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CREATIVE VOICES

Disrupting Domesticity: Julie Blackmon’s Irreverent Take on Small-Town Family Life

By Dan Cowles

Julie Blackmon’s slightly skewed images of family life in the American Midwest—often populated by minimally supervised children in potentially hazardous yet comical situations—speak to the constant low-level anxiety familiar to pretty much any parent living in our modern times.

The overwhelm of being alive, being a mother, being pulled in a million different directions, and seeing danger everywhere informs Blackmon’s work. “You have all these little people that you’re responsible for, these lives to direct and manage,” she says. “You can just find yourself in some vortex of anxiety. Unless you do find the mythic or the beauty in it, and the humor in it…you might as well hang it up, because that’s what it’s all about.”

Photograph by Julie Blackmon, of kids sunbathing by a pool.
photograph by Julie Blackmon, of a child playing and a teenager smoking.

Though she started out as a documentary photographer, originally influenced by her first encounter with the work of Sally Mann, Blackmon’s art has evolved into a more exaggerated reality—highly stylized tableaus, more influenced by fine art than documentary at this point. But she feels that this approach allows for even more accurate and truthful representations of the stories she wants to tell and the feelings she tries to evoke.

“I think the heart of each image is still dependent on the same elements that have always defined photography: the fleeting moments; the quality of light; a certain gesture, glance, or expression,” she says. “So no matter how much control I want to have, I think my favorite moments involve some lack of it.”

image of Julie Blackmon in her darkroom.

Click on the image above to watch our video profile of Julie Blackmon.

REAL LIFE—WITH A TWIST

Blackmon thinks a lot about her projects before shooting anything, experimenting and evolving her ideas over time. “Sometimes it’s just whatever is around, including props,” she says. “It's like, ‘Oh, I think I’ll use that book over there.’ Kind of like my nieces and nephews: ‘They’re just hanging out. Maybe I could borrow them.’”

photograph of a garage sale, photo by Julie Blackmon

By the time she sets the camera up, she has a pretty good idea of what she’s after. “Once you get all that figured out, that’s really when kind of the fun starts,” she says. And seeing Blackmon in action, one has the sense that there is little boundary between work and play, between directing the kids and playing dress-up with them. Blackmon shoots most of her material in and around the same Springfield, Missouri, neighborhood she grew up in, and she uses her friends and family as her subjects.

“Springfield…I think it might be one of the most overused names of cities in America,” she says. “There might be 10 Springfields, including The Simpsons’  Springfield, but in a way it’s perfect. We are the generic town.” But generic doesn’t mean uninteresting to Blackmon. She sees it as a microcosm of America: “We don’t have to have 30 good restaurants. We maybe have five. We don’t have to have 20 favorite bars; we have three favorite bars. We don’t have to have 50 friends; we have 10 friends. I don’t know—there’s something about ‘less is more’ in terms of choices. Even photographically it’s like, ‘All right, this is what I have, and these are my parameters.’ It becomes much simpler that way when you don’t have so many options.”

DOCUMENTING CHANGING TIMES

But these are very different times from when Blackmon was a child. “We’re raising our kids in the same neighborhood that we grew up in, and just that contrast of how I grew up in the ’70s—riding my bike with no helmet, spending the entire day barefoot, no seat belts, my mom just throwing her arm in front of me when she came to a stoplight or something—contrasted with now…totally child-centric, just completely obsessed with their safety. How much of this is necessary, and how much of it is insane? I guess my work is kind of a love letter to the past and that freedom that we had, but also an acknowledgment of the anxiety that I feel, that is real, about not being able to let our kids have that life that we had.”

She continues, “In a way, it feels natural because whether I'm shooting or not, the end of the day sometimes just involves my sisters on a porch swing, sorting through the day—what made us crazy, what made us laugh—and kind of arriving at some point where it all makes sense. Maybe that's what I’m trying to do with my art. We need to sort of make sense of why this day felt so hard, why this day made us feel so guilty, why this day felt just all wrong. It’s amazing what you can arrive at, just kind of sorting it out through art or through conversation, and you can allow yourself to step back, to look at the big picture.”

See more of Julie Blackmon’s work on her website.