The first time I spoke to Peggy Nolan she read me a poem. She was explaining how writing and photography were a marriage, and that reading a great passage often inspired her to take pictures. I wondered if it ever worked the other way around, if a photograph… but before I could finish she interrupted to read aloud something she had just written. It began, "I am compelled to rearrange things," and that answered my unfinished question.

The compulsion to organize words on a page and moments into a frame is one and the same, derived from the same source, an energy that Nolan says has been with her all her life. “And everybody has it,” she maintains. “Come on, we are creative animals.” But understanding that it’s there and reconciling it with the other forces pushing and pulling our lives can be difficult. As a young adult, Nolan followed these creative impulses to Syracuse University, studying poetry and writing before other, perhaps not-so-unrelated energies found her in and out of love and raising seven children in government housing on the outskirts of Miami, Florida. “On occasion, their father would come by and give them haircuts,” she writes in a new book of photographs published by TBW Books. “Once, he tried to teach himself to juggle grapefruits in my living room.”

Nolan really wanted to have a big family and devoted herself to her kids. “I was completely at their beck and call,” she explains. “The creative energy went into just taking care of them. I put it into cooking, into baking, but it was still frustrating, something was still lurking in there.” In the early ’80s, her father gifted her a camera hoping for pictures of his grandchildren. Nolan’s mother had died when she was nine and at that time, her father thought it best to hide away any photographic evidence of those earlier memories. When she herself became a mother, the camera quickly became a way to ensure that her children would always be able to look back on their childhoods. She became entranced by the process, and soon the laundry room became the photo lab, and her kids always-available subjects. “It’s really the transformation that I’m addicted to,” she says, “the transformation of something onto a piece of film.” This obsession propelled her back to school where she became even more absorbed in the history and craft, continuing to photograph her sometimes reluctant but quickly growing family. The photographs from these years make up her new book, Juggling is Easy, a collection of the moments of her children’s lives that she felt most compelled to arrange within the edges of a frame.

On the phone from Florida, Nolan continued her poem, listing the items in her home that patiently awaited rearrangement, finishing it, “Objects playing musical chairs, not for visitors. But it takes one's breath. Mostly selfish pleasure. Whispering to myself in the quiet, empty space.” —Alex Nicholson

This article was originally published in our Winter 2023 Quarterly // All images from:
Juggling is Easy courtesy of the Artist and TBW Books © 2022