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Archive for March, 2011

Nancy Rexroth- Visionary Photographer

Below are excerpts of a longer interview with the photographer Nancy Rexroth. Her work investigates the world translated through the camera lens in ways that create an emotional experience that transports you to an “other” personal world that the artist has equated with her memories from childhood. But this work does not exploit the cloying nostalgia of childhood, rather it examines the essence of light, emptiness, and off-kilter memories with a vision that is both gorgeously awkward, and that refines the imagery to essential impressions of time, feeling and experience.

Self Portrait, Athens, Ohio 1969, Nancy Rexroth

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.

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…

A Woman’s Bed · Logan, Ohio · 1970

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.

He Demonstrates · Ironton, Ohio · 1974

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….

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.

Children and Leaves · Shawnee, Ohio · 1974

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….(click here to read the full article).


Group Portrait · Albany, Ohio · 1974

Full disclosure: Nancy Rexroth is my aunt. So while that may open me up to charges of bias, I will still assert that that in no way changes the fact the she is one of a handful of significant and influential photographers who’s pioneering work in the 1970s (which just happened to use a then relatively unknown camera in an innovative way) has left an indelible mark on the photography /art world.

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