't there at all. Orkin had set it all up--she
hired the guys and the girl was a friend of hers. I was shocked at first,
but now I have learned about the real world. We both had come from the
world of street photography and I saw that she did not want to shoot
just anything happening on the streets. It was the essence of the streets--what
might happen or did happen or could happen. The idea of a woman walking
down the street in Rome with these guys whistling at her was very real,
but you could wait until you're 90 for it to happen in front of
you, so you set it up. When I went out for the United Nations they said
don't set anything up, and if I had listened, I would have gotten
very little they could use."
At another time, while photographing a street demonstration, Holt recalls
following a beautiful old lady holding a sign and how she waited to
isolate the woman from the crowd in order to photograph her with her
sign. "The content of the photograph was very important to me
and the woman was saying something that mattered. For a photographer
it's not a happy situation being pushed out of the way at these
things and usually if it's a good shot, you are not the only one
that's noticed it."
Holt, who lives in Greenwich Village in New York, turned 80 in October
and she is not wasting any time. Last March she was photographing in
Cuba, another 5 months were spent in West Africa where she photographed
the women. "They were grateful that they were being noticed and
that I cared and wanted to say something honest about their problems.
But, at the same time, I did not want to do a simple newspaper story
about them. I needed to go beyond and make their pictures into works
of artistic integrity. This is what I have looked for in my photographs
of children or older women and I'll die looking for the perfect
"When I photographed the world renowned painter Raphael Soyer
in his studio just before he died, he said, `I go to my studio
everyday and put my canvas on the easel, and I say to myself, maybe
today I'll really paint a good painting--finally do a good one.'
I understand that."