By her own account, Julie Blackmon is often identified as “the one who photographs the kids.” But it’s not about them. True, Blackmon cajoles and bribes her own and her sisters’ children into posing in mostly domestic scenes in her neighborhood in Springfield, Missouri. Also true is that Blackmon started out wanting simply to document the life around her, and to hang a few photos, Pottery Barn-style, over the couch. She veered, and started producing images that are far from cozy. Her work is fraught—with anxiety, with the contradictions of parenting, and with the roles and expectations of women.
Looking at her photographs in The Everyday Fantastic is like hearing the proverbial bump in the night. They jolt the viewer awake, and a foggy unease sets in. What was that? Maybe nothing. But I think it is something. Am I making too much of this? What could be wrong? Director of the Hood Museum John Stomberg, who curated this exhibition, identifies the feeling as an Alfred Hitchcock-like suspense. The beginning of the famous scene in Hitchcock’s The Birds looks like an innocent, if slightly odd, amassing of crows. Over a few seconds, tension sets in, and suddenly the birds are in a frenzy pecking at Tippi Hedron’s face. When encountering a Blackmon photograph, Stomberg says, “There is nothing disastrous in her mise-en-scenes—yet.” The viewer is stranded between the moment of creeping unease and before any resolution--disastrous or otherwise--presents itself.
Zone, the head of the lone adult, presumably the mother, has disappeared
into the trunk of a car searching for or retrieving something unknown. Three
toddlers populate the scene, each in his or her own world of invented activity.
The one in the foreground has meandered into the middle of the street and is
about to walk off the edge of the frame. Into what, we ask ourselves, a
speeding car? “What is that mother doing?” asked a viewer aloud to others in
the gallery who were within earshot. Everyone frowned in judgment of the mother
and her unforgiveable neglect.
Not all of the photographs are so gloomy. New Chair is more whimsical as it captures an everyday moment, where the kids in the neighborhood simply cannot miss out on the FedEx truck spitting out a piece of furniture. There is the charming detritus of ordinary life, a soccer ball, a riding toy, a well-worn chair for sale, cheap. But wait—is that red chair secure, or is it plunging toward the child at the end of the delivery ramp, and has his brother wrapped his own head in bubble wrap?
A conversation with the artist led to an exchange about the demands placed on women not only to have it all but to do it all. Holiday shows a nondescript house with a half-naked child in the window, an abandoned Baby Jesus, a rotting pumpkin, and a string of Christmas lights in the driveway, hands gripping the peak of the roof. The scene sighs with exhaustion, an almost giving up, except there is a sense of stirring, of keeping at it. That string of lights will eventually end up in the cardboard box in the driveway, and undoubtedly will appear again next year.
Blackmon takes her inspiration from her own daily
small-town life and family; her choice to photograph children brings the inevitable comparison to Sally Mann. Viewers see traces of photographer Diane Arbus and painter Edward Hopper. Blackmon has been inspired by other artists as well, including
Dutch painters like Jan Steen, who shares her passion for showing “a domestic
world out of control.” Sometimes it is something even simpler. A Balthus
painting of a child reclining on a couch prompted Blackmon’s Chaise, (featured photo, above) with similar composition.
Blackmon also recognized the painting’s shade of green as akin to that on the
walls of the old schoolhouse where she eventually took the photo.
Moving from 17th century Dutch artists to the current digital age, Blackmon’s work is bringing about a modern redefinition of photography. Her works are composed, much like a filmmaker; she casts her models as characters in a narrative she captures in a single frame. The kids are given instructions which they follow or don’t. Blackmon’s process is both scripted and serendipitous. She is an enthusiastic, if judicious, user of Photoshop, saying “So I sort of started as a documentarian, and then eventually, the documentary approach gave way to fictitious narratives in which I exaggerated or stylized some of these scenes. And I think that’s because I realized what writers have always known—that sometimes fiction can tell the truth better than the truth itself.”
Fantastic is part of Julie Blackmon’s series, Homegrown. It is on display at the Hood Downtown Gallery on Main Street in Hanover NH until
August 26, 2017. John Stomberg is the Virginia Rice Kelsey 1961 Professor and
Director, Hood Museum of Art. Photos are supplied and used with the permission of the Hood Museum; quotations are from the exhibition brochure. For more information about the artist, and to see what else she has been creating, see the video above, Disrupting Domesticity.
Artist Julie Blackmon standing in front of her work, Olive and Market Street. Photo by Susan B. Apel
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