Nancy Rexroth

BY Lyle Rexer, September 5, 2017

Almost exactly 40 years ago, photographer Nancy Rexroth published a small book of photographs made with a Diana camera titled IOWA. No one who saw those luminous, quirky photographs could forget them, and over the decades the book gained a cult following that put it in a category with other 1970s classics such as Mike Mandel and Larry Sultan’s Evidence and Michael Lesey’s Wisconsin Death Trip. Those have both been reprinted, and now the University of Texas Press has issued a new edition of IOWA, with a revised selection of photographs and introductions by Alec Soth and Anne Wilkes Tucker, along with a postscript by Rexroth and the original introduction by Mark Power, who added a postscript.

Lyle Rexer: First and most obvious question: the title, IOWA. The photos aren’t about that place. Most of them were taken in southern Ohio.

Nancy Rexroth: While I was shooting, I didn’t really know what my intentions were. I was just accumulating pictures of what I saw. Early on, I shot A Woman’s Bed, Logan Ohio, and from that time on, the images kept coming, like a string of pearls. IOWA seemed to grow organically from that first successful image. And then when I applied for a National Endowment for the Arts grant, I realized that I had to name the Diana project that I was doing. I decided that the body of work was referential to my summer visits to the family back in Iowa. So, I named the body of work Iowa, with the notion that a photograph doesn’t have necessarily to do with the subject matter at hand. In later years, the Iowa series became IOWA, and now it is IOWA, in italics, as a sort of rebranding of this series of Diana images. IOWA now has its own reality; it is its own country.

LR:  So, IOWA is not about your specific childhood memories, or your search for childhood in a symbolic sense?

NR: No. That was never my intention. Over the years, I have seen these images come farther away from childhood memories and are now what I would call “The Mind of IOWA,” a sort of vibration of longing. Over time, I found that IOWA could be anywhere, for me. IOWA is a state of mind. I carried that vibration with me always, there in the back of my mind. If I had been consciously looking for childhood memories while shooting with the Diana, that approach would have likely resulted in a contrived and hokey group of images. “The Mind of IOWA” is really from the subconscious.

LR: As long as we are on the subject, let’s talk about the Diana. I have always thought of it as either a subjective tool – that is, a way of moving off the documentary path toward something more expressive and symbolic – or as a political gesture, anti- the domination of corporate entities like Kodak, Leica, and Fuji and the standardization of image production.

NR: I think there has been too much attention paid to my use of the Diana, especially now when there is so much nostalgia involved in its use. People also associate it with a snapshot aesthetic. As much as I love snapshots, they were not my inspiration. When I was learning photography at Ohio University, I became frustrated trying to learn the Zone system of black and white. Yes, I wanted something more expressive, less rigid, and I quickly saw the camera as an alternative, as a tool, and not at all as a cute-as-a-bug-in-a-rug kind of thing. I was never in love with the Diana camera. I saw what it could do, and that was the interest. I did not like the parallax problem, or the light leaks in the camera. I had to use a changing bag while sitting on the ground to get the film out of my camera. It did take fairly sharp photographs, and from the beginning, I altered my images, by slightly blurring everything by holding the bulb, or by flicking the shutter for an overlay of images, giving the look of movement. This made for a unique collection of images, each one looking more or less different from the others.

LR: I remember Alec Soth sending me an early version of Sleeping by the Mississippi, a spiral-bound trial run for a book that has also become a classic. It has a kind of kinship with the original IOWA. What inspired you to self-publish?

NR: When I looked around in the mid-1970s, I saw that many photographers were making small-press publications of their photography work. I remember seeing a catalogue of books distributed by Light Gallery and being inspired. Surprisingly, my father, who never cared much for my photographic career, offered to help pay for publication. The first printer I worked with went bankrupt and I lost money. Then I found Thomas Todd in Boston. I chose a small format because my images wouldn’t print any larger than 4 x 4 inches On press we inked and reinked the plates to get the duotones right. The press was so small!

LR: Can you tell me about some of the changes you’ve made for the new edition?

NR: The trim size is slightly smaller, 10 x 10 inches, but still a square. There is much more writing, with four essays and two postscripts. I have removed 20 pictures and added back in 23 new ones. These “new” images include a few self-portraits and many more photographs of children, giving a lighter but hopefully a deeper feel to the work. I am wondering what critics will say about this new uptick of emphasis on the joy and violence together. There are also more images of Emmet Blackburn in this new IOWA. There is even a photo of Emmet’s bed, where his wife had died the year before. The Emmet photos were spread out over the first three years of working on the project. I shot several rolls of him dancing in the woods near his childhood home in Kreiger Falls, Ohio. Not all of these efforts are included in the old or new IOWA. The images in part three of the book, the ones at the end, are more subdued in coloring. The “story” within the new book remains one of a journey, a female one, into maturation, a growing up, of loving and understanding.

LR: Perhaps the very lightness of some of the new images helps us see the darkness more clearly, a darkness that seems to seep in everywhere, in the interiors, the fading light of so many of the landscapes, with their encroaching hills, the shadowed corners of the houses themselves.

NR:  My favorite photographer is Diane Arbus. I feel that in her best pictures, Arbus captures the neediness and self-destruction that make us all members of the “walking wounded.” We’re all so damaged by life. There is a bit of what I might call Dark Arbus in the IOWA imagery, so let that referencing remain. For me, IOWA is a place we all go to, sometime, and we recognize it on our arrival. It is a part of the human zeitgeist and has always been there, morphing away on the dark side of things, sad and joyful, and filled with incredible longing.