Photographs by Julie Blackmon
Foreword by Billy Collins
Interview by Reese Witherspoon
Radius Books, 2014
Reviewed by Lauren Greenwald
Julie Blackmon’s second collaboration with Radius Books, Homegrown, invites the viewer to become reacquainted with her fabulously particular take on domestic life, first introduced in 2009’s Domestic Vacations.
Radius Books consistently produces gorgeous photo books, and this one is no exception. The 40 photographs in this book, made from 2009-2014, are excellently reproduced, in many cases spanning two pages for extra-large images. The book is physically large as well, 11.5 x 13.5 inches, similar in size to old Life magazines, oversized yet comfortable enough to hold on one’s lap. It makes you want to curl up in a chair with a cup of tea and stay awhile. There’s so much complexity in the images, they demand protracted looking, and for this the larger format is ideal.
Blackmon’s world exists in a somewhat contemporary, yet timeless-seeming suburban America that is saturated with color, in both the brightly lit and deeply shadowed scenes. If Loretta Lux, Wes Anderson, and Tim Burton decided to collaborate on a film, these are the sets they might create. The photographs themselves are cinematic in scope and painterly in detail, satirical and precise, full of pop-cultural and art historical references. The rigid pose of the small astronaut in Take Off brings to mind a Norman Rockwell painting, while Thin Mint conjures a suburban girl-power Abbey Road. These scenes are witty and playful, and occupy a realm between the fantastical and the familiar.
In the introduction to the book, the poet Billy Collins writes, “Julie Blackmon’s photographs, taken together, form a paracosm, an imaginary world the viewer can enter like the oddly fleshed out worlds of Oz and Wonderland...the scenes of this world are owned by children, at once natural and fey...” It’s a perfect way to describe the world of Homegrown - while the presence of adults is acknowledged, they are rarely fully shown in these images, similar to the faceless adults in cartoons like Peanuts. Blackmon’s grown-ups are supporting characters, usually represented by feet and legs escaping the frame or a hand invading the scene, such as the vaguely menacing, bug-spray wielding arm in Air Stream, spraying a cloud of chemicals over a little girl wearing a swimsuit and a scrunched-up face.
There is a decided lack of screens and technology in these images and the children seem to be wholly immersed in their activities, blissfully unsupervised, and often on the verge of disaster. It’s an insouciant take on the current social mores of parent-child roles, and particularly how children are expected to be portrayed in the media today. At one point in the accompanying interview, Blackmon refers to her appreciation of the very non-pc family memoirs of David Sedaris, and comments, “Nowadays, you’re expected to be this helicopter type of parent, meeting your child’s every need, with patience and without raising your voice. It’s not how I grew up, so I guess I’m a little resistant to these cultural shifts.”
In the roles played by the characters in these images, and in the compositions themselves, there exists a certain amount of tension. The children do recognizable things in familiar situations, but there is always something a little bit odd, a little bit strange, or even somewhat scary, in the tableaux. The cover image, Baby Toss, shows a vast expanse of sky punctuated by the form of a baby with a tear-streaked face, mid-toss, either being thrown from or falling into the waiting arms of its father. In The Power of Now, adults recline on a green lawn next to an in-ground pool, while a child floats face-down and a toddler and a baby crawl just to the edge. These images speak more to me about the anxiety surrounding modern parenting and the essential absurdity of the situation, and are enormously funny in their skewed viewpoint. Blackmon allows humor to take over, teasing out the stresses and inherent in the interaction between adults and children and leaving in the whimsy. As she has written about her earlier work, “We live in a culture where we are both “child centered” and “self-obsessed.” The struggle between living in the moment versus escaping to another reality is intense since these two opposites strive to dominate. Caught in the swirl of soccer practices, play dates, work, and trying to find our way in our “make-over” culture, we must still create the space to find ourselves. The expectations of family life have never been more at odds with each other.“
This duality seems to be physically manifested in several of the images. Littered with figures and objects, they appear to have been acted on by an enormous centrifugal force, sending the contents of the scene flying towards the edges of the frame. In Sharpie, we view from above a little girl lying sprawled on her back, arms flung out, her blond hair forming a halo around her smiling face, her foot propped up on the sofa she has defaced/adorned with an original sketch, and toys, candy, and clothing spiraling out across the carpet around her. A scene of utter bliss, or chaos. Another particularly compelling image, probably my favorite, is Stock Tank, again photographed from above, shows the pale blue circle of a swimming pool made out of a repurposed stock tank floating above a sea of asphalt, and anchored down by a red picnic table/diving board cutting into the scene. The gaggle of children floating and swimming in the water are partially obscured and with the exception of a few more lying on the blacktop, they appear utterly alone and supremely happy in their little universe. It is indeed a child’s world in Homegrown, but not all is sunny. Sometimes is it delicious in its creepiness; in Queen, inspired by the Velázquez painting Las Meninas, an imperious little figure in white lace stares out at the viewer from within a grand room containing dark woodwork and even darker corners.
From the controlled chaos and exuberance of Blackmon’s images, I imagine her organizing vast, outlandish, military-style campaigns of children and animals in order to produce her photographs, gathering her large family and circle of friends into an ever-evolving, moveable pageant. Much that other imaginary world, Oz, here is a “place where there isn’t any trouble.” Her strong directorial sense serves her well as she fashions a brave new world, an alternative family album, full of eccentric humor and painterly overtones, often hilarious, always evocative, indeed, “at once natural and fey.”
Coinciding with the release of this new book, Blackmon’s work is currently on view in several solo exhibitions: “Free Range” at Robert Mann Gallery, NYC, September 4 - October 18, “Homegrown” at The Photographers’ Gallery, London, September 4 - October 26, and Photo-Eye Gallery in Santa Fe, September 26 - November 15.
Lauren Greenwald is an Assistant Professor of Photography at the University of South Carolina. She lives and works in Columbia, SC.
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