Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Photographer Nancy Rexroth on the Republication of her Classic Book 'IOWA'

In August of 2017, the University of Texas Press will be republishing IOWA, Nancy Rexroth's long out of print preeminent exemplar of Diana camera work, a cult collection of dreamlike, poetic images of "[her] own private landscape, a state of mind." The following contains Rexroth's current writings on IOWA, along with excerpts from her interviews with
Russell Joslin (from a 1998 SHOTS magazine interview) and Blake Andrews, discussing the Diana Camera and the meaning behind "Iowa."

"Since its publication in 1977, Nancy Rexroth's book IOWA has become an underground classic. Shot in the small rural country of Southeastern Ohio using a Diana camera with a plastic lens {cost = one dollar}, and named after her childhood memories, the book is mysterious on many levels" (Andrews, 2011).


"I was in graduate school at Ohio University in 1969. The courses were very technical for me, and we were studying the Zone System. I was so frustrated with it ALL, all things technical. An instructor {Arnold Gassan} had discovered the Diana in Chinatown, New York, and brought it back for use in the beginning photography classes. I saw him use the camera, and I realized that he had somehow loosened up. . .and he was almost silly while using the camera. . ."(Andrews, 2011). While observing him, I think that I saw from his reaction to the Diana that there was perhaps a magic there, an unlocking of the mind, when using such a basic toy camera. . .

"I bought a Diana camera, experimented for two weeks or so. I made a number of unremarkable photographs with it. At one point, I made an interior photo of a woman’s bed. After that image, I just got into a groove of feeling, with the camera..." (Andrews, 2011). "The photographs seemed to come from that one spot. That one feeling. It was like I had crawled through some kind of secret closet or trap door and found this place, and I mined that territory for the next six years. I continued because I loved it" (Joslin, 1998). 

"It really was a wonderful time to be a photographer because photography had just begun to be regarded as a respectable art form {the early 1970's}. It was starting to become a "good investment" also, which pushed things forward nicely. In graduate schools, things were still very technically oriented - "boy art" as a friend of mine called it. There were only one or two women in each graduate photo class. I felt alone, but used this to my advantage. You know, an, "Oh dear, I'll show you" attitude - an adrenaline thing. This helped because the guys in the program weren't always civil with me. The whole notion of feminism was just starting to be known. I toughened, and saw myself as a "female ambassador," who would make things better for the ladies that were to follow" (Joslin, 1998).


"I photographed in many small towns of Southeastern Ohio, all very sad and unpopulated places. Sometimes, I would just knock on doors and ask to photograph inside. I was pretty trusting back then to have done that. Nowadays, I would feel the possibility of never leaving one of those houses. Perhaps I would receive the blow of "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" coming down on my head. . . and not take that chance" (Andrews, 2011). "I liked the scary aspect of those places; they were so different from the suburbs I grew up in. I like the fact that photography is an excuse to go somewhere" (Joslin, 1998).

"Photojournalism and especially Cartier-Bresson, influenced me a lot. I would shoot in a very fast moving, rhythmic, and intense manner. It was a very intuitive style of working with the camera. It was a hunt and I loved it. I always work "from the gut" (she makes a gesture of pulling out and up from her abdomen). I never sit down and plot that I'm going to do this and that. I just plant the camera firmly on my face, walk and move around until I get "stuck" on something - and then take the picture. The less I know about why I snap the shutter, the better my chances are of finding something interesting - serendipity. Photographing for subject matter alone seems to be less successful for me. 

It's really my love of the visceral in art, the expressive arts, that "tugging of the guts" feeling that keeps my interest going. Images must reach on in and waggle and tug the guts. Those were the prints that "survived," the ones I put in shows, and in the book. Nowadays, many artists stay away from self-expression and beauty: these have become old-fashioned concepts. Especially beauty. The face of beauty. The importance of beauty. The poetry of beauty" (Joslin, 1998).


". . . A book was not in my mind until I had worked with the camera for at least 5 years. I had made those images, not caring, or knowing why I was using the camera. I applied for a National Endowment grant, and realized that my "project" needed a name. Somehow I thought of the name IOWA, because I could identify that memories of childhood Iowa were the actual core of the web of images I had been spinning out of that camera {Diana}, and onto paper" (Andrews, 2011).


The original IOWA book was self published, and so all the choices were my own. At that time, there were many photography books that were self-published in small press runs. This was in 1977, 40 years ago. I didn't keep records, and don't really remember the rationale of IOWA. . . why the book was 11 inches square, or why it was lavender, etc. But the work did seem to fall into three sections, ending with interior  photographs. IOWA quickly went out of print, and became very expensive to buy. . . from 200 to 500 dollars. A republication of the book seemed quite necessary. In 2014, David Hamrick contacted me from the University of Texas Press about a new (old) IOWA, and the journey moving forward has been quite fine, with so many steps along the way. With the help of many people at UT Press, the new book has been streamlined, with 20 images removed and 22 new ones added. The book is re-imagined, and partly new, with a greater percentage of photographs of children. There are also more images of Emmet Blackburn in the book. Alec Soth and Anne Tucker have written new introductions for the book, and the original Mark Power writing has also been included.

I want to formally thank David Hamrick for the wonderful experience I have had with the new IOWA publication, and of course to thank him for making that decision to put time, faith, and money into my legacy of small black and white Diana camera images. The experience has been extraordinary!

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