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In Iowa, One Photographer Finds Traces of the Past

Barry Phipps moved to Iowa City in 2012. In the last six years, he’s tried to cover every hidden corner of the state, devoting countless hours to the road with no clear destination in sight. His book Between Gravity and What Cheer: Iowa Photographs, published by the University of Iowa Press, is the story of the place he now calls home.

At its core, Phipps’s journey is an exercise in time-travel. In a single photograph, we might find traces from the 1940s, 1970s, and the present day. “I’ve always been drawn to these older things,” the artist told Charity Nebbe from Iowa Public Radio. “I love the layers of time that happen in [the photos]. Still, it’s important to remember that Phipps’s Iowa isn’t stuck in time. It evolves and morphs, gradually but steadily. In these pages, small towns straddle the past and the future, and the ghosts of several generations stand beside current residents. Somewhere in the middle, we find Phipps and his camera.

Though Phipps never appears in the photographs, Between Gravity and What Cheer seems, in some essential sense, to be told in the first person. It’s a book about surprises and strokes of luck; had he turned the wrong way, he might never have spotted the gems he immortalizes in its pages. Each image is the result of a whim and a jolt of delight. And looking at Phipps’s work, we get the impression that that twinge of curiosity and joy will never disappear, even if some of the sites in the photographs do. He intends to photograph Iowa for the rest of his days. We asked the photographer about the book.

What were your preconceived ideas about Iowa before you moved? What did you expect to find?
““I had passed through Iowa many times en route to other places, and always by means of the major interstates of I-80 and I-35, which give the impression that Iowa is an endless green landscape of corn and soybean fields. I was always intrigued by the exit signs for towns with mysterious and provocative names like What Cheer, Mingo, and Belle Plaine, but these towns were always beyond view from the interstate, and like most highway travelers, I was always in too much of a rush to have time to explore.

“What I discovered when I moved to Iowa is that there is a staggering amount of small towns, one every six miles on any road travelled. All of these towns were formed around the same time in the mid to late 1800s, so there is a consistency in structure and architecture from town-to-town. Since these towns were formed to fulfill needs of small-scale farming communities in a premotor time, and most of these towns no longer fulfill these needs. As large-scale farming took over and people began traveling to and from the larger nearby towns and cities to work, these small towns entered a state of decline that is consistent. I feel I am photographing in an age of repurposing, reuse, and reinvention of the business districts of these towns. I find things exist that would have been torn down in cities with higher demands on real estate.”

What’s your favorite Iowa treasure you’ve discovered so far?
“It’s really the small things that I find most magical. Just last week, I was driving through Elkhart, a small town on the old Jefferson Highway. On a residential street on the way out of town was an old Dr. Pepper pop machine chained around a tree in someone’s front yard. I pulled over and found that the machine was plugged-in and fully operational (it even had been retrofitted to accept dollar bills). There was a handwritten note with a phone number to call if the machine wasn’t working.

“I called the number and asked the man what the story was behind it all. He came out of his house and met me. He said he installed the machine thirty-five years ago because there was no place in town for the kids to buy pop. The man and his machine are a local legend. This is the kind of stuff that happens all over Iowa. As much as the man and the story fascinated me, I’m more interested in capturing the mystery of these things. I photographed the pop machine from a distance to show its greater context. I also took a portrait of the man with his machine and videotaped an interview with him, but that was more for myself.”

Do you think you would have made this work if you were born and raised in Iowa, or was it important for you to begin this journey as an outsider?
““This project was fueled by a desire to understand my new surroundings. In the twenty-two years I lived in Chicago, I never had a curiosity about the state of Illinois. Chicago seemed to be its own self-contained universe, and I was never really excited about photographing the city. When I moved to Iowa City, I fell in love with the place and wondered about what was on the outskirts of town. In Chicago, I could drive for an hour and still be in the sprawl of Chicagoland, but in Iowa City, I could be in the countryside within ten minutes. It was just more accessible to explore here. Once I got a sense of the amazing stuff, I started taking day trips in every direction and became consumed by a desire to know everything about this state.”

Have any of the places you’ve photographed disappeared in the time since you saw them?
“Some have disappeared, some have been repainted, fixed-up, and repurposed, but I’m kind of amazed at how much is still here.One of the first trips I took when working on this book was to Ottumwa, Iowa. I stumbled into an old small 1930s diner tucked into a back alley. It was wonderful and photogenic, except for two things: first, it had a sign on it that said it was a famous old landmark, which is always a bit of a buzzkill for me; and two was that the city had built an unattractive parking ramp over the top of the building. I decided to frame the shot really tight and focus on the old sign and nice yellow painted brick and some electrical lines.

“But then I walked down the street and started thinking about it and realized that the things I had cropped out were actually the things that were most amazing, important, and interesting. Here is this old diner that could have been torn down, but the city decided to build around it. It helped me develop a sense of not only appreciating old things but also appreciating the layers of time and accumulations that develop around these places and seeing the present as not being uniformly present tense. The photo I retook that ended up in the book is of the whole scene and is much richer than what I had originally tried to photograph.”

People rarely appear in your images. In what ways is this a story about the people of Iowa, even when they are not present?
“I think this book is less about people and more about our culture, as represented in layers of time. I do find that my photos speak more to our collective persona through our possessions. I think there are really only three things to photograph in this universe: people, people things, and nature. And I wonder if people and people things are part of nature or opposed to nature. I look at all of my photos as combinations of these three elements.”

Do you think you’ve captured the reality of Iowa or constructed a subjective, dreamlike version of the state? Is it possible you’ve done both at the same time?
“The most important thing that I hoped to capture in this book is the beautiful mystery of these places, which is one part of the reality of Iowa. I’ve seen other photographers shoot these same places and impart a completely different—but also true—reality of these places, in that moment. I have revisted and rephotogaphed so many of these places and have never been able to capture again what was photographed before. Sometimes it’s better, sometimes worse, but always different.”

All images © Barry Phipps

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