Julie Blackmon's Surreal Photos Show the Chaos of Being a Parent
You don't have to be a parent to enjoy these mythical scenes dripping with dark humor.
Women are overlooked far too often in photography. How can we continue to combat this erasure? My answer is this column, “Woman Seeing Woman.” While it’s just the start of solving this problem, I, a female writer and photographer, hope to celebrate the astoundingly powerful female voices we have in photography by offering a glimpse into their work.
In Julie Blackmon’s image “Midwest Materials,” children bounce balls off the side of a building on a day of blue skies. Girls’ pigtails dangle near their ears and a boy runs shirtless through vacant parking spaces. Another looks up aimlessly at the sky. For people who grew up unattended, whose parents said “go play outside” and then expected them home at dusk, the scene might not be an unusual one. But for a child who grew up with what are now called “helicopter parents” it might be a bit unnerving. Where are their parents? What are they doing wandering alone?
The nature of being a parent has changed so much in the last few decades, and with it so has the state of mind of being a parent. In Julie Blackmon’s work of layered images—she doesn’t consider herself a photographer, but rather an artist whose medium is photography—she creates scenes of children whose parents are often absent, either of body or of mind. Somewhat famously, O Magazine wanted to publish her image “The Power of Now,” in which a mother lounges in the sun while a baby creeps ever closer to a pool, but only if she could move the baby further away from the water. Blackmon declined because a safe baby was not the point of the image. Rather, the point was that there’s never a moment of respite as a parent because look what happens if you take one—your baby creeps closer to the water, literally or metaphorically.
Blackmon sees her work as a way of understanding the world through the lens of parenting, a space that for her and for so many is stressful, overwhelming, and anxiety-inducing. By creating these mythical scenes dripping with dark humor, she’s able to process her experiences and make sense of what’s happening around her. “The craziness and the chaos in whatever scenes are more to me a metaphor for my psychological state as a mother and being overwhelmed and trying to sort it out,” Blackmon said. Parenting is filled with so many mixed emotions and those contradictions are what make it a complex experience. She said, “Really, as much as there’s all these kids, the absence of the mother in the photos, that’s really what to me that work is about.”
So the work isn’t really about “parenting” at all. Blackmon makes the comparison to Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird: the film wasn’t about Sacramento, but the city gives way to a bigger lens of human experience. Similarly, for Blackmon, parenting acts as a springboard for seeing things about the roles of women and what they manage. “I think women artists, women in general, we’re still doing the bulk of everything. We’re still seeing what needs to be done and even if we have the most wonderful husbands ever, we’re still having to designate, we’re still having to see the big picture of what needs to happen,” she said. If there’s something that needs to be addressed in the home or with the family, Blackmon still feels that women, especially those who are artists, are the parental partners who have to put their work second.
Blackmon’s work is not autobiographical. No she doesn’t have 17 kids. Even when she had been using her own children as subjects (she now uses neighborhood children), she still found them to be characters in a larger scene she had created. “I didn’t think of it as something to be held dear to my heart in a way that a mother would hold her kids’ pictures dear,” she said. “It was dear because it was my work and I was giving it everything I had, but not because of who was in it.” After all, men photographing their children are not instantly stereotyped as “dad photographers.” But because Blackmon’s work takes place in her home, she often feels like she has to answer to that “mom photographer” stereotype, just like Cig Harvey. “If we are women we’re taking care of a lot of people. Even if they’re not our babies, they’re our mother-in-laws and they’re our neighbors. But it’s so hard when that truth is then held against you like, ‘Oh, you’re just going in your backyard with your neighbor’s kids.’ She said. “The images that I do are hopefully a reflection of something much bigger than my personal life. That’s what a real artist does.”
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