Fifteen years ago, photographer Julie Blackmon was exploring the basement of her Springfield, Missouri, home when she discovered an old dark room. It dated to around 1907, having been used by the city’s first-ever photography business. Blackmon was then a housewife, busy raising three young children. She hadn’t touched a camera in any serious way since her undergraduate photography courses almost 15 years earlier. But she decided to buy an enlarger, and the dark room quickly became her escape from the demands of domestic life.
These days, the blond 48-year-old is an emerging star in American photography. On September 4, she had her solo debut in the UK at The Photographers’ Gallery, an exhibition that opened the same night as her third New York solo show at the Robert Mann Gallery. Her photograph “Stock Tank,” of a group of children swimming in a circular trough, is currently included in the Crystal Bridges Museum’s State of the Art exhibition. And her third monograph, Homegrown, was just released by Radius Books; it includes an introduction by the poet Billy Collins and an interview by actress Reese Witherspoon, one of Blackmon’s many admirers.
“As fun as this all is, I really kinda can’t wait to get to the point where I have a blank slate and can sit and look out this window and think, what can I do now?,” Blackmon told me one recent morning. We were sitting in a downtown Springfield cafe, just off a square presided over by a cumbersome steel sculpture — the city’s first piece of modern art. “I used to climb on that when I was like 5,” she said, eyeing it.
Having studied art in town, the sculpture was familiar to me, too. It was during my sophomore year of college that I first saw Blackmon’s work, at Drury University’s Pool Art Center. The show featured the arresting, black-and-white photographs of children that make up her series Mind Games (2003–05). To me and my fellow students, Blackmon became a local enigma, representing a way to be artistically successful without leaving the Midwest for New York.
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As I’ve gotten older, I’ve found that something else about Blackmon intrigues me: she belongs to a tradition of photographers and artists who are (and were) mothers. The spectrum — fanning out from Diane Arbus and Annie Leibowitz to Nancy Spero and Jenny Holzer — includes Blackmon’s great-grandmother, a poet and muralist, and also her own mom, who was too busy keeping up with her nine children to ever fully pursue her art.
How to balance motherhood and career is a continual question for female artists (and all working women) who want children. Some claim the demands posed by each are incompatible. Writing in The Atlantic, journalist Lauren Sandler once suggested that creative women should only have one child if they don’t want to inhibit their careers. Recently, artist Tracey Emin told The Independent, “There are good artists that have children. Of course there are. They are called men.”
It’s impossible to take Emin’s generalization seriously, but the larger idea that women are disadvantaged rings painfully true. Wealthy women, like the sculptor and heiress Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, often have an easier time with the help of maids and nannies. But many others only reach their creative pinnacles in middle or later life, as happened with the sculptor Louise Bourgeois — not to mention Blackmon herself.
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Blackmon has managed to raise three children while developing an unorthodox photographic oeuvre that humorously speaks to the difficulties and blessings of doing so. Her work explores the alternating joys and chaos of family life in a sleepy Midwestern town, as well as her own need to “simultaneously escape [from] and connect” to it. The seeds of this subject matter — not to mention her profession as a photographer — were sown early.
“Like anybody, you’re 20 years old, you take your first photo class, and your professor is showing you slides of the icons, and I was immediately obsessed with it,” she recalled of her introduction to photography at Missouri State University, just a stone’s throw from the house she grew up in. Within images by Sally Mann and Emmet Gowin, Blackmon recognized her own topsy-turvy world at home with eight younger siblings. But, 20 credits short of graduation, she dropped out of school to get married.
“If you’ve ever had a photo class, you know you never stop seeing the world in terms of photography,” she explained of the long gap that followed. “I’d always think, Oh my god, this would make the coolest photo series. So it was always there, I guess. It just needed time to gel.”
When Blackmon got back into photography, at age 35, she was still immersed in the same universe of her youth. She lived — along with five of her siblings and 150 of her relatives — in her childhood neighborhood; her kids attended her old elementary school; her third-grade teacher lived next door to her parents; the corner store where she used to buy Dolly Madison pies, with money stolen from her mother’s purse, was still standing. After sunset, when the neighbors’ lights glowed and the curtains remained undrawn, you could glimpse the remains of an older, mythic America inside.
Her work has since been one collective love letter to that quickly disappearing life, even while it questions nostalgic yearning for the past. A recent photograph, “Thin Mints,” depicts five of Blackmon’s nieces traversing a zebra crossing in poses that evoke the Beatles’ Abbey Road. The oldest girl draws a red wagon piled with green boxes of Girl Scout cookies; the youngest sits at the rear, her face smeared with chocolate as she sobs (presumably from a stomach ache). Norman Rockwell might have painted such an image, yet the week before Blackmon took it, a 9-year-old girl was raped and murdered just a few blocks down the road — an uncommonly violent crime that inspired many candle-lit vigils and marches. The question of the children’s freedom to safely peddle Girl Scout cookies, an iconic symbol of American girlhood, undergirds the photograph with tension. Was the crime proof of a wholesome world going amok, or were the children never truly safe to begin with? This is what makes Blackmon’s images so arresting: they peel back the saccharine veneer of the idealized America they seem to depict. Like light leaking onto a film strip from a faulty camera, an unexpected darkness begins to emerge.
It’s this imperfectly perfect, sunny-macabre world that the children in Blackmon’s photographs must navigate, largely on their own. They roam about unsupervised, exploring homes, yards, and neighborhoods. When adults appear, we see only glimpses — a leg slathered in tanning lotion, a hand wielding a mascara wand. Depending on the viewer’s perspective, the photographs can be interpreted as either an attack on the neglectful guardian or an exaggerated protest against helicopter parenting. Whatever her intention, Blackmon provokes through hyperbole, often placing her young characters in precarious, potentially dangerous situations — a theme she began exploring long before Moonrise Kingdom brought it to the silver screen.
In “The Power of Now,” (2008), for instance, two young women sunbathe on a perfectly green lawn, completely oblivious to what their children are doing. A few feet away, a boy swims face-down in a pool; a naked baby at its edge reaches for a floating ball; and an infant stretches out, just inches from the sky blue water. It’s hard to look at it without feeling slightly uncomfortable, though there’s also an evasive carefreeness to the summer scene. A few years ago, Blackmon got a call from The Oprah Magazine saying they wanted to include it in a feature, but could she please move the babies a little further away from the pool?
She refused, of course.
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Blackmon’s complex view of art and motherhood, exemplified in her own life and work, opens up wider possibilities for what simultaneously being a mother and a creative individual can look like — particularly for women who, like her, choose to stay home.
“It’s a very child-centric culture, and you’ve got to not let that guilt you into being the perfect mommy, teaching your kids French. They have their whole lives to do all that stuff,” she said, pointing to the trendy mommy blogs and hipster homeschooling described by New York Magazine’s “The Feminist Housewife” — a cover article for which she shot the image. For women who stay home, it’s all the more important to carve out space to pursue their work and to vigilantly defend their time to do so.
Blackmon doesn’t denigrate those who put their work on hold, though, as she did so herself. “That’s such an important time, when you have those babies and you’re totally invested in them,” she remembered. “You just want to be able to sit in the rocker and nurse and have their little hand come up and touch you. Then comes a time when they’re two or two-and-a-half when they might need a little break from you. I’m a big believer in not having too much family time.”
The ideal of “having it all” might be achieved, she suggested, by not always having it all. “I just hate to see women trying to do everything at the same time. If you’re trying to do it all, you’re gonna make yourself crazy. You’re going to fail in every which way,” she said. “There’s gotta be something in-between, where you can still have your own thing going and not sacrifice your kids.”
Blackmon didn’t sacrifice hers, but she did recognize a narrative unique to her crowded corner of America’s heartland, focusing her camera on her children in a dark, funny way that stands apart from most others. As she told me, “It was just a matter of connecting the dots and thinking, how could I not?”
Julie Blackmon: Homegrown continues at Robert Mann Gallery (525 W 26th St, Chelsea, Manhattan) through October 18 and at The Photographers’ Gallery (16-18 Ramillies St, London) through October 26.