Sheron Rupp, Taken From Memory

JTF (just the facts): Published by Kehrer in 2019 (here). Hardcover, 108  pages, with 75 color illustrations. Includes essays by the artist and Peter Galassi. Designed by Anja Aronska. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/ContextSheron Rupp grew up in rural Ohio. She considers herself a self-taught photographer, and started her path toward professional photography later in her life. In the late 1960s, she bought her first real SLR Pentax camera, and she spent the next 10 years taking photographs and attending a few photography workshops. At the age of forty, she decided to quit her job in publishing and enrolled in a graduate program in photography at Hampshire College and the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and after that training, she set out and traveled alone by car, documenting rural towns around Ohio and elsewhere. Now in her mid-seventies, she’s built a sustained body of work that runs from Arkansas to Appalachia, and Montana to Vermont and New England, consistently centered on the overlooked rhythms of country living.

Earlier this year, Rupp published her first photobook titled Taken From Memory. An overdue review of her career, it brings together images from three decades (although most were made in the 1980s and 1990s.) As the title hints, she was drawn to these small towns because they reminded her of her own home town in central Ohio and of summer holidays she spent with her relatives in Arkansas in the late 1940s. In the introduction, she writes that these photographs enable her to “make connections with my own biographical past.” So while Rupp was an outsider in most of the places she visited, she came armed with a mindset that saw familiarity in the humble backyards and poor communities across America, and the resulting pictures capture life there with a sense of poetic but respectful reserve. 

Taken From Memory is large book, similar to the scale of an across-your-lap family album, which allows the images inside to be big enough to get lost in. The photo on the cover is striking – it depicts an older woman in a Sunday best light blue sweater and skirt from the back as she walks through a maze of tall sunflowers. It is both quietly formal and exuberantly bountiful, the garden neatly ordered but immersive. The title and the artist’s name are embossed in gold, almost disappearing into the reaching greenery, and the image wraps around spine elegantly covering a third of the back cover.

The book uses vintage black and white snapshots of Rupp as a young girl with various family members to bookend the photographs, reinforcing the personal nature of these pictures – her artistic story literally begins and ends with her own family, and the echoes she sees in those of others. But she then steps back, providing a polite level of distance from her subjects – there are no captions or descriptions of the photographs, and only a simple list at the very end of the book identifies where the images were taken, the year, and sometimes a first name.

Rupp mainly documents life outside – on porches and front stoops, and in cluttered backyards, driveways, and gardens. She settles in at a comfortable distance from the homes of her multi-generational subjects, where clotheslines, wading pools, rusted cars and lawnmowers, momentarily abandoned toys and bicycles, and other leftover junk dot the summer surroundings. And then she seems to wait – there is not much action in Rupp’s pictures. Time seems to get elongated as people tend to things and kids wander, and it is this slowness that makes room for closer attention. Eventually the conversation continues, a child or pet requires something, the game or chore starts up again, or an otherwise empty moment coalesces into an easy going portrait that feels natural and comfortable. 

One of the first photographs in the book captures a group of kids on the porch: two girls are playing with a pet turtle and while others are fooling around on an old sofa. The warm sunlight falls on their hair and skin, their limbs tangle and overlap, a backdrop of trees and river sits behind them, and the wooden railings and beams of the porch divide and frame the scene, all of that compositional complexity coming together to amplify this idyllic moment of a carefree childhood. In another image, a group of four children takes a break on a black tarp. They are happily dirty, perhaps from running and playing outside, their shorts and skin covered in the ordinary wear of improvised fun. They lie on their backs, two of them playing with kittens, their relaxed freedom and wildness arranged into a neat bundle. 

Rupp’s photographs often capture children, who largely entertain themselves. They carelessly drink soda, walk around naked, build plywood tree houses, go fishing, swim in the river, play with dolls, ride bikes, look at Polaroids, and generally goof around until someone notices. The older ones tend to the younger ones, and often look on with a bit more teenage separation and wariness. 

Some of Rupp’s best images seem to arrange the family chaos into discrete layers of activity all in one frame. One spread pairs an image of a boy playing whiffle ball, a cat, a mother tending two kids, and a flowered picnic blanket with another picture of two boys fixing a bike, a girl looking on, a frieze of tools and leftover woodworking, and a chicken. Another memorable photograph captures a family on their porch, showing an ordinary yet surprisingly beautiful moment of daily life – a woman gently feeds a little girl with a sandwich, an older man on a chair next to her holds a sleeping baby, a teenage girl with a towel over her head sits upfront on the concrete slab holding a cup of coffee, and another teenager on the side of the porch observes the scene, the backdrop of the composition decorated with toys, a radio, garbage cans, and hanging laundry. It’s undeniably messy and crowded, but wonderfully tender and sensitive.

Other notable images create vignettes out of thin air. A young boy shoots BB gun at a paper plate. An older woman shucks corn. Kids lie in the long grass with a goat. A red haired girl watches from the screen door. Three African-American girls in blue tops pose along the wooden railing of bridge. And a woman leans over a fence with her parakeets.

Rupp fits into a long line of photographers that have turned their cameras toward families, particularly those in rural America, and while we might feel the aesthetic echoes of many of those masters (past and present) in her pictures, the understated human delicacy of her eye consistently draw us in. While life has moved on over the years since these photographs were made, and we can notice some of the small differences, it also seems that not much has changed overall – the predictable rhythms of rural life continue uninterrupted. Seen with respect and care, Rupp’s photographs tell an engagingly intimate story, providing essential insights on the contours of rural life in America.

Collector’s POV: Sheron Rupp is represented by Robert Klein Gallery in Boston (here). Her work has not yet found its way to the secondary markets, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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