Photographer Nancy Rexroth is about to see University of Texas Press release a handsome new edition of the out-of-print book, treating it like a classic worthy of a 40th-anniversary celebration.
BY STEVEN ROSEN
(SELF PORTRAIT, NANCY REXROTH, 1970) (MORE PHOTOS FROM IOWA AT STORY’S BOTTOM)
In the early 1970s, as a young photographer studying for a master’s degree at Ohio University, Nancy Rexroth found her inspiration in the small towns and rural homes of Appalachian southeast Ohio. There, she used her Diana plastic camera — considered a toy, really — to take intentionally blurry, black-and-white dream-state pictures of people and places. And in 1977, she self-published a book of that work. She called it, strangely, IOWA.
The result has slowly become a body of work that fans consider a landmark, but is still relatively unknown to the larger public. Now, Rexroth is about to see University of Texas Press release a handsome new edition of the out-of-print IOWA, treating it like a classic worthy of a 40th-anniversary celebration. Rexroth has not had another photography book since then, other than a 1977 pamphlet on how to make contemporary platinum prints. On Aug. 23 at 7 p.m., Rexroth will have a talk/book signing at Joseph-Beth Booksellers in the Rookwood Pavilion.
This has been a long time coming. Rexroth has been preparing for a new edition for the past eight years, going over her 1,300 rolls of film, and wanting a new IOWA well before that. She had shown several new prints of recently discovered IOWA images during the first FotoFocus exhibition in 2012. This writer talked to her then for a story, and this article draws on quotes from 2012 as well as recent interviews and email exchanges.
“My whole experience has been that I’ve been treated so well in this process,” says Rexroth, who has lived in Cincinnati for approximately the past 20 years. “My first book was just, ‘Oh well, here’s this book.’ Now everybody has treated me very diplomatically and patiently. I’ve been through the process of a modern publication of a photography book.”
It’s amazing what Rexroth’s long-ago, original foray into using plastic cameras has turned into. It seems a long way from when she first discovered the Diana camera at Ohio University.
“I got bitten by the bug,” she says. “You couldn’t say that a person is getting a good photo because they have an expensive camera. And you find yourself being much more spontaneous. When you advance the film, it makes this ratchet sound like a wind-up toy. But I never thought of it as being a toy, ever. It was as worthy as any camera. What I could do with it is why I stuck with it. I wasn’t just snapping away — I was doing something I cared about.”
Rexroth grew up in Arlington, Va., a suburb of Washington, D.C., where her father was a technical director of research and development for the Naval Air Systems Command. Her parents used to visit her father’s family in Iowa — the real Iowa — every summer.
“My father had such close ties with his family,” Rexroth says. “There were 14 children and they were very tight knit. And my mother grew up in Iowa, too — (my parents) met in Iowa.” Rexroth remembers these trips fondly because, she says, everything felt so bright, shiny and clean.
It was a favorite memory. Such a good one that she thought of it when photographing in such Ohio towns near Athens as Malta, Pomeroy, Chauncey, Nelsonville, Stewart, Logan, Creola, Guysville, Glouster and more. There was a feeling that the Ohio she photographed seemed behind the times, still living in the 1950s. Perhaps because she called her project IOWA, it has seemed as if her camera’s viewfinder was looking at her state of mind, her subconscious, her childhood memories, as much as her subjects. She, herself, seemed to make that connection in our 2012 interview. “I think I was showing people a longing to want to go back and be that child,” she said then.
But it’s more complicated than that, she believes. Rexroth certainly didn’t find the landscape here as shiny and clean as she found The Hawkeye State during her youthful visits there. She felt it was the opposite.
“In southeast Ohio, it was like everything was decaying and you hardly ever saw people,” she says.
Calling her project IOWA, she says now, added to the mystery of her work. Perhaps it served as a manifesto of her freedom to be an artist already defying the conventions of art photography — few if any used toy plastic cameras for their work. “I thought, wait a minute, if I call it IOWA, it will be stressing that photographs don’t have to be at all about the subject matter at hand,” she says.
Rexroth received a National Endowment for the Arts grant to continue her project after school. For her resultant book, she included 70 photos, one to a page and each a 4-by-4-inch or even smaller reproduction. (Anything larger threatened to break down the image.) And there were, actually, some photographs from outside the region — including Iowa.
Among those of her generation interested in photography, the book became a landmark publication — not just for channeling or perhaps foreseeing the quiet loneliness, the sadness, of a Rust Belt America before that term became familiar, but for doing it with an “unprofessional” camera that, just maybe, captured the truth better than something fancier.
The book didn’t stay in print long, but it had a growing impact. Those who knew her at Ohio University, which has a good program in photography, talked about her work. With time, its haunting, blurry images came to be seen, it their way, as evidence of an “old, weird America,” a term that writer Greil Marcus once coined to describe the roots of the somewhat “unprofessionally” produced Basement Tapes recordings by Bob Dylan.
You could also see, in the images featuring the exteriors and interiors of the wooden houses of the region, an echo of Edward Hopper’s lonesome America. At times, they were frightening in their prescience — “A Woman’s Bed,” a 1970 photograph from Logan, Ohio, caught white sheets on a dark bed frame so perfectly smooth that you see the absence of the woman as much as the presence of the bed. In that and other photos, IOWA knew the losses ahead.
It was also noteworthy for what was not included — nostalgia and sentimentality. “I just had this enormous grip on what was Iowa and what was not Iowa to me,” Rexroth says. “What it wasn’t was barnyard activity and retro trucks from the ’50s. I didn’t want clichéd stuff; I didn’t want signs and cars.”
Rexroth went on to teach at Antioch College and Wright State University. A photography student at the latter was Tad Barney, now of Milford, who sought out her work and discovered IOWA. Much later, in 2013, he started a Nancy Rexroth appreciation page on Facebook.
“I decided she needed some recognition,” he says. “I was this young photography student who had been taught to make sure everything in your image was sharp and clear and in focus — no blurring. It was about getting as much information into your image as you could. And then along comes her book and it just broke all the rules. All of a sudden, photographs to me were shown to be more about a feeling, an emotion, than just information.”
Barney was especially taken with the last photograph in IOWA, “White Sky,” taken in Chauncey, Ohio. It is, indeed, just whiteness, framed in a slightly concave manner that lets the sepia border form a soft, playful edge. “A photograph could even be something as basic as nothing,” Barney says, with amazement. “I just fell in love with that book.”
In 2000, Rexroth found a Minneapolis gallerist, Martin Weinstein, willing to have a show of her work. He has stayed with her ever since and been a strong, eloquent champion of her IOWA work.
“I think it is a compendium of one of the most magical bodies of work in the 20th century in photography,” says Weinstein, whose gallery has also shown Edward Burtynsky, Alec Soth, Annie Leibovitz, Robert Mapplethorpe and Gordon Parks.
The new edition of IOWA can be considered “remastered,” to use a music-industry term for updated versions of classic albums. It’s not a straight republication. Some 20 of the original photographs have been replaced by 23 others not used in the 1977 edition. All are published at 4-by-4 inches. And she has used Photoshop to bring out more of the details and contrasts she feels were originally intended, but that she wasn’t able to accomplish at the time by using a dark room. She actually has been testing her IOWA updating for several years on Facebook.
“When you do any reprint, the photographer has an opportunity to revisit and re-evaluate every aspect of the first edition — and to also go back and look hard at all of the images from that series and time period that were not included in the book,” says David Hamrick, University of Texas Press’ director, via email. “Nancy really wanted to add new photos and change the sequence slightly. She made a beautiful new maquette of how she envisioned the book should look, sent it to me, and then we went through every page together on the phone and agreed that a slightly revised version would be even stronger than the first one.”
One addition in this new edition is the eerie “Clara in the Closet,” taken in Carpenter, Ohio in 1973 and showing, in blurred fashion, an elderly lady inside her bedroom closet. (It was published in CityBeat in 2012.) “Playing Ghost,” taken in Ironton, Ohio in 1974, was in the first book under the name “He Demonstrates,” but was printed in a 2-by-2-inch format that Rexroth now feels was too small to see. With its new name and larger size, it has more impact. It shows two children; a boy in a sheet shows off on a house porch that is a veritable battlefield between sunshine and shadow, while a rough triangle-like outline of bright light forms around a nearby girl’s head.
In a way, IOWA has a muse — a Puck-like older man named Emmet Blackburn, a railroad worker, seen dancing a jig near an uninhabited wooded area in the first edition. It became a favorite, a touch of joy in a work that otherwise saw mortality omnipresent in southeast Ohio. The new edition adds several more photos of him, plus one of the bed in his home in Pomeroy.
“He loved being photographed and he introduced himself to me,” Rexroth says. “So I started photographing him. He never saw this book. I was sure he wouldn’t like it because they were ‘out of focus.’ What I should have done was take regular photos with my Nikon and give him copies.”
The University of Texas Press-published IOWA honors the first one’s cover, with its lavender color and minimalist typography, Hamrick says, but also is a slightly smaller format to reduce the white space around the small photos. There is also, for the first time ever, a hardbound edition with a jacket. Among other changes, Rexroth and photographer Mark Power have written postscripts to their original introductions, and two new contributors have written essays.
One is Alec Soth, the prominent Minnesota-based photographer whose “Rexroth’s Strawberries” essay compares IOWA to Ingmar Bergman’s classic film Wild Strawberries.
“When I reflect on IOWA, why do I find myself thinking of cinema?” Soth begins. “Is it because the jittery monochromes remind me of film racing past a projector’s lamp? Or is it the fictional quality of the work, given that nearly all the pictures were made outside Iowa? Mostly, I think, I am reminded of cinema because Rexroth’s images seem not to set the hard facts of place but instead to evoke the world of dreams.”
All this praise, and all the recent hard work of looking at her past, has Rexroth thinking back to when she started her project. “What was I doing?” she says. “Well, I was just exploring with the camera. I’m so glad I didn’t ask myself those questions then. I felt like it was my secret and people could see the photographs and either like them or hardly be able to look at them.”
She also admires her chutzpah then. “To get into houses, I would say I was working on a project for school,” she says. “It was very strange — people looking out of their houses and seeing me as I would go into their backyards and on their porches. I don’t remember people asking me to leave or anything. ”
All that was a long time ago. “I was so young,” she says.
As this new edition reaches bookstores, Rexroth realizes she’s had a chance to return to her IOWA and see it with more mature eyes.
“Going back after 40 years and re-evaluating the thing, I found ‘new’ images I had not noticed before,” she says. “I just had to be older to expand my view of what IOWA was.”
In an email, she explains her views of IOWA in 2017 further: “IOWA is now its own country, with its own space in the world of feelings,” she says. “It is a place we all go to, sometime, and we recognize it when we do see 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.”
Nancy Rexroth will sign IOWA 7 p.m. Aug. 23 at Joseph-Beth Booksellers in the Rookwood Pavilion. The book is available from University of Texas Press.