Julie Blackmon’s Dark, Irreverent Photographs About Parenthood

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Photo: Julie Blackmon

Julie Blackmon started photographing her kids in 2001, after her family moved into a 100-year-old house in Springfield, Missouri, that happened to have a darkroom. She’d dabbled in photography in college and thought it might be worth revisiting. “I really just wanted to get some good black-and-white pictures of my kids that I could put on the wall,” she explains. “That was when the Pottery Barn look was in, so I was just trying to make my living room look cool, basically.”

Blackmon’s own three children are now teenagers and in their early 20s, but she’s continued photographing the kids in her hometown: nieces, nephews, and neighbors — “just kids who happen to be around,” she says. “We have a kind of little relationship going. We like to work together.” This month, a new book, Homegrown, features her most recent work: photographs taken between 2008 and 2014, inspired by the domestic scenes of the Dutch painter Jan Steen, as well as her own chaotic and confusing experiences as a parent.

Blackmon spoke with the Cut about helicopter parenting, living in the same town you grew up in, and how people respond to autobiographical work about motherhood.

Have your thematic interests shifted since you first started photographing your kids?
Yeah. I mean, my work is so populated by kids, so you wouldn’t think there was a shift away from kids — but maybe the thematic shift is a little more about, where’s the mother here? And what’s her story? It’s a little metaphorical with the kids.

How has your own experience as a parent influenced your photographs?
Well, I feel like a big part of this work came out of the struggle of making sense of parenting today. It’s so radically different from how we grew up, where we kind of had our own world and our parents had another. That’s not the culture we’re in anymore — now you just structure every moment of your kids’ day and have them in French. Helicopter parenting, or whatever. I can’t do that. It just doesn’t come naturally to me. I always felt like I’m this kind of spacey, disconnected mother — like some Woody Allen character. Like Diane Keaton — this well-meaning, sort of spacey, off-in-her-own-world woman — and trying to sort it all out, with kids and her own life. And the fact that your kids are the most important things in the world, but you have all these other things pulling at you — and then feeling like a failure and guilt and all of that. And, being from Springfield, Missouri, there are still a lot of traditional values. Like, I’ve been traveling almost all of September, and you still get these weird questions, like, “How does your husband feel about that?” And other things that a man would never get asked.

Have you lived in Missouri your whole life?
Yeah, I live in the same neighborhood I grew up in, actually.

Does that feel important to your work?
Yeah, very. I think there’s a confidence that comes from working and knowing a place that well. I mean, it doesn’t sound cool. It’s okay to be from a place like Springfield, Missouri, but it’s not okay to still be there, you know? I’m aware of that. But I kind of resist that. I don’t know — I feel like I’m really lucky to be in the same place I grew up in. You know everybody. You know their pasts, you know who lived in this house [for] 30 years, you know who lived in that house 10 years ago. I think there’s a certain amount of information that comes from staying in a place your whole life, and I don’t know that that’s appreciated, really. Of course it can be suffocating, and of course I want to get out of town sometimes, but mostly I can’t imagine working anywhere else, at least for this body of work.

How do you feel that the pressures and expectations for parenting have changed since your own childhood?
I mean, I probably won’t say anything that anybody doesn’t already know. But I was born in ’66, and I mean, gosh — when we stopped at a stop light, I remember my mom throwing her arm out to keep us from hitting the dashboard. There were no seat belts. I remember going to the grocery store barefoot. I love those David Sedaris stories where he talks about his mom getting angry and locking him outside of the house on a snow day. It was sort of acceptable to be that kind of parent. And, of course, some of the changes are for good reason. There are safety issues. There was a murder of a 9-year-old girl in our neighborhood last year. She was kidnapped and raped and killed. That influenced my piece, Thin Mints, where they’re walking along the street selling Girl Scout cookies. Selling Girl Scout cookies interested me because it’s one of those things that’s been around forever. What’s changed is that you can’t just send them out alone with a wagon anymore, which is how I did it. I was constructing this image during that traumatic time, and I don’t know if you can see it, but there are all kinds of little hidden dangers — like, beware of the dog. And some of that is in good humor — I don’t want the darkness to overwhelm the image. But I think everybody assumes that we just live in this perfect little neighborhood where kids still do that — and it’s just not true.

In the book you mention that O magazine wanted to publish The Power of Now, but they were worried that their readers wouldn’t like how close the baby was to the pool. They asked if you could move it, right?
Yeah. Which I could have, probably; I just felt kind of philosophically opposed. That piece especially is about the tension with the mom trying to live in the moment, with the irony of everything going to hell around her, including the baby getting so close to the edge of the pool. It just wasn’t a good fit. But it was funny that they wanted me to move the baby. I just think, what a dumb photo that would be — like this mom smiling in the grass, with everything going along perfectly. Who wants to look at that?

What are your photo shoots like?
Well, they’re kind of a nightmare. The work is maybe a bit like organized chaos, but the actual shoots are just complete chaos. I’m almost working more like a filmmaker than a photographer — like, Okay, that didn’t work, let’s try you over there and you on the bench. And the kids, they sort of like that. They rise to the occasion. Of course there’s a limit to the time I have with the kids — I know I have at best about 15 minutes of bossing them around.

To what extent do you think of your work as autobiographical?
Very much. But, you know, I was listening to Lena Dunham on NPR this week and I do think there’s a danger with women — that all of their work is seen as autobiographical. I don’t think there’s an artist out there, whether they’re a novelist or poet or Wes Anderson or Tim Burton or whatever, whose work isn’t autobiographical. I think we like to pin that on women, like, Oh, because you’re a mother and you’re shooting kids, that must be all you know, rather than like, Oh, you’re an artist and you see a story here. You know, I think a lot of people think that I really live this life — I just show up and shoot it like that. Which, I guess I’m flattered that they think Hamster Handbook would have just magically happened like that. But sometimes I do feel a little sold short, like, Hey, I just got the idea from real life, but this is a total fabrication. But maybe it’s a compliment that they don’t know it’s not real. I don’t know.

What sort of responses do you get to your photos? Do you find that people are very sensitive to ideas about “good” and “bad” parenting?
Actually, most people really seem to get it right off the bat. I mean, there are a few people who overthink it and act confused, but most of the time people — not just art people, not intellectual people — just average everyday people I’m surrounded by, seem to get it. I don’t know if get it is the right [way to say it], because you don’t want to ever be producing work that you have to get or not get — but they seem to appreciate it. They like it; they see it as funny. 

I remember, I exhibited that Baby Toss image — where the man is throwing the baby up in the air — at Paris Photo about four years ago, and I remember some man coming up to me and I could barely understand him through his accent, but he was trying to tell me that could cause shaken baby syndrome. He was like, pointing at the back of his neck, and I’m like, “I know! No, I know!” [Laughs.] I’m just having fun with that. I’m not making light of shaken baby syndrome, but there’s this whole generation of family albums that has pictures of dads doing dangerous things with their babies. I just think it’s so interesting. Of course they didn’t know better, and of course you can’t do that now, but there’s something really celebratory, I think, when you look at those images. They’re so happy.

How conscious are you of making work that’s funny?
Well, it’s what drives the work, I have to be honest. It’s way too hard to do some serious — you know, I love Vermeer, but to do some serious woman reading a letter at a window or something … I just wouldn’t have any fun with that, unless I threw in some little horrible detail in the background. That’s always what I’m aiming for — but not in a simple way. It’s a funny way that makes you recognize something that you’re kind of creeped out or you’re kind of charmed by — and all these things come together to make you laugh. At least, those are the things that make me laugh.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Blackmon’s work will be on view at the Robert Mann Gallery through October 18.

See Dark, Irreverent Photographs of Parenthood