Introduction to Between Gravity and What Cheer: Iowa Photographs:

THE PHOTOGRAPHS HEREIN are from a series I began in the summer of 2012. After living in Chicago, Illinois, for more than two decades, my wife and I relocated to the comparatively small town of Iowa City, Iowa. It was a strange and wonderful feeling to know absolutely nothing about the towns and landscape that surrounded our new home. I started taking day trips in every direction, which was easy to do as this town has old highways that intersect like a twisted bicycle wheel, with Iowa City at the hub. 

Over the next four years I took countless trips and shot a few hundred rolls of film. Along the way I marked up a road map with a Sharpie to make note of where I had been, and proceeded to publish five volumes of an on-demand publication I called Iowa Photographs. The magazine was crammed with everything I was excited about at the end of a photo season, which usually coincided with an art exhibition of recent work. 

My trips were random and haphazard from a planning standpoint, and were often decided by heading toward the town with the most interesting name (What Cheer, Diagonal, Gravity) or by the way the chosen road would add to the look of my marked-up map (which became a sort of conceptual art piece in and of itself). By spring of 2016, I wondered how many of Iowa’s ninety-nine counties I had managed to photograph and discovered that only twenty-three remained, many of which I had already driven through en route to somewhere else but hadn’t managed to stop. I plotted four trips, referring to this in my head as the County Completion Series. By late October of 2016, I photographed my last untapped county and decided that this was a good time to assess the first four years of this project and see what I could say with a body of work from all over the state. 

There’s no getting around it: a collection of photographs taken in Iowa is likely to read as a book about Iowa. My intentions were to learn of my surroundings and to compose with color, line, texture, and form—an approach I learned while studying painting with Lester Goldman at the Kansas City Art Institute in the late 80s. I think of these photographs as extensions of paintings, with the added element of composing with subject matter that also signifies something culturally. I am an American who is fascinated by our culture. These images are, individually, an exercise in photographs made not of something, but composed from something. I see these as individual visual communications that, when combined into a linear collection through the pages of this book, read as a long mysterious sentence with images on facing pages suggesting connections that would not happen if presented alone. 

I entered small towns to find subjects for composition and was more drawn toward business districts than people or people’s homes. Business districts felt more approachable. For the most part, I felt a sense that people knew I was there, but left me alone in a respectful way. Occasionally people did approach me, either out of curiosity or out of potential conflict, but it always ended in good conversation and an occasional portrait, some of which I include in this book. 

Most small towns in the Midwest formed to serve agricultural needs that are no longer necessary, as family farms have been replaced by large-scale farming. This collection is not about small town survival, but it did influence my work. People identify with where they live. There are countless efforts to revitalize these places in many ways, and for me the most profound way is in public murals made by local self-taught artists who often depict the history of the town. 

I find myself living in the future of my childhood. As a kid, I pictured this current world as being uniformly futuristic. The reality is more a world of layers of cultural accumulation, and where these layers exist is where I tend to compose. All of the layers are constantly in flux, as are my perceptions. 

The rivers and lines that form the boundary of this state are arbitrary. Nothing changes much in terms of culture or scenery as these lines are crossed, at least not at first. I try to find what is unique to each place. Iowa has all of the things that are in these photographs and not in these photographs, in these moments, in these conditions. 


Barry Phipps

Iowa City, Iowa

August 2017