Norma Holt (1918-2013) was known for her intimate visual style as a photographer. The children, the women, and the hardworking ordinary people she photographed for over 50 years capture the complete integration of her eye for faces and places with her personal humanity and her desire for social justice. Her non-commissioned photography had its roots in New York’s early street photographers of the 1930s and 40s. This style of photography sought to reveal ordinary people and the often poverty-stricken world they inhabited. Holt initially adopted their documentary-style and retained a shared belief that photography could be an instrument for social awareness and progress. Norma’s photos reveal her social activism, her belief in racial equality and women’s rights.
Holt was born in upstate New York, and arrived in mid-Depression New York City at the age of 16. The City at that time was full of contrasts and contradictions, and life on its streets captured it all. She began taking her own photographs in the early to mid-1950s, first by photographing children, often spending entire days with them. These iconic black and white photos show their natural vibrancy and spontaneity.
Her work evolved over time, to also focus more on the impact of social issues on ordinary people. An image of a child behind a wooden street barrier holding a hand-written sign “Balloons not Bombs” during a protest against the Vietnam War is emblematic of Holt’s work in the early 1970s. Holt photos from Israel in 1972-73 started what would later become a global perspective on socially important issues: whether photographing Arab doctors tending to Jewish children, or the face of a tattooed Bedouin woman, or an elderly man in a disheveled suit and hat hunched over a typewriter on the street, she found individual faces of humanity during tumultuous, pivotal moments in history.
In the mid-70s Norma began taking photographic portraits of artists in Provincetown, MA, an artistic community of which she was a part for more than five decades, and published a catalog, Face of the Artist. She also began photographing women, particularly older women from the Portuguese community whose families were the backbone of Provincetown’s hard-working fishing community.
In the 1980s she began to photograph women and children around the world for the State Department and the UN, including Guatemala, India, Morocco, Egypt, Algeria, Tunis and other parts of Africa. This work was captured in the 1988 releases of Africa Unadorned, her book of photographs of older women of West Africa. Holt’s travels also would take her to Mexico, Italy, Japan, Ireland, Egypt, Greece and Nepal, at a time when her age and local travel conditions proved challenging for her as she clambered up mountains, slept in mud huts and ate exotic cuisine from varied, primitive cultures.
In 2001, her photographic portraits of artists were published in On Equal Ground: Photographs from an Artists’ Community at the Tip of Cape Cod. Her most dramatic and perhaps most viewed photographs are found in an outdoor exhibition of five large black and white photographic portraits of Portuguese women, made in collaboration with artist Ewa Nogiec, called They Also Faced the Sea, mounted at Fisherman’s Wharf in Provincetown, MA. Installed when Norma was eighty-five years old, this exhibit displays large her photographic signature: the direct, unedited gaze of her subject. Powerful, moving, and evocative, this exhibit has outlived her but not her vision, artistry or concern for the very real people she photographed.