Books

Dreamy Photographs Taken with a Toy Camera Retrace a Rural Midwestern Childhood

Long out of print, Nancy Rexroth’s IOWA, a haunting monograph of black-and-white photographs evoking her childhood in the Midwest, is reissued.

Nancy Rexroth, “My Mother. Pennsville, Ohio.” (1970) (courtesy the artist and University of Texas Press)

Maybe in the feathery orb of a dandelion’s seeds, ready to be blown into the wind, or the carefree play of two kids sprinting down the street, you might catch a glimpse of your childhood, even if the place is far from that home. Between 1970 and 1976, photographer Nancy Rexroth created a series of images in rural Ohio that capture some of that longing, which she titled IOWA for her own remembered childhood in that state. The monograph was initially released in 1977, and has long been out of print. In September, the University of Texas Press reissued IOWA for its 40th anniversary.

Cover of <em>Iowa</em> by Nancy Rexroth (courtesy University of Texas Press)
Cover of IOWA by Nancy Rexroth (courtesy University of Texas Press)

Rexroth’s photographs, in black and white, and later in the book washed with a tonal gold, were taken with a Diana toy camera. The fluidity of the resulting images, where the focus is imperfect and the perspective skewed, instills a sense of fleeting time. A portrait of Rexroth’s mother with her hair lifted towards a cloudy sky gives the impression that this subject will soon soar away; an angle of white sheets on “A Woman’s Bed” is a stark, ambiguous emptiness alongside a dark frame, bordered both by the wooden furniture and the photograph’s vignette edge.

“In the right hands, light becomes time and memory, and Nancy Rexroth took that cheap camera and bent it to her will, producing images redolent with feelings, memories, and unspoken thoughts,” writes photographer Mark L. Power in a postscript. “Nancy brought not only an artist’s sensitivity to her images but also intelligence, an intelligence that made ephemeral feelings tangible.” Power previously contributed an essay to the 1977 edition, which precedes the photographs (including 22 that were previously unpublished), along with new writing by photographer Alec Soth and curator Anne Wilkes Tucker.

Soth compares the “jittery monochromes” to “film racing past a projector’s lamp,” adding that “the softness of the tones, their simultaneous inclusion and exclusion of time: these combine to create a sort of betweenness, like the sensation of moving toward a goal, like the feeling of seeking.” Tucker points out how “fresh” the book was 40 years ago, while still recalling the turn-of-the-century pictorialists who used photography for images that appeared like paintings. “Somehow the pictures evade nostalgia,” Tucker writes. “She was dreamy only about the beauty of slanting light pouring through shaded windows or thin curtains. Her interiors vibrate. Her technique may seem like a throwback, but her vision is contemporary.”

Nancy Rexroth, "A Woman’s Bed. Logan, Ohio" (1970) (courtesy the artist and University of Texas Press)
Nancy Rexroth, “A Woman’s Bed. Logan, Ohio” (1970) (courtesy the artist and University of Texas Press)

The photographs are highly autobiographical, and we the viewers can just guess at why a particular house, with its bay window undulating out from white siding, was alluring to Rexroth’s eye. Yet there is a universal connection in the imperfection of our memories. By using the Diana, and its dark hues that seem about to submerge the figures and landscapes in their contrasts, Rexroth made these moments feel as if in constant motion. A man named Emmet dances a frenetic jig, his eyes agape in his weathered face; a group of boys jump with their arms outstretched, frozen in flight. “Aunt Martha’s” hands are fragmented from her body in one image, the blurred nose of a cow in another, and in interior scenes, sunlit curtains have the haunting weightlessness of ectoplasm. Rexroth recollects in a postscript:

My memories, these photographs, are my personal secrets of lonely power . . . The Children, The White Houses, and Emmet Blackburn . . . we all greet you there beyond this framework and out of time . . . we bow down with invitation, against the background of a long and slanted four o’clock sunset . . . in a white-hot journey of movement, the flickering, the clamoring toward the camera . . . and the girls always in flowery dresses and white socks, while the boys are forever learning always, to FLY.

Long before lomography-influenced filters made it onto Instagram, and the Diana was stocked on the Urban Outfitters shelves, Rexroth used the toy camera not as a novelty, but, as she put it in 1977, a “journey from the real into the dream world.” The final vision in IOWA is its most abstract: a square of white sky. It could be a defective print playfully kept in a family album, or an invitation to dream of a lost day.

Nancy Rexroth, “Aunt Martha’s Hands. Grandview, Iowa.” (1973) (courtesy the artist and University of Texas Press)
Nancy Rexroth, “Boys Flying. Amesville, Ohio” (1976) (courtesy the artist and University of Texas Press)
Pages from <em>Iowa</em> by Nancy Rexroth (photo of the book for Hyperallergic)
Pages from IOWA by Nancy Rexroth (photo of the book for Hyperallergic)
Nancy Rexroth, “Emmet Dances the Jig. Kreiger Falls, Ohio.” (1974) (courtesy the artist and University of Texas Press)
Nancy Rexroth, “Clara in the Closet. Carpenter, Ohio.” (1973) (courtesy the artist and University of Texas Press)
Pages from <em>Iowa</em> by Nancy Rexroth (photo of the book for Hyperallergic)
Pages from IOWA by Nancy Rexroth (photo of the book for Hyperallergic)
Nancy Rexroth, “Boy and St. Bernard. Shawnee, Ohio.” (1974) (courtesy the artist and University of Texas Press)
Nancy Rexroth, “Theater. Vanceburg, Kentucky.” (1975) (courtesy the artist and University of Texas Press)
Nancy Rexroth, “Hotel Room. Glouster, Ohio.” (1974) (courtesy the artist and University of Texas Press)
Pages from <em>Iowa</em> by Nancy Rexroth (photo of the book for Hyperallergic)
Pages from IOWA by Nancy Rexroth (photo of the book for Hyperallergic)
Nancy Rexroth, “House and Fence. Washington, DC.” (1972) (courtesy the artist and University of Texas Press)
Nancy Rexroth, “End of Day. Sugar Creek, Ohio.” (1976) (courtesy the artist and University of Texas Press)

IOWA by Nancy Rexroth is out from the University of Texas Press.

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