For the Dutch genre painters who inspire photographer Julie Blackmon, 17th-century domestic life offered a familiar subject that was warm and fuzzy on its varnished surface. Yet these artists often invested their seemingly mundane interiors with hidden meanings: They used expressions, gestures and props to suggest that the activities and relationships they depicted weren’t always what they appeared to be. One well-known painting of a music teacher and his young female pupil, who sits with her back to the viewer at a keyboard instrument, hints that there’s more to the relationship than instruction. A pitcher of wine sits in the foreground, and a large string viol lies face-up on the floor, one f-hole visible; the student, reflected in a mirror on the wall above her instrument, casts a furtive, affectionate glance at her teacher. These paintings’ coded messaging takes place within compositions that are refined and harmonious.
Blackmon’s work brings such ideas into the 21st century, offering a vision of domestic life for our topsy-turvy modern world.
Most often populated by children engaged in a variety of activities, her images are also brilliantly composed—but with a spring-loaded density of gesture and expression that feels as if the whole scene might come apart at any moment. In keeping with contemporary life’s greater comfort with the outdoors, the pictures’ settings also include yards, fields, swimming pools and the other environments our children inhabit. Even their mysteries are more modern, evincing a calculated strangeness that approaches surrealism but is restrained by whimsy.
This isn’t to say that the work doesn’t engage viewers intent on interpretation. “I find myself looking for elements and objects that are almost hidden in her photographs,” says David Fahey, whose Los Angeles gallery is one of several that handle Blackmon’s work. “The question is, why are those objects present, and how do they relate to the overall subject matter?”
Yet the most modern thing of all about Blackmon’s work may be her sense of humor. “I care about beauty, but humor drives my photographs more than anything,” says the photographer. “And children lend themselves to humor.”
She should know. As the oldest of nine kids, she grew up surrounded by younger siblings in her native Missouri, where she still lives. In an image from Homegrown, Blackmon’s most recent body of work, a young boy holds his ears as his older sister practices her violin in a room strewn with toys and sheet music. In her suburban parody of the famous shot of the Beatles striding along an Abbey Road crosswalk, which features marching kids instead of the Fab Four, a toddler is pulled along in a red wagon full of Girl Scout cookies, a perfect oval of chocolate around her mouth, crying her eyes out. Blackmon’s photographs may be funnier than an old Dutch painting, but their details are just as carefully orchestrated.
This makes it all the more surprising that Blackmon doesn’t “comp” her images, sketching them out in advance. She may make a reference photograph of a setting she’s considering for a shot and keep a mental list of ideas that will animate the scene. The content and composition happen organically, though. “It’s really kind of a puzzle that I figure out as I’m setting up and shooting,” she says.
Blackmon was majoring in photography at Missouri State University in Springfield, just a few miles from home, when life and family interrupted her studies. Almost 15 years later, she went back to finish what she had started but chose not to practice her craft, or pursue her career in a large city like New York or Los Angeles.
“I think there’s a certain confidence that comes from living and working in the same place your whole life,” she says. “You know exactly who you are and who everybody else is. Even when I’m not shooting, I spend time with the kids and adults who appear in my work, and they give me new ideas all the time.” Blackmon doesn’t think she could do the kind of work she does anywhere else. Even her pint-sized repertory company is composed mainly of the children of local friends, who she insists on paying. (Her own kids were too old for the job by the time she started this work, and even her younger sisters’ children, who appear in earlier photographs, are all grown up.)
These children are the diminutive actors in Blackmon’s tableaux vivant, and Blackmon is the director. She has no qualms about telling the kids what to do. “I boss them around the whole time,” she says. “Stand here, don’t go too far over there, do that again.” They apparently enjoy being a part of the production, but only up to a point. “Their interest and attention start to wane sooner than I’d like,” says the photographer. “I’ll want to keep going, and they’ll say, ‘OK, but only one more.’” It’s the reverse of that old family scenario in which parents resist their kids’ pleading for “one more time.”
Yet even at their most surreal, Blackmon’s photographs offer something familiar to anyone with a family or who grew up in one. This is arguably more true of her work than of photography by other women who are well-known for adopting their own children and families as subject matter, among them Sally Mann, Carrie Mae Weems and Tina Barney. While those women used their work to explore matters of class, race and coming of age, Blackmon’s work is less thematic and less fraught. “We all have different family histories, and Julie approaches the subject in her own authentic way,” says Fahey. “In the process, I think she elevates the commonplace to the sublime.”
Despite the staging behind Blackmon’s photographs, they actually owe much of their success and character to spontaneity. Improvisers at heart, kids don’t always follow her directions to the letter. “A lot of unexpected things can happen, especially when children are your subject,” she says. “One thing often leads to another. Twenty things can happen on their own.”
Given their many moving parts, Blackmon’s images would seem to be heavily dependent on Photoshop’s power of invention. In actuality, they often hew closely to the photographer’s original staging. “Many if not most of the things happening in my pictures occurred all at once,” she says. “When I started making these pictures, with all their fantastical elements and colors, I did more Photoshop work to put them together. Photoshop allowed me to be more imaginative. But once I really figured out what I wanted to do with the work, I was able to orchestrate things so that they’d happen simultaneously. I didn’t have to piece the pictures together after the fact. I don’t move things around in Photoshop that much anymore.” Blackmon still relies on Photoshop to finesse her images, but she doesn’t like to talk about it. “It makes it seem like an altogether different thing from the photography,” she explains. “Photoshop is really just an extension, no different than editing a film or reworking a painting. It’s a tool.”
Unlike the current profusion of fine-art photography that employs an almost cinematic approach, Blackmon’s work doesn’t broadcast its complex production values. She uses high-powered flash both indoors and out, though even indoors, she prefers to mix it with existing light for a more naturalistic effect. The light in her pictures is soft and enveloping, drawing little attention to itself and making content fully available for viewers’ scrutiny.
For outdoor images in which she wants a more elevated vantage point, Blackmon sometimes shoots from the bucket of a rented boom lift, operating it herself. Drones aren’t up to the resolution she needs for her large-format prints.
Blackmon makes her own prints on a massive Epson SureColor P20000, in sizes ranging from 22 x 30 inches to 40 x 60 inches. (She occasionally outputs jumbo-sized 60x80s.) She shoots with a 60-megapixel Hasselblad H4D-60, which has a generous 40 x 54-millimeter image sensor. Given that format, the Hasselblad 28mm f/4 HCD lens she ordinarily uses is the equivalent of about 18mm on a 35mm or full-frame DSLR. Its extremely wide angle of view is ideal for interiors, and Blackmon does a good job of controlling the associated distortion.
When COVID-19 struck America, Blackmon had simultaneous one-person shows on display at Manhattan’s Robert Mann Gallery and the new Fotografiska photography museum in the city’s Flatiron District. A week after the shows opened, they went on hiatus as New York went into lockdown. Blackmon hopes that by the time this story appears in print, the exhibitions will be up and running again.
The pandemic hasn’t cramped Blackmon’s style, though. She spent much of the summer shooting outdoors rather than inside, and the new images are all about the season. In one, three little boys in nothing but their underpants lounge on deep green grass surrounded by croquet equipment, a watermelon perfectly split in half, cans of bug spray and a stray face mask. In another, kids float in a lazy river around a wooden swimming dock. That photograph was taken from a considerable height above the subject, a vantage point provided by an enthusiastic neighbor who runs a tree company. He proposed getting Blackmon up in his cherry picker so she could shoot straight down on the river, which runs through his property.
While so many of us are climbing the walls of our pandemic world, staying close to home hasn’t been a challenge for the photographer. Says Blackmon, “The subject matter around me is limitless.”
To can see more of Julie Blackmon’s work at julieblackmon.com.