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The Lifespan of a Photographer’s Marriage, One Portrait of His Partner at a Time

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“I said I’d never marry anybody from my home town or anybody I met in a bar, and I did both,” the photographer Michael Northrup told me recently. “She pinched my butt, and that was that.” It was 1976. The home town was Marietta, Ohio, where Northrup was kicking around after finishing his B.F.A. at Ohio University, in Athens. “She” was Pam, a nurse. Northrup began photographing her right away, honing his style with the help of his new muse. When you live with a photographer, the line between artist and paparazzo can feel thin. But, as is made clear by “Dream Away,” Northrup’s new book of photos taken over the course of their relationship, Pam liked to pose for him. One early picture shows her lounging nude on a rough wooden bench, arranged against a patterned pillow like Ingres’s Odalisque or Manet’s Olympia, though Northrup often preferred to capture her in more spontaneous moments. The couple married in 1977, in San Francisco, where Northrup was continuing his photography studies. Right before they went to the courthouse, he snapped a picture of Pam sitting on the toilet in their small bathroom, her satin wedding dress bunched up around her knees, a box of kitty litter in the corner. It may not be a traditional portrait of a bride, but it is an honest one.

January, 1977.

That tone of playful intimacy is characteristic of “Dream Away.” Northrup was influenced by the snapshot aesthetic, the photography movement, begun in the sixties, that prized everyday subject matter and a casual, amateur-seeming style of framing over highly formal compositions, and much of “Dream Away” has the private feel of a personal photo album. We see Pam at the height of pregnancy, her blue bathrobe carefully opened, like a purse, to reveal her full belly and a shock of ginger pubic hair. When we meet the couple’s daughter, she appears as a set of dimpled, pudgy legs thrown over her exhausted mother’s shoulder—a cherub who hasn’t quite learned to fly.

May, 1977.

August, 1977.

But if the book is an elliptical chronicle of a romance as it morphs into family, it also tells the story of Northrup’s development as a photographer.


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