Books

Iowa City photographer Barry Phipps turns road trip to deliver a table into a book

Barry Phipps of Iowa City turned photos from a 12-day south with his mother in 2018 into a new book, #x201c;Driving a Ta
Barry Phipps of Iowa City turned photos from a 12-day south with his mother in 2018 into a new book, “Driving a Table Down.” Phipps and his mother literally were driving a table from her home in Missouri to her sister in Florida. Phipps took photos along the way, and said the collection shows how “the current psyche of this time led to really playing up the idea of flux between the past and present, and how we romanticize the past in a time of uncertain future.” (Barry Phipps photos)
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In late 2018, Barry Phipps and his mother were on a mission to deliver a table from Missouri to his aunt in Florida. Phipps chronicled the journey via photography, shooting film as the trip wound south and then back toward home. The Iowa City photographer than selected more than 100 photos and arranged in the order they were taken (with one exception to support a visual joke) to create “Driving a Table Down,” published by University of Iowa Press.

In the new book, Phipps demonstrates the same eye for detail and composition that made his previous photography collection, “Between Gravity and What Cheer: Iowa Photographs,” such a delight. In the new collection, he investigates the past and the ways we both neglect it and try to reclaim it.

In this e-interview, Phipps talks about the trip, his selection process, and the ideas and themes that recur throughout the collection.

Q: I love the photos in this book and the recurring ideas and themes (for example, the recurrence of soda machines, signs and advertising material). I’m interested in your selection process. My understanding is that you shot literally thousands of photographs. What was the process for winnowing them to the final selections? Were the themes and recurring ideas in your mind as you took the photos or did they emerge in the selection process?

A: This book is informed by the making of my previous book (“Between Gravity and What Cheer: Iowa Photographs”). Over a four-year period, I photographed all over Iowa and visited all 99 counties. I was composing with elements I found of interest along the way.

The photographs were made in a non-linear way; meaning the project didn’t really have a beginning, a middle or an end. I just photographed until I felt I had a cohesive body of work made from every part of the state.

However, when I started to put those photographs into a book form, I realized that a book does have a sequence. There has to be a first photo, a last photo and everything in between.

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So, when putting the images together in my first book, I started to see connections made between the photographs, particularly when there’s a photo on each facing page. The photo on the left seemed to relate to the photo on the right, whether intentional or not.

I knew I wanted my next book to be different than my last. What appealed to me about this body of work was that, opposed to a four-year project made in a non-linear way, this was a body of work shot in 12 consecutive days and would be presented in chronological order.

First, I narrowed down the photos that I just thought were the best images, but as I started to put these together, I realized that the photos seemed to be subconsciously influenced by the previous photos I had just taken. I didn’t see it or think about it as I was making them, but it was pretty fascinating when I saw them together.

After seeing these relationships, I went back through the photos and found these crazy connections, so it had an influence on the images chosen, as well. I also found that recurring things emerged that I hadn’t noticed while making the images, such as various coats of blue paint and an Elvis theme, among others.

Q: In your notes at book’s end, you write about the past and the present and their intermingling. I was struck by how many of the photos show scenes of places or objects in some liminal state between deterioration and restoration.

What are your thoughts about these seemingly conflicting impulses to let the past fade away and to restore it in the present? What does that say about America — or at least this stretch of America?

A: This book and my last are really about an appreciation of the layers of time that exist within our landscape; a notion that the present is never uniformly present-tense. I’m attracted to old things that still exist, yet within a new context.

When making my last book, I thought I was making a book about a place, but in retrospect it was a book about an era. I started photographing it in 2012 and wrapped it up about two weeks before the presidential election in 2016.

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I feel this book was made in a different time. This Trump era makes me see everything differently; this idea of “Make America Great Again,” that the past was great but now is not — it’s really a time of limbo, and of division.

Once again, it wasn’t deliberate, but I think the current psyche of this time led to really playing up the idea of flux between the past and present, and how we romanticize the past in a time of uncertain future.

Q: Tell me about the nuts and bolts of the trip. You made good time, but you also apparently stopped a lot to take photos. What was the rhythm of the trip like? Was your mom into the photography project or did she just tolerate that part of the adventure?

A: My mom has always been my biggest fan. She was delighted to be part of it. Neither of us had a strict agenda and let the trip play out naturally. Our only concern was that we kept telling my aunt that we would be another day later than originally planned.

Q: In the background of the book (and in its title, of course), there is the act of moving objects freighted with memories from one place to another. How would you say the table, the chair you bring back — even your father’s slippers — inform or interact with the images you collected on the trip?

A: For most of this trip, I didn’t even think of this as my next book, or anything other than just photographing new places. Because we were on a functional vacation, it kept us on a pretty strict path, so it forced me to photograph what was along the way.

If I had set out to make a book on the South, it would have been a different experience all together. It ended up showing more about what I could make in 12 days while driving with my mom to take a table to my aunt, which is a very American thing to do — making a vacation out of a functional trip.

Q: Can you share some details about your photography — both in terms of the equipment you use and your approach to the art form?

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A: I’m a multimedia artist, but photography is my most common discipline, mostly because it’s the path of least resistance. I can just pick up a camera and get to work.

I shoot film because I like the process. It’s got a great look, but it’s just nice to take photos and not be compelled to look at them on the back of my camera right after I’ve taken them. It keeps me focused and in the real world.

As an artist, I like that I am making something physical. I’m exposing film and have a physical negative to show for my efforts. I shot this and my last book on 35 mm and medium-format film.

For the last year, I’ve moved up to shooting a large-format 8x10 camera, which I’m using for my latest project photographing homes built by Howard Moffitt in Iowa City. I’ve decided to stick close to home for a while until we get through these crazy times.

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