Practice: Photographer and Curator
Date of Lecture: 1989-10-13
Barbara Norfleet is the founder and director of the photography collection at Harvard University and is the curator of photography for Harvard’s Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts. She earned her Ph.D. from Harvard in social psychology but became dissatisfied with viewing society through the methodological approach of the social sciences. An introductory course in photography inspired her to pursue the visual and creative dimensions of human observation.
As a documentary photographer, Norfleet has produced works such as All the Right People (1986), one of the few photographic studies of the private lives of America’s upper crust. She has also produced several books in a mode she describes as “metaphoric,” including The Illusion of Orderly Progress (1999). This work uses dehydrated insects as human surrogates which Norfleet then poses to enact the various rituals of human society. Man’s vanities, self-importance and foibles are humorously parodied through this unexpected act of substitution.
When We Liked Ike: Looking for Postwar America (2001) is a recent exhibition curated by Norfleet, who since 1972 has collected commercial photographs taken between 1945-1965. The candid images created by professionals hired to document weddings, debutante balls and Tupperware parties were made with customer satisfaction in mind and thus provide significant insight into notions of self-presentation and social desire in postwar America.
Norfleet’s artistic work is featured in the collections of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the Museum of Modern Art, New York and the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington. Norfleet continues to teach, pursue creative and scholarly projects and to serve as curator of the Harvard photography collection despite having retired in 1997.