Photography Through The Ages
Norma Holt

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 photograph.

"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."