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Interviews: Julie Blackmon On Inspiration, Play and Image Making

High Dive, 2010 -- Julie Blackmon
On Friday, July 13th 2012 photo-eye Gallery opened an exhibition of new work by Julie Blackmon, the third exhibition of Blackmon’s work at photo-eye Gallery. Endlessly creative, Blackmon continues to produce fantastic images of her children and family members within her own domestic landscape. This exhibit includes several recent large-scale photographs up to 60x80 in.

Blackmon’s work feels everyday, yet is surreal, observing overlooked details of domestic life. Partially inspired by classical paintings, Blackmon’s photographs utilize classical compositions, which are then mixed playfully with carefully placed everyday items – evidence of contemporary culture. Blackmon’s photographs are humorous while touching on art history and personal and popular fictions.

On the occasion of the exhibition, photo-eye Gallery's Anne Kelly asked Blackmon a few questions about her work.

Concert, 2010 -- Julie Blackmon
Anne Kelly:     You started making photographs of your family in high school (or was it college?). Can you recall what inspired you to do so and tell us a little bit about the images?

Julie Blackmon:     It was in my first photo class in college. When my professor showed us slides one day, it was my first introduction to the work of artists like Sally Mann, Emmett Gowin, Diane Arbus, and Helen Levitt. I was blown away. I'd never seen them before, and just felt incredibly moved. I was drawn especially to their photographs of children. And in my own life at home, (with 8 younger siblings), I had endless subject matter, so it was just a natural fit. Some of my first images were of my younger sisters in their roller skates taking a break on the porch steps with their mosquito bitten legs, or eating donuts while watching the money box at our garage sale. I guess the moments I was drawn to then are the kind of moments I'm still drawn to now. In some ways it has nothing to do with photography. If I were a writer, they are moments I would write about, or if I was making a film, they would be the inspiration behind that as well.
AK:     After attending Missouri State University and becoming a mother you started photographing your family again, which resulted in Mind Games, black and white work that first earned you recognition. Please tell us a little about this project and how it began.

JB:     We moved into an old fixer upper house about 12 years ago that had a darkroom in the basement. It just seemed like I should put it to use since I knew how. So I got it up and running and decided to try and get some black and white pictures of my kids -- just to put on my walls. I had no intention of doing much else. But after a while, the work became less about portraits of my own kids. I was shooting other kids before long, (whoever happened to be around -- neighbors, cousins, etc.), and the work eventually became more about "play."

Stock Tank, 2012 -- Julie Blackmon
AK:     Most of your black and white images were made outside – when you first transitioned to color you continued to work outside, but then made the decision to move the work inside and start working with studio lights. In your recent work you have taken the work back outside but with studio lights. This is quite challenging. Can you talk about this?

JB:     Yeah, but I am never consciously thinking I want to work inside or outside, or with or without studio lights. I think about what would make a good picture, and once I get an idea, the subject matter dictates how I work. But it's true; I've done several images lately outside with studio lights -- mostly because I like the darker images right now. And using the darkness of night is a lot easier than painting an entire room black. The lighting (when I use it) is not that complicated. I've never really used more than two lights. Making sure it's safe is about the only challenge. I have someone hold the tripods the lights are on, (because if it's breezy there are never enough sand bags to keep umbrellas from blowing over), and then I tape down the cords (or put bricks on them if it's grass), and put chairs around the power box to keep the kids away from it. Takes me about 15 minutes to set up.

I think it's easy to be intimidated by lighting. But all you really need to know is if it looks good, it is good. There's no right or wrong way to light something. If you don't get it the first time, move things around until you do.

AK:     In the conclusion of your book Domestic Vacations you joke that in the next book all hell was going to break loose. Well, that has yet to happen, but you have mastered the ability to mix in just enough subtle tension, but on close inspection, you perceive a delicate balance in your images. Can you comment on this?

Naptime -- Julie Blackmon
JB:     I try not to overly intellectualize it. I could never think to myself "I want some subtle tension that is delicately balanced." That would paralyze me. The novelist Tobias Wolfe when asked what themes he worked with said "I just try and tell a good story. And if I do, the themes will be there." I've never liked really obvious humor, but I don't like serious melodramatic work either. When I used to try and do images like Sally Mann, with a lot of drama and mystery to them, I could never take myself that seriously, so I'd add some detail that would take it somewhere else, away from the drama that just wasn't me. Like the scribbling on the wall in Naptime, in contrast to his serious adult like posture. But it wasn't until I was working in color that I really figured out who I was in terms of my own style.

AK:     Your images are influenced by childhood memories of your own, being a mother today as well as personal and popular fictions. Being that some of the elements of your work are so personal, do you see them as self-portraits?

JB:     Not really. I think most artists, in any medium, draw from their own personal experience. That doesn't necessarily make it a self-portrait.

AK:     While the images are personal, they are also universal. I only had one sibling, but I can relate to many of the images and I have observed many people doing the same. Also, the images are shot in and around your hometown, but you have mentioned that you are also depicting a generic modern day suburbia. Please talk about this.

JB:     They happen to be shot in my own hometown, and so yes, they are personal to me. But you can't set out to make a universal statement. You just have to tell your own personal story, with the hope that it will resonate with a wide range of people. As for the generic modern day suburbia, I guess what I probably meant is that the setting could be anywhere. I hate to define it too much because that limits you. I just did an image with a stock tank in it. They don't have stock tanks in suburbia.

Line Up, 2009 -- Julie Blackmon
AK:     When you began your series Domestic Vacations you named a number of influences including Sally Mann, Keith Carter, Helen Levitt, Dutch and Flemish genre painters, especially Jan Steen, fiction writer Susan Minot and children’s book illustrator Ian Falconer. In the more recent works you have mentioned new influences including Edward Gorey, Tim Burton, Lewis Carroll and Federico Fellini. Please tell us about your new influences and how they have influenced your work?

JB:     There is something about Edward Gorey. The first children's book I saw of his was the alphabet book. I opened it up and the first page was "A is for Amy who fell down the stairs," with a picture of a little girl falling down the stairs. I loved it instantly. I think he must've influenced a great number of artists, Tim Burton, and Ian Falconer among them. But I think there's something about children that lends itself to humor more so than adults. Maybe it's that combination of something touching and sweet mixed with an element of the macabre, or a blending of innocence and impending darkness that almost seems charming. Plus you believe them. Adults doing crazy things often end up feeling like they (or you) are trying too hard.

AK:     Do you have any advice for emerging photographers?

JB:     I think my advice to an emerging photographer would be the same advice I would give to any artist just starting out, whether they were a poet, illustrator, filmmaker, or photographer. We get too hung up on the different mediums. There's so much inspiration to be found outside the photo world. Try to think of yourself not just a photographer, but more as an artist that happens to be using the medium of photography. And don't let yourself be intimidated by the technical. You don't have to have it all figured out before you start. Allow yourself to learn by trial and error. And look for inspiration in artists' whose work you love. Your own uniqueness will find it's way through.

Sharpie, 2011 -- Julie Blackmon  

Domestic Vacations by Julie Blackmon
If you have not yet had a chance to visit, Julie Blackmon's Summer Mischief exhibition will be on view through September 15th. Also on display is a selection of photographs by John Chervinsky from his Studio Physics series. The gallery is open Tuesday-Saturday from 10-5 pm or by appointment.

As always, Julie Blackmon's work may be viewed online at photo-eye Gallery

View the Limited Editions of Julie Blackmon's first book Domestic Vacations

For more information on Julie Blackmon's work, please contact Anne Kelly at photo-eye Gallery by email or by calling the gallery at (505) 988-5152 x202