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Five questions with: Photographer Barry Phipps

Virtual Book Launch: Driving a Table Down

Tuesday, July 7 at 7 p.m., online (prairielights.com/live)

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Photographer Barry Phipps holds his June 15 release from University of Iowa Press, ‘Driving a Table Down.’ — courtesy of Barry Phipps

Iowa City multimedia artist Barry Phipps has released his most recent book of photographs, Driving a Table Down (University of Iowa Press). It’s a visual travelogue told over 18 days and 108 pages, detailing a trip taken with his mother from Iowa to Florida, to visit (and deliver the titular furniture to) family.

In Zak Neumann’s 2018 review for Little Village of Phipps’ earlier, Iowa-centric book, From Gravity to What Cheer, he called the photos “striking and timeless.” That same effect is on display here, with even the people captured seeming era-less and eternal.

Phipps will be speaking about Driving a Table Down at a virtual book launch on Tuesday, July 7 at 7 p.m. (registration required). The book is available for purchase from Prairie Lights, which is hosting the virtual launch, with options for curbside pickup, media mail shipping or free local delivery. Phipps answered a few questions for Little Village ahead of his event.

Page 73, captioned: “Wednesday, 10/3 • Store owner and friend (in Tammy Wynette’s hometown), Tremont, Mississippi.” — courtesy of Barry Phipps

Is this the first time you’ve done a virtual book launch, or have you done them under other circumstances before? How is preparation different?

This is my first virtual event. The preparation is mostly the same, but I have some anxiety about doing a virtual event through Zoom. I get nervous when I see a video of me as I’m speaking. This event will be set up as a webinar. I won’t be able to see or hear the attendees (although they can type questions), so I’ll have a hard time gauging how people are reacting to what I’m saying. When I give talks, I feel a certain responsibility to make it entertaining and sometimes humorous, so it will probably be akin to a comedian or musician performing to an empty room.

How have you been faring, personally, during the pandemic?

It’s actually been great for me. I spend most of my time working in my studio anyway, so it’s been a long stretch of uninterrupted workflow, as everything I had booked as a professional photographer has been cancelled or postponed. Plus, my wife is working from home now, so we get to spend more time together. I have anxiety about everything going on outside of my studio, but have some optimism. It seems like we’ve hit rock bottom and the things have to get better. Ask me again after November and we’ll see what I say then!

Can you talk a little bit about the themes of the book and how they resonate in our current moment — the idea of travel and road tripping, when we’re cooped up at home; your movement as a white man through the South through the lens of the current Black Lives Matter uprising?

In many ways, Driving a Table Down is a response to photographing my first book Between Gravity and What Cheer: Iowa Photographs. After spending six years photographing exclusively in Iowa, I wanted to see how other parts of the country are different or similar to here. Making the Iowa series I wasn’t surprised to see how white Iowa is, nor how segregated black communities are here. In my naivete, I didn’t expect the South to be just as segregated because there’s just not as many black people here as there are in the South, so frankly I expected to see more diversity. I felt in some ways like I never left Iowa. I had somehow managed without effort to drive from Iowa to Florida and back and only see a handful of black people and only one black community, which only happened because Google Maps rerouted us off the highway in Birmingham because of a car accident blocking our route.

In this neighborhood I saw an old thrift store sign that I wanted to photograph so I pulled over and got out of the car. Across the street was a bank with a security guard standing outside with a rifle and a bullet-proof vest, so I felt a bit uneasy. My mom is a thrift store junkie, and she gets out of the car to check to see if the store is open, because if it is she’s definitely going in. In retrospect, I found it illuminating that I was feeling vulnerable being a white man in a black neighborhood while my 75-year-old mom who grew up in the South wants to go thrifting in this very same place because this is how she travels and likes to experience new places.

Page 69, captioned: “Wednesday, 10/3 • Birmingham, Alabama.” — courtesy of Barry Phipps

This book isn’t about race or segregation, but it certainly is shaped by it. As a photographer who primarily drives into small towns and starts blatantly photographing everything for his own purposes, I’ve come to see this is an act of white privilege. When I heard of Christian Cooper, the bird watcher in Central Park, who has been harassed countless times for suspicious activity, I can’t help thinking of how I am able to go into small, tight-knit communities and work without confrontation. If Christian was a photographer (and as a bird watcher, he practically is), I know he could do what I do, but his experience would certainly be a different one.

Have you been able to see your mother again since COVID-19 hit? How is it, revisiting this artifact of time spent together in a time of separation? How did that affect any editorial or curatorial choices you made as the book was finalized?

I last saw my parents in March, just before I began quarantining. I turned in my final draft of this book well before the pandemic, so it didn’t influence what I selected, but it absolutely has an impact on how I see this book now.

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Like my mom, when I travel to new places, there’s an expectation to have an authentic regional experience. To see what is unique both geographically and culturally in that place. I came to realize that the most authentic experience I had was spending time with my mom in the car; the conversations we had, the perspective she gave to the region she lived in as a child and just hearing her point of view on everything we saw as we drove through regions unfamiliar to both of us. About a month after our trip, my mom sent me a spiral notebook where she had written down everything she could remember that was important to her about this trip. This notebook and its contents was as authentic and distinctly American as anything I could have hoped to photograph.

I had a certain amount of guilt originally about even including personal photographs of my mom and family and relatives. I wondered if anyone would care about these images, or think, “Why does this guy get to publish a book about his relatives? Who cares!” Plus, when I photograph anyone or anything, I wonder if I’m just exploiting the uniqueness of the subject for my own personal gain. What I realized is that these are people who are quintessentially American, and that they are the people I have access to. I’m able to photograph my family in a way that I couldn’t do with strangers, nor would want to do with people I don’t know.

There’s a juxtaposition, perhaps unique to the sprawling U.S., between the tourist-eye view and the personal and familial. How do you think that falls out, in the end? Is the U.S. ultimately one big family, or do we move like tourists through the lives of our physically distant relatives?

Most of the trips I have taken throughout my life are centered around a task at hand. They are a sort of functional vacation, like driving to a family wedding in California, visiting relatives, or driving a piece of furniture to an aunt in Florida. I like that this book was made while taking a trip that was serving another purpose, as opposed to a specific trip through the South to strictly photograph. Once again, it’s about a certain brand of Americanism. It’s very pragmatic. It’s not like we are just boppin’ around — there’s work to do.


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