Images of other people’s kids have become so ubiquitous in social media that it’s a feat of no little imagination to create a body of work in which children are restored as creatures of limitless theatrical potential. Julie Blackmon shoots meticulously staged tableaux of the children in her clan (initially, her own three tykes, now grown, and most recently her nieces and nephews) in ways that turn the languors and turmoil of daily family life into jewellike reveries. Based in a suburban Missouri setting, Blackmon is ever in search of what she refers to as the “near misses” of parenting — the points of stress that turn to comic relief in an instant. She is herself the oldest of nine — “That’s always the first thing that comes up to define me, like I’m going to be the Little House on the Prairie artist forever.” So the endless roller coaster that is childhood is her most natural subject.
As with many contemporary moms, Blackmon frets about how to reconcile the conflicting impulses of benign neglect that prevailed at mid-century and the helicoptering nudge-to-succeed that has become the norm in recent times. This tension finds its way into her beautifully composed scenes of children in various states of calm and precariousness. Her photographs are marvels of controlled chaos, a combination of canny art direction (just the right choice of objects, lighting, and palette) and a knack for grabbing the domestic decisive moment. “Trying to keep it together when you don’t have it together,” says Blackmon — frenzy made to submit to the orderliness of studio photography.
Blackmon admires the work of many photographers — Diane Arbus, Ralph Eugene Meatyard, André Kertész, Keith Carter, and especially, of course, Sally Mann (who controversially shot her own small children unclothed). But her epiphany came from looking at paintings by Dutch masters, particularly the domestic scenes of Jan Steen. “They were 400 years old, but something registered about how domestic life hasn’t changed, and about Steen’s humor. I thought why not try an updated spin on these older paintings.” Blackmon was clearly also smitten with the quality of light the Dutch artists achieved, and her works are suffused with a cool, even luminosity that makes her own humor all the more deadpan.
In contrast to photographers as wide-ranging as Stephen Shore, William Eggleston, and Gregory Crewdson, who have captured elements of American suburbia, Blackmon creates a wry but ultimately expansive and celebratory genre with it, as if Norman Rockwell had shot Polaroids. It’s a genre that is defined by fluid, at times raucous, family life that is more unapologetically autobiographical than most fine-art photographers working today. A process of abstraction, fictionalizing, and compositing of found gestures is inevitable, but there is rarely a loss of authenticity. Blackmon’s genial tableaux always read as life’s messy flux in real time.
Blackmon has paid direct homage to certain favored artists — notably, Balthus and Velázquez, whose most fabled pictures are conspicuously echoed in her work. But any and all iconic images are fair game: one photograph gleefully replicates the Beatles’ Abbey Road album cover, recruiting a single file of neighborhood kids on a similar crosswalk. What remains consistent, and most pleasurable, is the equilibrium and imposed serenity underpinning her pictures. As finely resolved as these compositions are, though, what Blackmon hunts for, as her tiny actors try to intuit her motives, are the chance meetings of the weird and the rapturous that are the saving grace of perplexed parents.
Julie Blackmon, Home Grown (Radius Books). Blackmon’s work will also be on display at Paris Photo in November.
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