Design

I Can’t Stop Looking at Julie Blackmon’s Photography

Julie Blackmon photography

The oldest of nine children, photographer Julie Blackmon now has 100 relatives living in her Springfield, Missouri neighborhood. She photographs her nieces and nephews in beautiful but unsettling scenes — maybe a child is floating upside down in a pool or climbing too high on a rope. “It’s like, how do I explore the charm and grace of everyday life and still reveal a little bit of the dark side?” says Julie. Take a look…

Julie Blackmon photography

Many of your photos have a fraught feeling, where the kids might be in danger. Why does this feel real to you?
These photographs are my way of sorting out that overwhelmed feeling but doing it with humor. There’s something about a kid in danger — this makes me sound a little demented — but it goes back to Edward Gorey who wrote that alphabet book with ‘A is for Amy Who Fell Down the Stairs.’ Why is that funny? It should not be funny but it just is. The chaos and the craziness is metaphorical about how we feel any given day. And aside from domestic stress, there’s a bigger sense of not knowing what’s going to happen in the world.

Julie Blackmon Treehouse

When did you start taking photos?
Around 2003 or 2004, in my late thirties. I had majored in art back in college. That’s where I first saw Sally Mann’s work. Once I saw her photos, I was hooked. I never stopped thinking about photography but I wasn’t able to get to it. There’s just life, having babies, raising children… so it was another 15 years before I got to focus on it.

What pushed you to start?
We moved into a big old house that was built in 1907. It was where the first photography business in Springfield had started, and there was an old darkroom in the dungeon basement. I was like, how can I NOT do something with this?

Julie Blackmon New Neighbors

Do you have an exact photo in mind when you start setting up a scene?
There’s gotta be an initial idea. For example, I saw these girls in red dresses on my cousin’s Instagram. She captioned it, “So proud of my little women,” and she was totally serious. And I was like, oh my god, they look just like the Shining twins! I realized I had to get the girls over to my other sister’s house where I had already been thinking about her driveway strip — a setting I already had in mind. The mattress is from the ‘60s and I always keep it under a double bed upstairs. I liked that blue plaid. Overall, this photograph was a challenge because it was winter and the grass was gold tinged with green, which is not attractive. So, I had to bring in the color another way.

Julie Blackmon photography

Do you give the kids candy?
At first, I asked their moms, can I give them an ice cream sandwich or take them to McDonald’s afterward? But the moms didn’t want me to give them sugar. So, I was like, how about sharing a $20? The kids are working really hard! They feel so proud walking off with money or some little prize.

How many minutes do you have until they are over it?
About 20.

Julie Blackmon photography

Do you get your photos all at once?
Sometimes my photos are made up of several images. But if you do it well, you don’t want it to scream, how did you do this? It’s like good plastic surgery, you don’t want people to wonder how it was done. I do much less photoshop now than I used to because if something wasn’t really there, it’s distracting.

Julie Blackmon photography

Julie Blackmon photography

Julie Blackmon photography

Let’s talk about a few specific photos. What are your favorites that you’ve taken?
I’d say a couple favorites are New Chair or Hamster Handbook. And the Night Movie is one of my favorites because it’s so personal.

Julie Blackmon photography

They’re all beautiful.
Then there’s the Power of Now [above], which was one of the first pieces I made that gave social commentary on current trends. At the time, ‘living in the moment’ had just become the new buzz phrase. I’d bought the book The Power of Now. I was determined to start being more present, but all I could think is that the real key to happiness is sometimes taking yourself out of the moment. The mom in this picture is in such a state of bliss after reading The Power of Now that her baby is about to fall in the pool. (Also, these pictures are all fictitious! No kids are ever put in real danger.)

Julie Blackmon photography

I really love the one [above] of kids hanging out by a stock tank.
There were so many painters — Seurat, Cézanne — who did paintings called ‘Bathers’ because that’s what they used to call swimmers. I wanted to do my own. Even the lighting here — blowing out that flash on the dark background — was influenced by Manet’s Luncheon on the Grass, where her skin looks almost photoshopped white.

Julie Blackmon Rope Swing

My other favorite is the rope swing.
That backyard is full of all kinds of kid death traps! My niece really was that high when she climbed that rope swing.

Does living in the midwest inform your work?
I can’t imagine working anywhere else. It’s the perfect backdrop because it’s the middle of nowhere, a generic American town with a totally generic name: Springfield. No one would think there’s much going on here but I’ve found that to be the opposite. I don’t think I’ll ever run out of ideas.

Julie Blackmon photography

Thank you so much, Julie! Also, she’s Stella’s mom! If you’re in NYC in the coming weeks, Julie’s photos are now on display at Robert Mann Gallery and Fotografiska New York until May 3rd.

P.S. Motherhood poems that make me laugh and cry, and where would you want to raise children?

  1. I love family photos. there is something that feel me peace.

    • Ida Amran says...

      I love his work. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Amy says...

    I NEED a print of movie night! (also I am originally from Springfield!) Julie, let us give you our money!!!

  3. Catherine says...

    This is my hometown, and I love Julie’s work. If you ever visit, grab a grilled cheese at Druff’s and see her work featured there–and then one of my other favorites is hanging in the kid’s section of one of our library branches, Schweitzer-Brentwood.

    Also, if you ever visit Springfield, please tell me so we can hang (!)

    • Acadia says...

      I love visiting Springfield! We live in STL. It is now my mission to visit and see her work. I’m in LOVE.

  4. Jeremy says...

    Wonderful approach and great setups. I REALLY liked all of these for so many different reasons, mainly because I enjoyed it so much when I saw my children taking risks – and I also used to throw them in the air as high as I possibly could. HAHA

  5. Greg Rook says...

    Really wonderful. Love your vision. The setups are marvelous and those kids are such great subjects, and actors! And thank you for changing our world.

  6. Sarah says...

    These are amazing! The details are incredible! That baby’s face way up in the air, the legs under the garage door, the three sweet little people all lined up at step at the edge of the pool, the swimmers lying on the pavement to warm up (so nostalgic!). They are totally mesmerizing. They make me feel like maybe my kind of childhood has just migrated to different places, not ceased to exist.

  7. E says...

    My jaw dropped and my heart filled with envy when I read she lives in a town with 100 relatives! I live in San Diego and my family is spread out across California. There is much to love about living in San Diego, but it makes me sad we don’t have family nearby. Not only for the convenience of having support, but for the community as well. *Sigh* Maybe in another life.

    • Joanna Goddard says...

      I felt the same way!

    • Chris says...

      Right there with you E. What an incredible family. I would love
      to have family closer to me.

  8. laetitia says...

    Love these so much, I wish I could afford one. I know exactly which one I would get!!

  9. Karin says...

    The first print of the children laying out by the pool could have been taken in my childhood 50 years ago. Love these. Makes me want to move back to the Midwest. Those houses!

  10. rose says...

    I think she’s got genius vision, no hyperbole. There is such familial expression of family life with that special touch of inherent darkness and humor hovering near so much wholesome, it really packs a punch. I love them all!
    This is strangely the third Missouri reference for me today. Very odd. I live in the Pacific NW. What can the synchronicity be telling me?

  11. Jeanne says...

    I just love these and how they make me pause and think just a bit more!! They’re like adult seek-and-find pictures with a creepy quirk. I can’t wait to go back through and look at them more closely. I missed the knife in the watermelon! Love your sense of humor and creativity Julie!!

  12. Sarah K says...

    I am not interested in art usually but these photos are just stunning. I love how the kids seem like a little gang- I can imagine them getting into lots of trouble together. The girl up on the rope was just so cool too- I remember climbing stuff like that when I was a kiddo in the 1980’s.

  13. AJ says...

    These are just amazing, so captivating. The composition and eeriness, what a talent.

  14. I so appreciate these wonderful photographs. There is drama and humor and love and adventure..etc, all sorts of relationships to each other to objects. Just real fun and interesting to look at and then look again!
    I am a street photographer ( used to photograph weddings/family/doggies) and I am always looking for that one 250th of a second to snap, no editing, no cropping simply. real. life. ( my tagline?) so studying these is such a helpful juxtaposition and expands my vision .

  15. Carrie says...

    It’s like really subtle shock art. If you don’t have some kind of reaction, you’re probably not paying close enough attention.

  16. Abesha1 says...

    I find these photos creepy. Also, I just can’t be fine with child nudity in photography in this day and age.

    Curiously, I think I would not mind if they were paintings.

    • Chris says...

      I agree. Creepy and a feeling of trying way too hard to be alt-artsy.

  17. Michelle says...

    The most unsettling bit in these photographs for me is that unattended knife stabbed into the poolside watermelon. (But truly, captivating work!).

    And as a toddler parent, I’m constantly trying to find the balance between enough risk to learn (both ability and natural consequences) and too much. At the moment I think it’s about a foot off the ground.

    • Joanna Goddard says...

      yes! you don’t see the knife at first and then it startles you!

    • Em says...

      I saw the knife immediately and only! (Which gives you an idea of my current parental anxiety level. I wish I could change its intensity, but haven’t figured out how.)

    • Jax says...

      The most unsettling bit for me was the kid wrapping his face in the plastic bubble wrap in the New Chair photo. Good stuff!

    • Shakti says...

      Its almost funny how so many of these images are triggering in the way that they depict clear, but also almost imperceptible dangers. Since having a child, my brain is trained to track those almost imperceptible dangers and pre-empt them: the razor moved to a lower shelf in the shower, the chipped glass in the patio table, the paring knife left too close to the edge of the counter. I constantly subconsciously scan and then correct. Although i realise that the dangers in life cannot always be forseen and/or avoided, there’s something unsettling about not being able to reach into the picture and scoop up the baby on the edge of the pool, or take the knife out of the watermelon. Could I suggest that the photographer do a companion series where all the dangers are corrected? Could we commission this work? It would bring me SUCH relief! :)

    • Gita says...

      @Shakti. Are we seriously going to start ordering artists to “correct” their work so we could have some perceived relief? Julie is pretty open about her photography exploring the dark side of everyday life right from the start.
      Art is meant to be thought provoking and yes, even uncomfortable. And we always have the choice to look away if we so desire.

  18. Rebekka says...

    Wow, These pictures are stunning!! Thanks for sharing this!

  19. Heidi says...

    These photos are breathtaking. I love how she mentions Sally Mann’s work- they have the same gentle-haunting feeling to them. A professor of mine in college had a copy of Sally Mann’s “The Picnic” on her wall in her office and it has always stuck with me.

  20. Gill F. says...

    Serious Sally Mann vibes here…I love these so much!

  21. Deb in Oklahoma says...

    These remind me of being a kid in the 70’s. You were outside, all the time, no matter the weather, and had fun adventures and created your own games and ate a lot of dirt. The best backyard in the neighborhood really was full of deathtraps, but that didn’t stop us because we never thought about it. Her photos have a reminiscent quality of those years prior to 1980–there’s a technicolor dreaminess to them but with a darker edge. Love these.

  22. Anna says...

    These photos are so provoking – wow.

    I grew up in a suburb of St. Louis, Missouri. We had the handmade wooden treehouses and stock tank in the backyard, too. I can hear the cicadas and feel the humidity on my skin when I look at her photos.

  23. Kato says...

    These are gorgeous!

  24. Karen says...

    The girl on the rope reminds me of myself when I was a kid. Although my mother was protective in many ways she was hardly a helicopter parent when it came to play. I was a total adrenaline junky always chasing the next big roller coaster. This photo in particular reminded me of the times I attempted to 1. make a full 360 on the swing set and 2. want to jump from my parents balcony to the ground (about the height of the tree house). I loved testing my limits as a kid, but I was also cautious and when I did realize how crazy my ideas were I swore to myself to not push past the limit. I was also the kid that stood on her bike seat while it was still going. HOWEVER, sometimes my mother did shoot me a look that said “don’t you dare go any further” and that was also my cue to stop. Oh how I miss those days! Now at 27 I refuse to get on a roller coaster, hehe!! Those days are over!! Every kid is different and sometimes pushing limits results in serious life-threatening situations. But sometimes – like in my case – you discover your limits and everything turns out just fine. Thank you for the throwback of fun times. God willing, I hope to have kids some day.

  25. E says...

    I’d love to buy a print of Night Movie!

    • Brittany says...

      yes! are prints available anywhere?

  26. florence says...

    Love her work, so beautiful!

  27. This was a lovely read, and here’s an idea for another – an interview with Michelle Gardella. She is also a photographer, makes Sally Mann-esque photographs focusing on connections and emotion and especially the relationships of women, to themselves, to other women, to their children, and the deep currents of emotion that flow beneath. I would read an outfit post, a beauty uniform post, an interview/feature on her work, or literally anything about her!! Thanks for considering :)

    (she’s easy to find if you just search michelle gardella on google or instagram)

  28. Beth says...

    Love her work and remember it catching my eye in the Stella days of COJ. Congrats on the showings, Julie! At Fotografiska Stockholm last summer, I saw an exhibition by Scarlett Hooft Graafland, another fantastic female photographer. Her work is a bit more absurd but it was the first time I was so captivated by photography despite being surrounded by it via Instagram.

  29. Madeleine P. says...

    It’s amazing work, really ! but I get so scared looking at the photos. ( I am having trouble to deal with everything around safety & kids , I’m a mom of 2 boys ) This help in a way … It’s going through my hole body honestly waking up old nightmares and fun in the same time. Probably something hidden from my past. Bravo for your work.

  30. Rachel says...

    Have loved her work ever since the first time Stella shared it! My husband is similarly related to everyone in his small home town. Though it’s a southern town, I can really see it in these images. Beautiful!

  31. Ursula says...

    Would she still have published the rope picture if that child fell from the rope right after? How is that child not in any danger? Shouldn’t the ADULT in the situation be saying “that’s too high, if you fall from that high you’ll be injured” instead of “let me get that shot”???

    • Charlotte says...

      Kids need room to stretch and grow, and continually sheltering them from what-ifs make that impossible. If the child was actively drowning/choking/in pain, then yes, of course, it would be inappropriate to be pausing to “get a shot”. But conflating actual danger with the possibility of danger isn’t constructive.

    • HI Ursula, Julie actually points out that her niece was not that high on the rope. Just some photographic magic to change the perspective of/for the image and the viewer.

    • Jane Cosner says...

      oops Ursula, my bad, she was that high Felt compelled to correct my mistake!

    • Anna says...

      Jane, she does not. She writes: “My niece really was that high[…]”.

    • Christina says...

      Hi, Ursula. That could as well be my youngest son. He climbs high and jumps from mad heights and has done so since almost before he could walk. He could climb that rope and I would say ”it’s too high, you could hurt yourself if you fall” and he’d reply ”I know”…. Maybe the photographer knew well the climbing skills of that particular child? I know that people seeing my son in action think I am most irresponsible, which I am not – but I know my child :-).

    • liz says...

      Or maybe the adult in the situation was helping the girl realize how high she could climb and to not be afraid?

  32. Drew says...

    Thank you for posting about art! I really appreciate this.

  33. Calla says...

    Wow these are incredible! I love all the legs poking out (like under the garage door in the moving one or through the treehouse in the rope swing one). Thanks for sharing!

    • Joanna Goddard says...

      yes! they’re so ominous somehow.

  34. Irene says...

    i’m a teacher who lives in the so-called “red area” in italy following the coronavirus outbreak. we are told not to leave our houses, i haven’t seen my students for two weeks (and who knows when we’ll be able to go back to school) and days seem neverending. i’ve a group chat with my dearest girlfriends and we’ve been sending each other articles, videos and pictures to feel closer: your posts have been a longtime favorite, and i just wanted to say that, even with an ocean in between, words can bring comfort, and peace, and a sense of togetherness we all very much need.

    • Joanna Goddard says...

      oh my gosh, irene, thank you. i’m so sorry for what you’re going through. sending so much love your way.

    • ez1019 says...

      I think we’re all about to be in it together, Irene. I live in Atlanta, Georgia in the US, and… a massive school system that covers almost our entire – very large – city has announced closure tomorrow (03.10.20) due to a school system employee being diagnosed with coronavirus. I think it’s the first domino to fall for my city. Regardless of how many cases are diagnosed in the coming days, I think this is just the start of the wheels coming off. People are about to lose their minds. I’m noting your lovely strategy to feel closer, and how nice that we share COJ in solidarity. Sending vibes of serenity and sanity, and although this whole situation has been in my prayers, I will raise up a prayer for you, specifically, Irene. Stay well.

    • agnes says...

      Irene! Thinking of you from France! we’ll probably be in phase 3 by next week so, I’m off to the library to get plenty of reading…

  35. Susie says...

    I would love to see more art posts like this!
    So much going on in these photos. I look and see one thing, then go back and see something else.

    • Marguerite says...

      Agree! This is one of my favorite things I’ve read on CoJ: I love the art, and the frank conversation about it without any jargon or barriers. I will definitely check this photographer out and look forward to more art posts.

  36. Jil says...

    Julie’s photos are awesome. And the interview was so interesting. What a great approach to art! I could well imagine a regular series of women artists talking about their work and their careers.

  37. Lucy Kalanithi says...

    So thought-provoking!! I love the honesty and insight here.

  38. Ok, I knew there had to be a connection to Stella. These are all amazing!! Thanks for sharing.

  39. Kara says...

    Love all of this and SO ENCOURAGED by the fact that she started this in her late thirties after having kids, etc.!

    • Nora says...

      same!!!!!!

    • Emily Crowder says...

      Yes! I love love love hearing about women digging into interests “later” in life, or after children. It’s so, so easy to feel like if you haven’t done it yet it isn’t going to happen and you’re locked in but there is so much life yet to come.

  40. jeannie says...

    These are so creative and thought provoking! Children and parents really do walk a fine line between safety and disaster even though we’re always doing our best to make things safe. These remind me so much of my children jumping on a trampoline in our backyard way back in the day in the midwest. It was before the days of guards around the edges and one at a time rules. It was the norm! Yikes!

  41. Sonja says...

    Julie’s photos are the perfect encapsulation of parenthood; enchantment tinged with terror.

    • Alex says...

      Sonja – you need to make this into a t-shirt or poster or something!
      “Parenthood; enchantment tinged with terror”

    • Sonja says...

      Alex, I’ll split the profits. ;)

  42. Jane Deeks says...

    Is there anywhere we can buy the prints?! They’re amazing!

    • Quinn says...

      Was going to ask the same question!

    • Lesley says...

      +1

    • Joanna Goddard says...

      You can buy photograph prints through her gallery, Robert Mann. http://www.robertmann.com/

    • Joanna Goddard says...

      Yes Julie says the best place to buy her work is through her gallery: http://www.robertmann.com/

      Thank you!!

    • Thanks for your interest in my work, Jane. The work is available for purchase through my gallery there in NYC, robertmann.com, or you can call 212-989-7600.

  43. l says...

    I love her work!! It gives me the kind of feelings art should inspire! Joy, intrique, etc. Will def try to see her show next time I’m in NY!

    side note: I’m not sure whether it more encouraging or discouraging to hear she studied art in college but couldn’t focus on it for 15(!!) years because of having children. I will be the first to admit I’m 100% projecting my own concerns here and I’m not questioning whether that was right for her or not (honestly, sounds like it was!). Just commenting that it made me pause and feel either crazy that is something people have to do or feel desperate because it might be unavoidable despite your intentions. blarrgh — Happy Monday anxieties, everyone! lol

    • Yep, I definitely appreciate her honesty there. I do tend to agree with her timeline… as a mom who is just really starting an art practice post art school… But my timeline is more like 10 years. Is that encouraging? Everyone has different amounts of energy though. There are artist/mothers who make their work right through. Artistmother podcast is a great resource.

    • l says...

      Yes, for sure. I meant encouraging knowing that despite some time passing, you can start “running” again with great success but also the need to put things on pause being the nerve-wrecking thing for me (I am in my 30s already and still trying to decide whether I want little ones or not) Thanks for the podcast suggestion, Jen!

    • Joanna Goddard says...

      i love lenka clayton! her work is so full of humor.

    • l says...

      thanks, Shannon!!

  44. Rae says...

    These are outstanding.

  45. Denise says...

    Creepy & wonderful, just like childhood in real life. There’s so much to see and think about in each photo I can’t stop looking them over again.

    • Kara says...

      I originally read this comment as “creepy & wonderful, just like childREN in real life” and couldn’t stop giggling and also kind of loving the perspective of an adult finding kids creepy…and also they really sometimes are that exact combination.

  46. CK says...

    My son-in-law grew up in Springfield, where his mom still lives. Yes, there is something about the Midwest… It’s not just flyover country. I’m a docent at the Kemper Museum of Modern Art in Kansas City, MO., where we had four works of Blackmon’s on display. The students and adults had a ball imagining the stories and emotions they perceived in these photographs. This interview was another wonderful insight into her work. I’ll pass this on to my colleagues.

    • Gina says...

      Kudos to the Kemper!
      Fellow Kansas Citian here…

  47. patricia blaettler says...

    The Shining Twins were based on the Wade twins shot by Diane Arbus in Roselle, NJ back in the ’60s. I went to school with their brother, Robert. haha

    • Calla says...

      oh wow just looked this up, how cool!

    • Jess says...

      I couldn’t help thinking of Diane Arbus while looking at some of these!

  48. Megan says...

    I loved everything about this! Thanks for sharing. Couldn’t stop smiling at every photograph. Bravo!

  49. Jackie says...

    Wow, love! I will check out her show, and I think my kids would enjoy it too.

  50. Agnès says...

    Stunning work; that was such a great interview. I hope it becomes a regular category. I love that your questions are very direct and simple (in the best way). Thank you so much. Great artist.

    • Jackie says...

      Yes, more interviews of artists about their work and lives, please!

    • YES Artist mothers! Creative mothers! YES REGULAR CATEGORY YES!

  51. Celine says...

    Oh, man, that last one ‘Midwest Materials’ caught me :shades, motions, lights. Everything is in there. I love that work. I am probably going to pin this somewhere, secretly hoping that my better half gets me a printout for a, uh, say, birthday?

  52. Amanda says...

    I remember when Stella first talked about her mom’s photography here. I’ve been obsessed since then. Her photographs bring me so much weird joy. I’m from Lake of the Ozarks, Missouri (yes, where Netflix’s ‘Ozark’ is set), not quite two hours from Springfield. It makes me love the goofy midwest vibes even more.

  53. Amy says...

    Fascinating! Julie Blackmon has a fresh new voice.