Peggy Nolan, Juggling Is Easy

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2023 by TBW Books (here). Flexi-cover with dust jacket, 8.5 x 11.2 inches, 106 pages, with 67 duotone plates. Includes an essay by Rebecca Bengal. Design by Paul Schiek. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Photographers create photographs as a matter of routine. But how those pictures are distributed and received by the world is a separate concern. Sometimes a new approach in editing or curation can transform the general understanding of an artist.

Consider Peggy Nolan. After raising seven kids, overcoming financial hurdles and a controlling husband, she transitioned in middle age to a stable career in photography as a teacher and practitioner. She earned her BFA and MA at Florida International University where she taught as an adjunct professor, all while creating several bodies of work and earning representation at Dina Mitrani Gallery in Miami. Browsing their gallery site (dated but still extant), we find Nolan’s square format color photographs filed into several series with anodyne titles: Places, Things, Babies, People, and Flower Diaries.

If the content feels rather saccharine, the accompanying artist statement—a stream of consciousness bio composed in 2008—heralded a restless spirit: Got married raised seven kids lived in the projects stayed home cooked and cleaned dreamed of making art started photographing shoplifted film learned to print shot a lot of pictures stole more film moved out of the projects went back to college shot more film studied hard got a job shot more pictures got divorced got pierced up worked harder graduated from college stole more film got some grants got some attention not really enough shot more film made more and more pictures got a better job went back to college graduated from graduate school kids grew moved out of the house shot more film got more grants got more attention still not enough calmed down stopped stealing film slowed down some started thinking more shot better pictures calmed down slowed down still thinking still making pictures.

Peggy Nolan may have been wrestling inner demons and unrealized ambitions. But her photos from the era—at least those circulating publicly—did not express much turmoil. They were instead warm and tender, capturing toddlers in the tub, wistful shadows cast against the kitchen wall, stuffed animals, and so on. Selected photographs from her “Babies” series, shot from the safe remove of two generations, were published as a monograph in 2018 by Daylight Books. Its provocative title belied the rather staid content: Real Pictures: Tales of a Badass Grandma.

In addition to Nolan’s color work there is a sixth project listed on the Mitrani site: “BLACK AND WHITE (80s + 90s)”. The link is dead and until recently it seemed an afterthought. But Nolan had in fact been shooting pictures of her immediate family for decades, not the grandchildren of her color work but her own kids, in good old monochrome. She was a passionate film buff and she documented their lives obsessively. As she explained in a recent interview, “I relentlessly stalk my family with my camera, with few regrets, trying to guess their secrets.” Smelling of chemicals (just like her shutterbug grandfather), she coopted the family’s laundry space for her darkroom and tacked up test prints to dry by the kitchen sink. “There were stacks [of prints] everywhere around the house as the kids were growing up,” she says. “If you look closely they are in the background. I would come home from working in the darkroom and just throw the wet pictures on the couch.”

Her archive was a powder keg. All it needed was a match. This turned out to be TBW’s founding editor Paul Schiek. After connecting with Nolan through her adult son Abner, Schiek got a peek at her b/w family work. He was immediately impressed, and the book gears began turning.

A few years in the making, Juggling Is Easy is the recently published result. It collects 67 monochrome photos of Nolan’s lively children, shot in an around the family home in Naranja, Florida (perhaps the town name inspired the book’s color theme?) over the span of a few decades. The book’s dedication calls out her seven kids by name: Noona, Abner, Milton, Tommy, Gertie, Jimmy, and Stella, followed by a brief recap of their motherhood. “Between 1967 and 1982,” she writes, “I gave birth to seven children. All are still alive and not a single tattoo. On occasion their father would come by and give them haircuts. Once, he tried to teach himself to juggle grapefruits in my living room.”

The juggling father appears in a photo near the book’s midpoint, his bouncing grapefruits shadowed by Nolan’s flash in the living room. As parents know better than photographers, raising kids is sometimes a three ring circus. The family wheels are in constant motion, and it can be a juggling act to keep the gears circulating smoothly. Three balls are hard enough. Nolan juggled seven (!), and they flew sideways on many an occasion. Juggling Is Easy documents a constant balancing act. Kids ping pong around the frames turning cartwheels, wrestling, making out, doing chores, or horsing around. Sometimes the pent up energy is released in airborne projectiles, and it’s not just grapefruits that defy gravity. Bicycles, skaters, bridge jumpers, trampoline leapers, and a balloon are tossed aloft too in the photo salad. Kids age quickly and life doesn’t come with a “stop” button. But a camera does, and perhaps nothing better crystalizes that capacity better than objects caught mid-air.

Meanwhile back at ground level, the Nolan living quarters were under constant pressure, often literally pressed under bodies. In photo after photo, the sofas appear beleaguered, propping up laundry piles, makeshift bedding, or loose papers. Backgrounds are spiced with 1980s ephemera like wooden furniture, boxy TVs, Frosted Flakes, phone cords, and small domestic eddies. The house seemed to be in a continual process of awakening from a hangover, a perspective fostered by Nolan’s characters. Her kids flopped, hugged, and slouched on the couch or floor, where she captured them in situ in groupings, alone or in flagrante. “Everybody slept on top of each other,” she says. “We enjoyed that kind of physical closeness, it didn’t stress us out. In this work, there is a lot of attention to bodies and that’s also because of the age. It’s the age of strength and beauty and feeling like you’re never going to die.”

Shirking mortality, her kids pass through the book at various ages, as easily as barging through the pantry after school before whizzing out the back door. One minute they’re 10, the next they’re a teen. Throw in their assorted friends and partners and omit identifying names or dates, and it’s a challenge for the uninitiated viewer to track family members. I had a hard time distinguishing the main characters even after several readings. But perhaps that’s the point. The period was a blur. It’s a good thing someone had a camera handy.

Not only did Nolan stalk her kids around the house, but she followed them outside the home as well. Pictures catch them in the car, at skate parks, or swim spots. The older teens are shown at rock concerts, parties, pool halls, and dark street-side hangouts. Altogether these exterior scenes comprise perhaps a third of Juggling Is Easy. It’s unclear how Nolan gained such access her to kids’ social lives. In the home, yes. But a mom shooting photos at a teen party must have required machinations. By some photo juju she made it work, and created lasting work in the process.

Family photographs are nothing new of course, and the growing list of photographers making recent monographs of such work is notable. Photographers from Gus Powell (reviewed here) to Charles Rozier (reviewed here), Guy Bolongaro (reviewed here), Judith Black (reviewed here), and Talia Chetrit (reviewed here) have taken a stab at it. All have documented varying degrees of domestic pandemonium, but none of these have lain it quite as bare as Juggling Is Easy. This might be attributable in part to Nolan’s choice of tool and style. Shooting candids from close range with a small hand held camera, she approached domestic life like a photojournalist covering a demonstration. She was a concerned photographer, deeply embedded, snatching raw, gritty impressions from the flow of life. “Peggy embraced the chaos as an animating force, as a pictorial challenge,” notes Rebecca Bengal in the afterword.

Faint strains of that chaos can be found also in Real Pictures: Tales of a Badass Grandma, but in a more stylized and sanitized form. In Juggling Is Easy Nolan has tapped a deeper vein of authenticity. The photographic vigor spills over. It’s a gorgeous mess actually, and it harkens a sincere visual voice. It’s a shame the photos were buried for so long, but better late than never.

“All these years,” writes Bengal, “these pictures have been waiting for their time, tucked inside three pieces of living room furniture.” Meanwhile, Nolan had badly wanted her work in monograph form. “My whole goal, my dream, was to have my work in books,” she says. Maybe a book would fix the problem of got more attention still not enough..? With Juggling Is Easy now in hand, that seems likely. TBW is well positioned to lead new eyeballs to Nolan. Their production is typically well-considered, with rich tones and thoughtful photo-forward design. All are testament to years of unrequited motherhood, and the power of a reconsidered archive.  

Collector’s POV: Peggy Nolan is represented by Dina Mitrani Gallery in Miami (here). Her work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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