116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Iowa photographer known for chronicling women’s lives dies
Joan Liffring-Zug Bourret was a ‘trailblazer,’ ‘a force of nature’
Pioneering Iowa photographer Joan Liffring-Zug Bourret of Iowa City, whose acclaimed photos documented the lives of women, died Sunday at the Solon Nursing Care Center. She was 93.
Liffring gained international attention in 1951 when she took pictures of the birth of her son, Artie, at what was then called Mercy Hospital in Cedar Rapids.
The black-and-white photos were published to great interest in the Des Moines Register, the Minneapolis Tribune and Look magazine, a large format photo magazine that had a circulation of more than 3 million at the time. In a story about Liffring’s career, the Register in 1984 declared the photos “trailblazing … triumphant, though clinically tame by today’s standards.”
She was the first photojournalist to be named to the Iowa Women’s Hall of Fame in 1996. She and her husband, John Zug, co-founded the Iowa City-based Penfield Press, now Penfield Books, in 1979, which has published more than 100 books of ethnic culture and other fiction and non-fiction titles.
Liffring’s most famous photographs document the lives of women, which were collected and published in “Women, 1957-1975.” Two of the photos were selected to be in the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
“During the years that I took these photographs, I did not realize how they documented the limited roles of women in that era. … With the birth of the women's movement in the 1960s, these photographs ultimately defined some of the social conditions of this era,” she said in 1981 with publication of the collection.
Liffring had personal experience with those “limited roles.”
Liffring, who was born in 1929, had finished her junior year at the University of Iowa when she was hired in 1948 as a photographer/writer for The Gazette, where she was paid half as much as her husband, Gazette reporter Art Heusinkveld, according to her autobiography. At age 21, when she became visibly pregnant, she was let go and told to stay home and raise her family, she recalled.
“I was furious at losing my job,” she said in the autobiography.
She responded by photographing the birth of her son and beginning a successful freelance career taking pictures for the Register, The Iowan magazine and other publications. After she and Heusinkveld divorced in 1963, she supplemented her income by photographing prominent families in Cedar Rapids and Iowa City.
Liffring was one of the first Iowa photographers to photograph people of color, including a visit to Coe College by Martin Luther King Jr. — reflected in the theme of her 2011 autobiography, “Pictures and People: A Search for Visual Truth and Social Justice.”
She also photographed life in the Amana Colonies for decades and contributed to the understanding of Iowa artist Grant Wood through her photographs and book about his sister, Nan Wood Graham.
The Cedar Rapids Museum of Art has 270 of Liffring’s photos in its collection. Her photographs have been the focus or part of 16 exhibits at the museum in recent years.
“Joan was a force of nature,” said Sean Ulmer, the museum’s executive director. “Not only was she a gifted artist with a keen eye, but she was a fierce advocate for the arts and for many social issues. She lived a rich and full life, and everyone who knew her was in some way impacted by having known her.”
From the beginning of her work as a photographer, “Joan created an important body of work and continued to add to that throughout her lifetime,” Ulmer said. “She was fascinated by the world around her. With her unique vision, she captured that, highlighting the things so many of us would have missed.”
Liffring donated more than 500,000 of her negatives to the State Historical Society of Iowa and also donated photographic prints to the Women’s Archives, University of Iowa Libraries, and Kirkwood Community College.
Judith Winter, in reviewing the 2005 exhibit, “Joan Liffring-Zug Bourret: From a Life of Photography" at the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art, wrote that the photos ”drip with area history … documenting an era of hats and ‘house dresses’ at a time when it was OK for pregnant women to drink and smoke. And civil rights. The exhibit also subtly depicts Iowa's diversity — Amish, American Indians, Muslims, African Americans, migrants, rural and urban.“
In 1967, Liffring married John Zug, longtime city editor at the Register, who died in 1995. In 1996, she married Dwayne Bourret, who died in 2021.
She also was preceded by death by her two sons, Art Heusinkveld, in 2016, and David Heusinkveld, in 2015; and her grandson Jordan, who died in a car crash in 2003 at age 18. She is survived by daughters-in-law Carol Roemig-Heusinkveld of Iowa City and Diane Heusinkveld of North Liberty, three grandchildren and a great-grandson.
A private family funeral is planned.
In a 2001 interview with The Gazette, Liffring said she always knew she’d become a photographer when she was growing up. “It's fun, exciting, and I get to explore,” she said, readily admitting she was “a more visual than verbal person.”
The biggest lesson she’d learned in life, she stated, was “to give to others and be positive, understanding and tolerant.”
Forrest Heusinkveld of Iowa City, Liffring’s grandson and president of Penfield Books, said Sunday that “Joan's family is enormously proud of her personal and professional accomplishments. She was a firecracker who spoke her truths directly and succinctly and never beat around the bush.
“She loved her family and was dedicated to making the world a more just place. She spent her life documenting the lives of others, with a camera and a pen. Memories fade, but the hundreds of thousands of images she donated to the state of Iowa, and the words she published, will live on forever.”