Fotograf Magazine

Michael E. Northrup

Pam: a visual novel

The nude image of a girl, intensely lit up from above by the light of a ceiling lamp. She is reclining on an old wooden bench inside an ancient cabin. The smooth white curves of her fresh young body – seemingly laid down at random but at the same time consciously arranged in a slightly unnatural position – contrast sharply with the rough structure of the wood. The fingers of the right hand are sunk into the underside of the thigh, emphasizing its softness. Her head strangely resting on a smudged pillow, she stares into space with an expression of melancholy resolve. Relaxed and determined, she self-assuredly presents her female beauty to be admired. The intensely calm and mysterious Pam.

Image one. Introducing the hero of Pam Book, a two-part visual novel by American photographer Michael E. Northrup. In sixty-five photographs, the author tells his story of a powerful love and partnership.


Person and persona


The picture story’s color and black-and-white images from the life of one relationship are divided into two parts. The first part, titled Person, is primal, animalistic, spontaneous, and takes joy in the sense and sensuality of fully expressed human physicality. It is dedicated to the worship of a woman. It has an archetypal form, the body is depicted with an emphasis on the signs of faceless fertility. Already in the second photograph, we see her in a white blouse, face turned, a bush rising behind her like a billowing cloud, and for the rest of this first series she no longer reveals her face. If it appears at all, then only in fragments, either covered or completely or partially outside the image, out of focus, more hinted at than real. Disappearing, covering her eyes, combing her hair, baking, bowing, laying the table, showering, diving, sunbathing and floating, covering, dressing, her breasts, urinating, undressing, … snapshots of banal activities seen from unexpected positions and points of view, both factually and metaphorically. And not one of these sensitive photographs lacks ironic exaggeration and a humorous and intelligent sense of lightness. The image of Pam eating a melon with stretched out legs is a masterpiece example of this approach. The humorous hyperboles laden with meaning are light-years removed from cynicism, and so even images of a disconnected neck, breasts on the tabletop, a dog portrait, a plucked chicken, a wan face and cloud, a strand of hair, belly and bellybutton or lathering oneself respect the subject’s dignity and do not reduce its appeal. Pam – at first a seductive and inaccessible odalisque – is transformed into a pregnant Madonna. The first part of the story thus symbolically ends with a beginning: The birth of a new human being.

The second chapter is significantly different in nature. Persona – in classical theatre, this word denoted the actor’s mask by which one could tell which role he was playing. Figuratively speaking, the Jungian concept of persona thus represents a kind of protective shield which mediates our contact with others. It is our outer face, a reflection of our incorporation into the social environment and our role within it. In the second part of Pam Book, the face is the main theme. The persona is no longer hiding it; quite the opposite in fact. After all, our life in civilized society is based on personal interactions whose main tool is our persona.

Northrup records Pam’s persona partially through the eyes of an experienced newspaper photographer, but for the most part through the eyes of a loving husband. Yes, through the eyes of a man who, in a blaze of love, sees his wife as a deified and worshipped being. And she, aware of her worth, basks in the rays of his limitless admiration and fully savors her precious status. The form and intensity of this emotionally charged gaze represent the central moment which gives the entire Pam Book its fascinating charge. This visual novel is not merely the story of its main hero, a record of a woman’s coming-of-age and her transformation from girl into mother, but above all a picture story whose images capture the tale of a powerful relationship.

Thus repeats the story of the encounter between two beings attracted to each other by the strength of their mutually irresistible fascination.And one (usually the man) wants to watch while the other (usually the woman) wants to show herself. And he is amazed that she wants to display herself (and to him of all people), and she is surprised that he really does want to watch her so incessantly. And thus, just like every new couple, they again and again discover their new life together in all its exciting detail. Anyone who has experienced this kind of event – one comparable to the Big Bang – knows that the individual’s life is absolutely changed and that everything begins to look different. Suddenly you sense things differently, experience things more intensely, share things in a previously unknown manner and are constantly, especially at the beginning of this total relationship, in a state of ecstasy. From the moment of this big bang, even the smallest details of ordinary life are one great adventure marked by physical closeness, eroticism and sex. But even when this fleeting moment of enchantment passes, in the more enduring relationships of this fatalistic type the miracle of sharing the smallest details and the exceptionality of the everyday generally continue. Unfortunately not always. And so, after viewing these at first glance loving, conflict-free and slightly suggestive photographs, we suddenly sense not only the pleasant humor and exaggeration but also the tragic undertone of the entire series. Behind the images, we begin to notice signals of a subtle exhaustion of this intense life together.

In his best photographs, Northrup displays the ability to see his subject in a fresh and new manner, with a sympathetic sense of detachment. And so, below the stream of powerful emotions, a perceptive viewer immediately senses the author’s weakness for exaggeration and irony. Northrup himself acknowledges this and sees the source of this preference in his family environment – he states that he inherited his sense of humor from both parents who always provided some morbid joke or other. In particular his doctor father loved black humor, and his sarcastic comments on everyday events significantly influenced Michael’s view of the world.

Pam Book is a remarkable combination of the spirit of visual inventiveness, sensitivity and intelligent humor. The selection of photographs in this two-part collection are among Northrup’s best works. Both parts of the book are a visual report from a shared world, a multi-layered portrait of a relationship which is not lacking anything essential and which offers a compact and convincing witness. The combined vibrations of both parts are more than a routine record of everyday life and give the apparently ordinary and deliberately imperfect images a compelling extra dimension. Pam Book thus merges into one consistent tale of body and mind in a complete relationship, a story which also expresses a sense of sorrow over the temporality of such total encounters.

In addition to Pam Book, which has yet to be issued in regular book form, Northrup has published the book Beautiful Ecstasy with J&L Books. Northrup is a very fertile artist in other areas. He began as a newspaper and commercial photographer and today has more than twenty years’ experience in advertising, documentary photography and photo-illustrations. Since 1997, his works have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, in a Super Bowl commercial and in magazines such as Time, PC World, PC Magazine and Computer Life, to name but a few. He has also taught at universities – photography technique at Western Iowa Tech Community College in Sioux City and at Little Priest Tribal College in Winnebago, Nebraska. In 2003, the editors of the book „America 24/7“ placed him among the top 100 university photographers.

The artist’s websites and filled with extensive series of photographs organized by genre, and are definitely worth browsing. A close look at these images provides insight not only into details of both parts of Pam Book, but also into Northrup’s wide range of skilfully rendered and pleasantly light-hearted perspectives on the mundane details of our lives.

Simona Vladíková