From 1970 to 1976 Nancy Rexroth completed Iowa, a series of images that evoke her memories and dreams of childhood in the Midwest. Working with a Diana camera, she embraced its defects—irregular exposures, bent perspective and blurred focus. As Nancy explains, "The Diana's made for feelings. Diana images are often something you might see faintly in the background of a photograph... sometimes, I feel I could step over the edge of a frame and walk backwards into this unknown region. Then I would keep right on walking..."
Although the work is entitled Iowa, the images were mostly made in rural Ohio. In the introduction to Nancy Rexroth: Iowa, Mark Power explains that she "discovered the Iowa of the past in the Ohio of the present. Sunny Iowa was transformed by memory into a dark Iowa with 'a real feeling of melancholy.' It became an Iowa of 'atmospheres' and the Diana became a key—with it, Rexroth unlocks Iowa from wherever she happens to be." The journey through Iowa is one of empathy—as we travel deeper into the artist's past, we also retrieve our own memories of childhood. White wood-frame buildings shimmer; young boys seem suspended in air; sunlight is harnessed in the folds of a curtain; a picnic is shrouded with shadows at dusk. As Iowa progresses, people gradually disappear, the dream grows stronger and the images become more abstract, culminating in a luminous vision of pure white sky. In 1977 Nancy Rexroth stated "I feel that in many ways Iowa is the best part of myself," humbly acknowledging the achievement of capturing a bygone time in her own life and the access to a collective past it grants to her audience.
Nancy Rexroth was born in 1946. Her work is included in numerous collections including the Museum of Modern Art, New York City; Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.; De Cordova Museum, Lincoln, Massachusetts; and the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris. A monograph entitled Nancy Rexroth: Iowa was published in 1977 by Violet Press.
Art on Paper
If you were going to make a photograph of desire—or of something dreamed, lost, remembered, or imagined—you would make it with a Diana camera, the plastic-bodied toy camera that first came from China in the 1950s. It had one lens, two aperture settings, and a few focus options that added up to one result—a fuzzy image. In the 1970s, Nancy Rexroth used it like a divining rod to discover something she had lost, the place where she grew up, Iowa.
But this exhibition, titled "Iowa," had not a picture of Iowa among its twenty-six luminous and mysterious, yet simple, images. They were all shot in rural Ohio, where Rexroth was living at the time. Still her Diana, obscuring the specifics of its subjects, made anyplace close enough to home. The camera's cheap optics worked directly against modern purity and precision, blurring and even distorting the images, making each exposure an adventure. Her Diana work was a species of anti-photography, consanant with experiments of the 1960s and '70s, from Robert Rauschenberg's cyanotypes to Jerry Uelsmann's montages. Yet rather than look forward, Rexroth's work seems to look backward to the origins of photography, when it wasn't entirely clear what the limits of the visible might be. Could the camera capture spirits? Could it enable you to look inward by looking outward?
In Rexroth's "Iowa," the camera recast specific situations as archetypal emblems, A Woman's Bed (1970), to my eyes one of the most beautiful photographs ever made, hovers between the explicitness of Walker Evans's rural objects and the immanence of Alvin Langdon Coburn's Photo-Secession work. Rexroth's outsiderish stance recalls Ralph Eugene Meatyard, except that from the outset he pursued the important picture, the obvious symbol, which she just disregarded.
The small format of the "Iowa" photographs emphasizes their affiliation with snapshots—mementos—and so does the treatment of the subjects: apparently off-hand (Boys Flying, Amesville, Ohio, 1976), truncated (Mother's Knees, 1976), or just plain goofy (Cow's Face, McArthur, Ohio, 1975). They feel like the stuff you might find in an old drawer you were cleaning out in your parents' house, except that hers hold the promise of universal memories, available no matter who you are, where you grew up. I thought for an instant that I recognized all the people in the pictures, and that I might find myself among them. This is the domain of myth.
There are other ways of handling the Diana, as photographer Jonathan Bailey has shown recently, ways of harnessing its imprecision to produce seemingly impossible nuances. That was not Rexroth's way. She gave herself up to the momentary vagaries of chance in order to give us images that transcend time.