Growing up in Springfield, Missouri, the oldest of nine children, Julie Blackmon was surrounded by family. After she became a mother herself, she began to reflect on the responsibilities and fears of raising children, expressing those feelings in her photographs. A new exhibition at Fotografiska, Fever Dreams, might be subtitled “Every parent’s nightmare.” Young children, in all their innocence, are shown in situations where danger is omnipresent – children submerged in a swimming pool, alone in a room, looking abandoned while staring out a window. Gazing at each photo it’s hard not to think – Where are the parents? – and to wonder what happens next.
Blackmon’s photos are intentionally unsettling and thought-provoking. Unlike street photographers who capture the action as it unfolds, Blackmon meticulously plans and constructs each photograph, using her family members as models. “Sometimes fiction can tell the truth more than truth itself,” Blackmon said.
Blackmon discussed her techniques and much more on March 5, when she was joined by Billy Collins, former Poet Laureate of the United States, for a wide-ranging and very entertaining conversation at Fotografiska. Between asking Blackmon about her career and her photographs, Collins read many of his poems, something that certainly added to the enjoyment of the evening’s program.
Blackmon and Collins displayed an easy rapport and obviously admire each other’s work. One of Blackmon’s photos – “Baby Toss” – graces the cover of Collins’ book of poetry, The Rain in Portugal. (That book, as well as Blackmon’s Homegrown, were on sale at the event.) Both Blackmon and Collins possess a wry sense of humor, whether talking about children, parents, or their careers as artists.
“How is this different from directing a play?” Blackmon said about her photography. “I see photographs as a medium like anything else. I can tell more about my experience as a parent and the anxiety by scripting my own narrative.”
Although the absence of adults in the photographs is worrisome, Collins said the children often seem to be inhabiting a wonderland where they can “do what they want.” While many of the photographs show children enjoying themselves or striking calm, oftentimes serious poses, Blackmon laughed when she said that working with children, often striving to get that perfect shot, was often a nightmare.
Case in point: “Fake Weather,” which shows Blackmon’s two nieces dressed in winter coats and fur hats posing against a staged winter backdrop. Blackmon explained that it was February in Springfield and rather than snow, the forsythia was in bloom. Her young relatives were hoping for snow. She thought: “What about fake snow?”, bringing in 90 pounds of the stuff. “They went for it,” she said about her nieces. As the shoot dragged on, however, the two young girls, sweating in the heavy coats, understandably lost some of their enthusiasm.
What parent, attempting to shoot that perfect holiday photo, couldn’t relate to that experience?
Julie Blackmon – Fever Dreams
Through May 3, 2020
Park Avenue at 22nd Street
Other photos: Charlene Giannetti