Listen to the Pictures: Sandy Dyas, "Down to the River: Portraits of Iowa Musicians" Print
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Wednesday, 27 June 2007 02:24

Down to the River: Portraits of Iowa MusiciansIowa roots musician Greg Brown gazes out from the sepia dust-jacket of Sandra Dyas's Down to the River: Portraits of Iowa Musicians as if he were part of a modern-day American Gothic, setting the tone for a book filled with earthy photographs. This picture is found inside in black and white, opposite a posed shot of Kevin Gordon in front of a door haloed with postcards.

The effect of these two photographs side-by-side is a feeling of the artists emerging confidently from the background - Gordon from a busy wall of mini-portraits, and Brown from a lushly overgrown coneflower meadow.

Both the juxtaposition of the photos on the pages and the setting within each photograph are important to Dyas and were carefully chosen, as she told me in a recent phone interview. She calls all the images in the book "portraits" - some are of the musicians on stage and some are posed. When she shoots, especially the posed portraits, it's a lot like performing, she said. "It takes a while to get comfortable. It's not just snap, snap, snap, you're done. I have to focus to get to that place to respond" to what she's seeing and feeling.

"I'm into environments - I don't like the plain background," she said. "Go to this location. Or let them [the musicians] find locations. You've just got to find it and put it into your photograph. You're putting together a photo like a drawing or painting, like putting a puzzle together. I'm looking for a number of things. A few key elements: lighting, location, connection with the individual."

Down to the River, recently published by the University of Iowa Press, consists of 60 black-and-white photographs documenting 20 years of the Iowa City music scene, with its mix of folk, blues, roots, Americana, and rock sounds. There are portraits of Bo Ramsey, Greg Brown, Dave Moore (a song of his gives the book its title), Kevin Gordon, Joe and Vicki Price, Pieta Brown, Radoslav Lorkovic, Mike and Amy Finders, and many others that you've probably heard of. But you don't need to know the musicians to appreciate the artistry of the photos.

An extra bonus for anyone who picks up this book is the enclosed CD that has 18 tracks by the photographed musicians. The songs on the CD were selected and sequenced by Dyas to accompany a perusal of the pictures. She writes in the "Photographer's Note" at the end of the book: "I listened carefully to the way each song sounded when heard in a given order. Each song, like each photograph, had a particular mood and composition; careful attendance to this created continuity as I strung them together to construct something bigger."

Sandy told me that picking the music was challenging: "The sequencing was difficult because you have to make it sound right" - such as not having the first selection be in a minor key. "I wanted certain people to be represented, with the songs reminiscent and representative of this particular era of time." She'd originally wanted all the songs to relate to Iowa, but when that didn't quite work, she found themes like songs about rivers, or one song reminding her of another.

This is Dyas' first book, although she's been a professional photographer since 1976. She was taking pictures even before that, in grade school and high school, and she's always loved music. She remembered that "the first LP I bought was Meet the Beatles, and I thought I'd love to have taken those pictures" - the portraits of the foursome on the album's cover.

Then she attended Kirkwood College, began studying graphic arts, and was given her first 35-millimeter camera, which "changed everything for me" after the Polaroids and Instamatics of her youth. After marriage, children, divorce, and her own business as a portrait photographer, Sandy headed to Iowa City in 1987 in pursuit of college degrees. (She received her BA, MA, and MFA there.) She was a nontraditional student who'd grown up on a farm. "I didn't know those kinds of jobs existed: ‘artist.' I had no idea that there was such a future as ‘photographer.' My top priority at that time was to get a degree."

There also happened to be a "cool music scene" in Iowa City at that time, which Sandy followed and, through that, found her photographic subjects. She'd met Radoslav Lorkovic through Bo Ramsey's Sliders in 1981, and she'd been influenced by the music he was playing. There's a great shot of him in the book, playing his accordion with sunglasses on, standing in a road meeting the horizon in South Dakota.

In Iowa City, Sandy went to clubs on the weekends - Gabe's, The Sanctuary, The Mill - and started taking pictures of musicians. "I mainly photographed people I knew," she said, talking about the various artists she had met as a graduate student, "because they were friends. It was a way for me to connect, and I was very serious about it. Then Bo [Ramsey] asked me to take live photos for his album cover, and I really enjoyed it."

The book project got started about five years ago when Sandy brought her idea to the University of Iowa Press' Holly Carver, a music enthusiast from Austin, Texas. Sandy had a spread featured in the alternative-weekly newspaper Icon in Iowa City, and "that clued me in that I had a body of work."

But, she told me, she was not consistent about making prints of her work; instead, she had contact sheets representing thousands of photographs. When Carver asked Sandy to bring in a body of work, she didn't even have a portfolio.

So the first task was to look at all her contact sheets and choose what to print. "I spent a long time making prints," she said, "and a long time deciding which pictures should go in." Next she made a mock book of photocopies of the chosen images, including how they would be arranged. "How you sequence things makes a huge difference," she said. "So does who's in the pictures. All those pairings are very conscious."

Sandy's care in choosing and arranging is evident at each turn of the page. A good example is found toward the end of the book (the pages are unnumbered): On the left page is Pieta Brown standing next to some kind of farm machine, and she's looking to the reader's right - to the photo on the next page, with Bo Ramsey standing at the crossroads of a cornfield. You can look at the pictures as separate portraits, but viewing them together adds an extra dimension, a feeling of country tranquility.

On another spread, Pieta Brown is sitting sideways to a piano with the light coming in from the left and her left arm crooked above the keyboard, and then on the next page, the lighting seems to continue in the portrait of her father in a bathroom, his left arm crooked above a sink.

Another telling pairing consists of Amy and Mike Finders in repose on a picnic table and looking right into the camera on the left-hand page, juxtaposed with Joe and Vicki Price deep in performance mode in what could be just another area of the same rural setting.

The only true close-up in the book is a photo of Sonny Lott taken at the Mississippi Valley Blues Festival in 2005. Most of the images, even while focused on faces, appear to be from a middle range. "I am not a fan of telephoto lenses," said Sandy, "because you are so far removed that it's not even fun. I like to get as close as possible."

In the "Photographer's Note" at the end of the book, Sandy writes, "I like getting to know the world by using my camera. Specifically, I am most interested in people and their relationships with the world. I am immersed in the mix of life and art. There is no separation between who I am and what I do."

Sandy said she's happy with Down to the River, particularly the freedom she was given in choosing the images and the music. She said she feels lucky to have a "publisher who actually listens to you. From the get-go, everything was positive."

Down to the River is an upbeat book with a deep grain, especially when you listen to the CD while looking at the photos. Sandy's written introduction says, "Music moves me in a way that nothing else does. Since photographs and music hold both memories and ideas, they can transport the viewer or the listener to another place. I am not a musician, but I use a camera as I would play an instrument. ... Music, ... pictures make an enormous difference in our lives. I hope to share my experiences through my photographs. Listen to these pictures."


Sandy Dyas will have copies of her book for sale at the IH Mississippi Valley Blues Festival on June 29 and 30, and July 1. Down to the River is also available from the University of Iowa Press at (

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