Dying to Blossom: Nancy Rexroth: IOWA at Ten Nineteen

By April 08, 2022
Nancy Rexroth, My Mother, Pennsville, Ohio, 1970; vintage silver gelatin print, 4 x 4 inches. All images courtesy of Ten Nineteen, New Orleans.

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“My own private dreamscape, a state of mind.” So the artist Nancy Rexroth describes her 1970-76 series of photographs titled IOWA though most of the photos were taken in Ohio. Rexroth used a “toy camera,” a plastic Diana, to create the images that appear intentionally smudgey. Like memories, which she references as she considers childhood visits to the corn state. Some images contain only traces of resemblance, while others almost hallucinate in their clarity. Take for instance, “My Mother, Pennsville, Ohio” (1970). The edges of the photo dim as the subject is placed just off center, her hands clasped, eyes closed, tight-lipped smile. She continues to pose for the camera as seemingly a gust of wind throws her hair on end. A country road curves directly behind her. Rexroth’s dream-like photograph of her mother recalls another famous depiction of Iowa as a state of mind, the portrait of Grant Wood’s mother, Hattie Weaver. Wood depicts his mother as a frontier woman, clutching a plant. As if unsure of what to do with her hands, the artist handed the pot to his mother to keep her preoccupied while she sat for him. She gazes to the left, the rolling hills of Northern Iowa fall behind her.

Due to the camera and its ability to render images, Rexroth’s photographs are small, just four inches square, and as displayed recently at New Orleans’ Ten Nineteen, each image is surrounded by a large white matte and a thin black frame. To view the work, it requires close looking. The images are potent in their diminutive size, as if memory could be so orderly rendered. At the gallery, twenty-eight photos are hung next to one another in the light-filled space. Handsome in their placement, the accumulation of the photographs, one after the other, punctuated with two self-portraits, creates an eerie sense of déjà vu–the edges of images, the tight framing of the small picture. The photos often show only remnants of objects or interiors, light falling on a wall, curtains billowing out from a window. It is as if you’ve placed another child’s toy up to your eyes, gazing through a viewfinder to Rexroth’s Iowa, that surreal state of traveling back in time to our childhoods.

For Rexroth, Iowa is a metaphor, a stand-in for the conditions of memory, hazy and incomplete. Photography as a mood, a sense of a place that is not really a place. Though, for me, someone who grew up in Iowa, it is very much both a place and a state-of-mind. Rolling hills, yes, and kind people too, but also a deep sense of flatness. The way an hour could feel like days when you’re a child. Watching dust float through a sun beam. Longing for something, anything, to happen. Rexroth’s photograph “White Sky, Chauncy, Ohio” (1976), an exposed white expanse of a square irregularly framed with black. In Iowa everything felt blank and immature, a life to be filled in.

Nancy Rexroth, Self-Portrait Before Storm, Ocean City, Maryland, 1976; vintage silver gelatin print, 4 x 4 inches.

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In the preface to Rexroth’s book IOWA, an excerpt from the poem Look Late, at Night by Wayne Dodd:

…But this is
the picture, this the one
scene that keeps on rising
at night
like a summons,
calling me out into the white spaces beyond
the narrow focus,
to where I imagine I will find my
self, lying darkly among the pale weeds
and sunflowers, like some deep-red psyche
of the tropics, just dying to blossom

The poem makes apparent, perhaps, that Rexroth’s subject matter is less about childhood and more about the anticipation of adolescence, the deep desire to “blossom,” to become who you were meant to be. The frustration of school and parents, the constant expectation of something better beyond a small college town. Or maybe that was just me, growing up in Iowa. Rexroth admits that she wasn’t consciously trying to render a sense of childhood, but instead photographed “mostly from the back of my mind.”

A self-portrait, hanging on the far end of the second floor of the gallery, shows the artist, not unlike her mother in that earlier photo, with her eyes closed, wind blowing the trees behind her. Only this image is close-up, a clumsy “selfie”. The composition is off, her chin is cut off from the frame, squiggles of light dance around her adolescent face. Rexroth self-published IOWA when she was just 31 and while she taught photography for years in Ohio and inspired many young photographers, she never published another book.  

“All I had to cure was the boredom, but it never moved.” One more excerpt from a poem, this one by Travis Nichols, a poet and novelist I grew up with who published a book of poetry also titled Iowa. Curing boredom could come in many forms–talking on the phone for hours, driving around, thinking about love and boyfriends, all the things we were promised. Mostly we were just hanging out in parking lots, waiting. Which is to say that art, like metaphor, often approaches its truth obliquely. The real picture isn’t in the camera’s narrow focus, but somewhere in the blur, where the image is still in a state of movement becoming itself.

Nancy Rexroth, A Woman’s Bed, Logan, Ohio, 1970; vintage silver gelatin print, 4 x 4 inches.

“A Woman’s Bed, Logan, Ohio” (1970) is a deceptively simple photograph. The section of a bed, the corner of a room, the articulation of the decorative bedpost. All details the mind might map, recalling fractions of images from long ago. The creamy white expanse of the bedspread, the small mound of a pillow tucked underneath. The edges are undefined and dreamy.

“In my sub-mind, I was looking for what you might call ‘The Integrity of the Blur,’” Rexroth said in an interview in 2011, six years before IOWA would be re-edited and reprinted at the University of Texas Press. The new edit includes more images of children, “the longing and the joy of children, children flying high, and with the needing and urgency of childhood.” Maybe the blur of adolescence better represents a sense of possibility than does the sharply or narrowly focused. As such, the sub-mind, Rexroth’s singular smudge, her Iowa adds up to a series of photographs made some fifty-years ago. Images best described as picturing the act of remembering one’s past, or re-inhabiting our former selves, half-formed and wanting.


Nancy Rexroth: IOWA was on view at Ten Nineteen, New Orleans from December 2, 2021 through February 13, 2022. Rexroth’s IOWA is now in its 45th year since publication.

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