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…
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.