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, and named after her childhood memories, the book is mysterious on many levels. It has long been out of print and copies are scarce. I found one at the University of Oregon library, quickly fell in love with it, and eventually tracked down its author to ask some questions about Iowa, Diana, and photography.
Nancy Rexroth is represented by The Weinstein Gallery in Minneapolis, MN. All illustrations included with this interview were made from published duotone prints, not from original prints.
B: Can you tell me how you first got started shooting the Diana.
Nancy Rexroth: 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 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….
That's one thing I love about Iowa. The photos feel very loose and spontaneous.
I bought a Diana, 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.......And I continued...
So at that point you shot exclusively Diana and gave up other cameras?
Yes, I was mostly using the Diana from then on. Although I did have a few other projects after that: Platinum prints of 4X5 head shots of women, and later on using the “Polaroid SX-70 Transfer” method. In 2000, I also experimented with color imagery, using a cheap digital camera called the Digipix. I do feel that my work with the Diana is my best, so far. I keep my Nikon camera around, and use it for snapshots of friends.
Did you know of others shooting Diana at the time, apart from your instructor? The reason I'm curious is because I think Iowa was the first book to really explore that camera technique and in retrospect it seems to have popped out of thin air. I'm curious what the context was at the time in the mid 70s. Was there any community to compare notes with or were you just exploring on your own?
No, I didn't know of any other people using the Diana, and that remained so for quite some time. Twenty years later, I did find out that Jerry Burchard had his graduate students at the San Francisco Art Institute use the camera as well...with clear intent to be artistic, and spontaneous.
I did discover a sort of renaissance going on at that time - an interest in snapshot photos, with the relaxed, simple beauty that they often seem to have. Also, in the mid-1970s Jonathan Green edited an Aperture volume, The Snapshot, exploring the wonderful casual feel of these images, often taken on the fly.
It's funny you mention that. I just pulled that down from the shelf mid-comment. It's one of my favorite books and you're in it.
I think that the whole notion of a plastic camera was quite ripe and ready for discovery. It was just a given that it would be discovered by fine art photographers.
I think they're now being rediscovered. Dianas and Holgas have become very popular. There's a current of thought that it's a reaction to the digital age of perfection.
Yes, the plastic cameras will always be discovered by photographers who are in need of Poetry in their lives......often, not for long, but still worth the stop in with the lovely Diana, or whatever else takes you back to an “easy” sense of the beginning.
Plastic cameras are a simple and loving tonic for those who are frustrated and needing joy in their art work. How can you be at all serious, while using a camera that makes the sound of a wind-up toy every time you advance the film?
Of course the irony is that The Diana and the Holga are all film cameras, and each roll has to be developed in a darkroom, not a spontaneous thing. In the sense of immediately seeing the image result, the digital cameras have it all over the plastic ones, and in the end have their own kind of spontaneity……
I do want to make it clear here that my main attraction to the Diana was the sort of images I could make with it. The fact that it was a toy camera was not the striking draw at all, for me. I quickly began seeing the Diana as just another camera, nothing but a tool. I have always wondered why people get so into the Diana camera, and obsess over the cuteness, and the retro-ness of the camera. I guess the Diana can easily be a gimmick. And this makes it hard to fashion something original with the camera.
It has become a cult sort of camera. I remember about 15 years ago, I was using my Diana camera in a park and someone said "Oh yes, the cult of the Diana," and they sounded quite scornful. I didn't really respond because, well, IT IS a cult.....
In the last 5 years or so, the Lomography Society has remade and reissued the Diana Camera. I experimented with this new version. I was very excited to try it, because of the many lenses it has, especially the wide angle lenses. But the new Diana is not the same. The sweet spot is gone, replaced by mainly just some vignetting around the edges. The writings of the Lomography Society encourage people not to know anything about what they are doing when using the camera. They equate this sort of blindness with spontaneity. “To hold, point, and shoot a Diana implies a conscious decision to relinquish control”. We are told that the Diana is “magical”, and that the camera is the creature making the pictures, not the photographer. Loss of control and loss of responsibility are totally encouraged. To me, this is a very unfortunate idea. It is a sad thing, an ignorant thing…..Of course, the new Diana is here now, and it will have its own life…..(Please prove me wrong about the Lomo Diana).
It is odd to see plastic cameras sold in museums now and even in the clothing store Urban Outfitters. It is strange. What does it mean? Well, it means that it is there, morphing away, part of the zeitgeist of our culture and what a strange future will evolve with The Fair Diana! She definitely has her own personal life.
Was there anything you didn't like about using the Diana?
I never did like the fact that the Diana was prone to light leaks, or that the viewfinder was imprecise, or especially that there was a parallax problem with the camera. My earlier work had been done with an SLR Nikon camera, in which I could see exactly the image that I was taking. Composition has always been extremely important to me. While I enjoyed the freedom of the camera, I did try to control what it was doing….I was also obsessive about making the best possible prints from those Diana negatives.
What did I like about the camera? It was the dream, the liquid dream of the images that I could make with it. I went somewhere with the camera, into my own private landscape, a real mental spot, of needing, of longing, and with a real love of the beautiful.....When I was photographing, it seemed that I was awake and dreaming at the same time. This connection was an actual fact.
So when you made the Iowa photos you were in some state of heightened consciousness? Being pulled along and elevated by the camera?
Yes, but please note, it was not the camera but what could be done with it. I was never in love with the Diana. And over time, I found that Iowa could be anywhere, for me……Iowa was a state of mind.
As I understand it, a place from your childhood? Were you making the Iowa photographs with an eventual book in mind, or did the book come later?
No, 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, and onto paper.
What do you remember about your childhood visits to Iowa?
I need to repeat here that I was not consciously looking for childhood memories while shooting with the Diana. That approach would have likely been a contrived and hokey group of images. I was photographing mostly from the back of my mind, and not even aware that the photos had any theme to them.
Photo by Florence Rexroth
I did say somewhere a long time ago that I shot some Diana photos with my eyes closed. But that is just not true, although I must have said it. I did my best to control the camera and its images, just as much as with any camera that you might use.
[For the Iowa series] 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.
Did others help you edit the work into a book?
I hardly did any editing of the book. At one point, Victor Schrager and Larry Miller of Light Gallery did a sequencing of the work, on someone's living room floor…they tossed the prints around. I took a few of their suggestions, but I was just too naïve to get other feedback. A book is written in stone for sure! If I could do it over I would pare down the images to say 50 or so photos, and I would eliminate many of the “Winter” photos, in the first part of the book.
But I guess I do have a chance now to redo Iowa, because Gerhard Steidl in Germany has shown an interest in possibly republishing Iowa. This happened through Martin Weinstein, of The Weinstein Gallery. I am now in the process of going through all my old Diana negatives, and making sure that I did not leave some good images behind.
Will the new edition be a substantial revision?
I would want the new publication to have a number of never before seen Diana images. I would like the book to be very reimagined, and partly new. I am hoping to have a greater percentage of photos of children....choosing them to be the new core/anchor for Iowa......the longing and the joy of children, children flying high, and with the needing and urgency of childhood.
I would certainly want a new title for the book, perhaps something like The Country of Iowa, or Iowa: The Children Are Here….
So you will be more in control of editing this time? How will the editing be divided between you and Steidl?
I should say here more clearly that a Steidl republication is not a done deal. If it doesn’t happen then I will certainly look elsewhere.
I have talked with people whose work Steidl has published, and it is a great, creative experience. All of the publishing goes on in one building, in Göttingen, Germany. The artist travels there and has a hot-house sort of experience of collaboration, with Gerhard S. They eat their meals there, and they stay in a small apartment that is right next to the building.....Artists refer to this collaboration experience as "Steidlville". The presses are on the first floor, there are proofing rooms, there is a library. Steidl documented this process and posted it at Steidlville.com. For example there is a series of about 30 images, showing Steidl working with Robert Frank on the book Storylines.
Speaking of the book and its republishing, one thing I've always been curious about the original is the variation in image size and toning. Some images are small, some are sepia. Most are medium sized and greyscale. Is there any rhyme or reason to which images are shown in certain ways? Will it remain the same in the new book?
About the different print sizes in the book: Early on I realized that for me the Diana images were just too out of focus and soft to be printed very large. They would lose their visual integrity….looking large, and blobular. So I settled on 4 inches square for the images. But I would periodically find negatives that I very much wanted to print, that wouldn't hold up at 4 inches. So I began printing some of them smaller. There was no aesthetic reasoning for this in terms of the imaging sequencing, and I guess over the years people have wondered the why of my different sizes. Perhaps all images will be the same size next time around.
Personally I think the softness is part of the images' appeal. But regardless of why you did it, it's a neat touch because it's an extra layer of mystery. I've always wondered about it.
About image softness: Well, I can tell you that I made a whole lot of blurry, out of focus photographs with the Diana! But I was very fastidious in choosing which images to print. In my sub-mind, I was looking for what you might call “The Integrity of the Blur”. I had an unknown set of multiple rules regarding what to blur, and what not to blur ……I aimed to have the degradation/bluring of the image seem as though that was ACTUALLY how things looked, at the time: “My world is looking like this to me, and you are welcome to enter inside…..We are together in this”. The blur had to “work”- on several levels.
While I was shooting, I would often hand- hold the camera, for a blur caused by body movement, or flick the bulb setting of the shutter, laying down 2 or 3 sets of exposure, slightly out of register. This flicking could give the image a feeling of movement, as with “Waving House” Vanceburg, Kentucky 1975.
What about the toning?
The toning in the last, and 3rd part of Iowa, is sulfide toning with gold over it. It gives a wonderful pinkish glow to the images. I used these glowing photos for the last part of the book.
I am glad that you "got" the toning. No one ever really talks about it.....no questions.....
I don't know if I "got" it. But it did catch my attention. Again, I think it works just because it's different and makes you wonder.
The last part of the book was interiors, and this fecund sort of stewing kind of thing, which seemed to work well with the pinkish tones. I don’t know if this toning would work in a new publication of Iowa.
Do you recall the general reaction of friends and critics when the book came out?
General reaction? There wasn't much of a reaction as I remember. I was living alone in Albany, Ohio at the time, and was very isolated. I was quite the hermit before and during the making of Iowa.
The book did sell for a number of years through Light Impressions. It did slowly sell.
Who is Emmet in the book? He appears in several photos. I'm curious partly because I have a son named Emmett.
Emmet? Oh, a son, well that is a great name. I met Emmet in Pomeroy, Ohio. I photographed him 3 or 4 times. He had worked on the railroad his whole life. His wife had died a few years before. Emmet was quite lonely, but he was up for fun. I photographed him dancing one time.
Emmet dances the jig, first image of section II
Yes, Emmet and I went to Krieger Falls Ohio, where he was born, but which no longer existed. Still, standing near an empty woods, he felt moved to dance. I also made an image of the bed where his wife had died. You could see the shape of her body still in the bedcovers, or so it seemed to me. That image was not in Iowa.
You wrote in the book's introduction that after 6 years the excitement of Diana wore out a little and became less interesting. Can you talk more about that?
Yes, the excitement of the project did wear off. It felt like eating too much food. But lately, I have been going out into the Ohio and Kentucky countryside with my boyfriend, just using the camera again. And I find that the slight mania of the thing, the joyfulness, is still going on. I enjoy the Process of shooting Diana again......and what a surprise, and what fun!
When you shoot with the Diana now are you looking for the same type of shots as before?
Well, yes, I find that I can get into the pace and feel of it again, easily. You know, Iowa was in my own head anyway. Apparently I have Diana access again. I am shooting now things that I left out of original Iowa, such as landscapes…. I do love those old Ohio houses. And this new photographing is like the best of food. I am eating, and enjoying…You know what they say: “Better then Sex.”
I don't expect that more than a few of these newer images would now work, this time round....It will be interesting to see if newer images can be inserted into that old work. I am a different person now. I will soon be an old lady.
Portrait with Diana camera by Ron Rubino
What about incorporating color?
Color? That would be a lovely thing to explore. I did try color Diana at one time. The colors can be wonderful. I would have gone that route, but color work in my darkroom was so expensive and time consuming then. I would have needed to do the printing myself. I have always been so very picky about the printing of the work. It took often 10 or 12 hours to do even one print in black and white in the darkroom......so picky......color now? No, I want these recent images to be able to go into the new Iowa. I don't have the time for a dead end........well, why not.....I will think on it......Color.
What would I say to all the people buying and using plastic cameras, now? Have great fun with the camera. Enjoy its simple blessing. But know that the camera actually works, and it is not a toy.