Long overdue recognition comes for a groundbreaking photographer

In the 1970s, when she was a graduate student in fine art photography at Ohio University, Nancy Rexroth began taking pictures of the landscapes, dwellings, and people in Southeast Ohio.

For six years, she wandered that rural corner of the state, using a low-tech, rudimentary camera that cost a dollar to capture the images and scenes that fascinated her.

The fruit of that work was a book with the quizzical title Iowa, a book that became a classic, perhaps a cult classic, in the world of fine art photography. Rexroth deliberately blurred or double exposed the images, creating a stark, otherworldly beauty from the otherwise everyday scenes. Her work influenced countless photographers, was widely recognized in the world of fine art photography, and was exhibited in museums and art galleries.

For more than 20 years, this influential, groundbreaking photographer has been living a quiet existence in Cincinnati, seeking no publicity, mounting few, if any exhibitions, content to live under the radar in a small apartment in the Clifton neighborhood with her arthritic cat, Cy.

The world will soon have the opportunity to learn a lot more about this shy but influential artist as the Cincinnati Art Museum is acquiring the definitive collection of her work, more than 300 rare and vintage photos, including many that have been seldom or never seen by the public.

The person spearheading the acquisition, Nathaniel Stein, the museum’s associate curator of photography, calls Rexroth “a very moving and profound artist.” The museums’ acquisition will include many works in addition to the images from Iowa, many never seen before and many from her private collection.

It’s something of a coup for the museum and its photography collection, according to Stein. “It is a collection of photographs that will exist nowhere else,” he says. “It is a collection of record of this artist’s work.”

Iowa was first published in 1977 and in the introduction to that edition, Rexroth, then 30, called the work “a kind of psychic journey from one emotional mood to the next — a maturation process.”

“It all happens in a very exotic place,” she wrote. “It is the Midwest, that strange land where déjà vu is an everyday occurrence.”

Iowa was republished 40 years later, in 2017. Rexroth, then 70, looked back on that six-year project with nostalgia and a clue as to what moved a young woman in those days to roam the hilly roads of rural Southeast Ohio in search of images that spoke to her.

“My memories, these photographs, are my personal secrets of lonely power,” she wrote in an afterword to that edition.

I went in search of this reclusive artist, who allowed me into her apartment for an interview in which we touched on her photography, the art museum, Ohio, and Cincinnati.

Diana portrait of Nancy Rexroth by Ronnie Rubino, Albany, Ohio, 1973

Soapbox: Your work has been influential to so many photographers, how did you get interested in photography?

Rexroth: I remember as a teenager I had an Instamatic camera and just took snapshots like everybody. There was a huge snow with tracery on all the trees, everything becomes a fairyland. We had a little forest behind our house. I went there and I went insane, I shot two or three rolls of film. My father couldn’t understand why I had taken all those rolls of film.

Later, when I had my own little darkroom in the basement, he couldn’t understand why I had maybe 10 sheets of paper in the trash of images that I didn’t think were working. As far he was concerned, they all looked fine. I was always very perfectionistic about printing the photographs.

Soapbox: The camera you worked with for so long, the Diana, is not just low-tech, it’s basically a toy. Why did you take up that camera?

Rexroth: The head of the master’s program (at Ohio University) went to Chinatown and discovered this camera for sale there. It cost maybe $.89 cents or $1.50. When you advance the film, it sounds like a toy and it was made by a toy company. They made it a workable camera with very basic settings.

They had all these beginning photography students and rather than have people spend hundreds of dollars on camera equipment, they just leveled the playing field with this.

Soapbox: What did you like about working with it?

Rexroth: The fact that it’s a dollar camera and it’s so basic, it’s very freeing. I just fooled with it for a couple of weeks and then I made this one photograph called “A Woman’s Bed.” Out of that one picture everything else flowed.

Soapbox: I imagine people wonder why you called the book Iowa. Most of the photos were taken in Ohio.

Rexroth: Maybe five years into it, I applied for a grant at the National Endowment and I realized I didn’t even have a title for this thing. It came into my head because when I was child both my parents grew up in Iowa and they met in Iowa and we would go to my father’s relatives during the summer. And that time was just really special. On those visits to Muscatine, Iowa, there was bright August sunshine and all the houses were clean and white.

I was going to school in a semi-Appalachian area (Ohio University in Athens). I grew up in suburbia, so Iowa seemed very different and exotic. But this area of Southeast Ohio had a definite feel to it and I was picking up on that.

Soapbox: Some of the photos are of spaces and rooms that appear very personal to the subjects. How did you find them?

Rexroth: I was very naïve. I guess a lot of women were. I had my consciousness raised in grad school about women’s liberation, so I just decided I would go around and knock on the doors of strangers and ask to go in and photograph, which is really stupid, and I was lucky. I stopped it because I realized I had been lucky.

Soapbox: Do you remember any stories?

Rexroth: This particular one, the woman was there with her husband. And I just made it my goal in their house to photograph as much as I could, and especially to get in the bedroom. It was like a game: How far can I go? I remember the looks on their faces. They were really glad that I left.

Soapbox: Even though the Diana camera was basically a toy, you still used your own technique with it, didn't you?

Rexroth: The camera had vignetting around the edges. Things were a little out of focus, but really not that much. I learned to handhold the camera so there would just be a slight blurring, or I would flick the shutter; you could do multiple exposures. I would flick it once or twice and there would be a little overlay of one image on the other and it would make it seem like it was vibrating a little bit.

Soapbox: Many of the images are blurred, what did that mean to you?

Rexroth: Dreams. Blurred things can look kind of dreamy.

Soapbox: It seems the people in the Iowa photos are almost unaware a photographer is present. How did you pull that off?

Rexroth: In the beginning, I would be very awkward because I’m a very shy person and I always take a lot of pictures as if I was a photojournalist. I would put them at ease by being awkward myself. Usually when I photographed things, I would start at a distance and then slowly move forward, jockeying around. They would start to relax and I would too.

As I was photographing, I would go from subject to subject, really not thinking. If you’re really not thinking and you’re in the flow of it, you kind of dance with it. The moments when you’re really not thinking at all about what you’re doing are the ones that are successful.

Soapbox: Southeast Ohio is a beautiful part of the state, but what attracted you to it?

Rexroth: I think it was what I’m calling now a vibration, some kind of vibration going on. There was a lot of sadness there. There were a lot of retired railroad couples. People didn’t seem to come out of their houses very much. Because it was semi-Appalachian, these houses were gritty and not well kept. That was like my canvas. Stark white houses.

I lived in Albany, Ohio, but I rarely photographed there. I would just explode out of the house. There were maybe 10 little towns I would go to. I might even drive 45 minutes. Pomeroy, Ohio was the one I liked the most. It was right on the river and there were some hills going on.

Soapbox: It’s great that your work is getting this recognition now, with the new edition of Iowa, and the museum's acquisition.

Rexroth: This book was republished 40 years after the work was done and people are coming up to meet it now. Before, it was ‘What the hell is that?’

Soapbox: How did you find your way to Cincinnati?

Rexroth: I had lived in Yellow Springs for 10 years. I moved here because I was going to set up a massage business. I bought this large house. I liked moving here because I loved the houses here. They’re different from Iowa or Southeast Ohio. I just love the city, and it’s small. I would never move to Chicago or anything like that.

Soapbox: What do you like about it?

Rexroth: I really like Clifton, Ludlow Avenue. I love to go meet my friends for lunch and I love the Esquire. I just love the fact that we have this wonderful orchestra and we have a very old and renowned museum, but we also have a Contemporary Arts Center. There’s a lot of good stuff here. And a huge number of parks.

With the exception of the self portraits, the provided images above are Nancy Rexroth's 10 favorite photos from Iowa. 

Read more articles by David Holthaus.

David Holthaus is an award-winning journalist and a Cincinnati native. When not writing or editing, he's likely to be bicycling, hiking, reading, or watching classic movies.