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Family as Art: The Photography of Julie Blackmon
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Family as Art: The Photography of Julie Blackmon

Picture of Cat Yanish
Updated: 11 December 2015
As a photographer, American Julie Blackmon explores ways to step back from the stress and chaos of family life in order to find its deeper power and beauty. She seeks to appreciate the reality of family, while never forgetting her sense of play and fantasy.
'A concert is not a live rendition of our album. It's a theatrical event!' © Julie/Flickr
‘A concert is not a live rendition of our album. It’s a theatrical event!’ | © Julie/Flickr

Julie Blackmon’s photography evokes the familiar refrain, ‘the house is a mess, but come on in.’ With this invitation, we can begin to explore Blackmon’s theatrical, humorous, and magical portrayal of family life. By blending staging, manipulated light, and direct references to Flemish painters of the 17th century, Julie Blackmon adds a dose of fantasy to family moments. Despite the layers of symbolism, drama, and Photoshop, the photographs never veer too far from reality but instead seem to wink at it. The message seems be that even in ordinary moments there is more than meets the eye, and that if we remember to pause, we might see something extraordinary too. These gems of insight distinguish Blackmon as an artist who can strike a balance between chaos and stillness, reality and fantasy, and withdraw from it treasures to pass on to the viewers.

Blackmon’s ability to find moments of cosmic alignment within a noisy household is probably no accident. Growing up in Springfield, Missouri up as the oldest of nine children, Blackmon’s later fascination with chaos and play probably stemmed from a childhood of those exact elements. From early in her career, Blackmon photographed her many nieces and nephews, as well as her own three children, as the actors and subjects of her work. Blackmon has explained that for her, photography is a way to find both escape and connection, while societal and family pressures are as strong as ever.

As many people turn to cinema and theater for an escape, so too does the work of Julie Blackmon. Her works feature children in typical activities – playing outside, going swimming, or engaging in general mischief – all staged as mini-dramas. Her first major body of work, Mind Games, is a black-and-white series focusing on play. While Mind Games appears naturalistic, placing the viewer in the role of an invisible observer, Blackmon’s later work, including her second series, Domestic Vacations, takes flight into fantasy. These later works are full of narrative, engaging the viewer as the audience rather than as a hidden observer. The children perform or stare into the camera, and deliberate props help to set the stage. In ‘Lost Mitten’, the color scheme is a pared-down winter palette of white, black, and red. The photograph itself tells a story as simple as the color scheme – a child stands on a snowy hill, gloveless, while below, presumably out of the child’s sight, the viewer can plainly see the mitten in question. In another piece entitled ‘Concert’, a young girl plays her violin in a large room while in the corner her younger brother sits with his fingers in his ears. These photographs combine carefully constructed color schemes and props to reinforce the simple humor of family.

Many of Blackmon’s works are saturated with visual information, often magnified by intense lighting. The effect is pleasantly overwhelming in such works as ‘Birds at Home’ and ‘Front Porch’, where the family shines in happy cacophony within soft pastels. However, not all of the photos show glowing family moments. Some seem to address the ambiguity between safety and danger, especially as it relates to small children. In some portraits children dangle upside down, and in many they are conspicuously unsupervised. These portraits seem to address the anxious reality that exists for many parents. Throughout her works, Blackmon manipulates light to draw out emotion, whether pleasant or uneasy, light or dark.

Blackmon’s work often references the work of other artists, especially the Flemish painters of the 17th century. The Flemish painters depicted domestic chaos and theatrical moments of human folly. Homage to these artists seems a natural part of Julie Blackmon’s photography, as even centuries later she has found similar appreciation for the humor and cautionary tales to be found in family life. Nods to Flemish genre art can be found in the architecture, costumes, and activities of Blackmon’s subjects. Blackmon often mirrors the archways and characteristic black-and-white checkered tiles that frame the theatrics of the Flemish painters. The effect is stage-like, and it is amplified by the occasional use of costumes and colors befitting a 17th-century Flemish painting. These references imply that the family experience of today is not too different from that of times past. The implication seems to be that as long as there is family, there will be theatrics, warmth, humor, and touches of folly.

Julie Blackmon’s photography is a meditation on what family life means today. Using a wide range of tools, Blackmon explores the warmth, mess, and anxiety of the family experience. Through her photographs, the viewer can experience the relationship that Blackmon explores between feelings of stress and chaos on one hand, and humor and warmth on the other. Such an exploration seems to be a rich journey, now as much as any time in the past.