Domestic Vacations

By Julie Blackmon, Paul Schranz Back to

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There is a constant ying and yang in the act of motherhood, encompassing both the amazing and the tedious. Photographer Julie Blackmon talks of contemporary life as being overscheduled and frantic. Facing the pressure of being a perfect mother, while avoiding the possibility of losing her self, she has melded her situation to her work, successfully balancing her connection and her escape.

Blackmon says that her photography is grounded in her experience of being raised as a member of a large family and her relationship to her current large-family life in her Missouri town. Her work continues the journey of motherhood. Her portfolio Domestic Vacations offers a detailed look at events, which together can reference a one-act domestic comedy. How she accomplishes this is by neither happenstance nor luck.

Julie Blackmon’s photographs are a flawless combination of the spontaneous and the skillfully orchestrated. The first response is a willing suspended disbelief in what we see, much like our response to viewing a motion picture. Nothing initially appears strained or unusual in her familial tableaux. Then comes a realization of the number of subplots developing within a single image. Her work is simultaneously real and surreal, awesome, while at the same time comforting.

Blackmon explains that her work is heavily influenced by her sister, who is an author and illustrator of children’s books. But unlike an illustrator, who can create an event synthetically, the photographer creates her event in real time analytically. The succinct moment of capture is critical. Even if several takes are needed to capture the right mix for the complete visual narrative, each exposure has to contain the critical information for her concept to be photographically realized.

Candy, archival pigment print, 22″ x 22″

Once Blackmon’s “script” is set, it’s time for her “stage” and “actors.” Her visual narratives are well-planned concepts of a number of common child-rearing activities that uncommonly occur in a single hysterical moment in time. Her sense of humor regarding parenting is obvious. Her actors, referencing the historic works of Julia Margaret Cameron, are her own children, relatives and neighbors, who respond to their roles of appearing in photographs as just part of their normal day-to-day life. Unlike in Cameron’s completely posed shots, Blackmon’s subjects are permitted spontaneity once they are placed in the scene. Each actor undeniably comes to the stage with a personal agenda, based on an idea suggested by Blackmon. When the individual initiatives are combined with those of the other inhabitants of the shared frame, they often result in unusual and sometimes combustible experiences. Blackmon has perfected the balance between total directorial control and openness to the moment to allow the story to unfold before her camera.

Birds at Home, archival pigment print, 22″x22″

With this in mind, it is understandable why her process, as in cinema, requires some edits and retakes. In these cases, Blackmon re-photographs the moment for the individual actor in exactly the same location, and then meticulously replaces that segment using Photoshop to achieve the perfected final image. She doesn’t attempt to montage images from different scenes. Props that will show up in the final image may also be shot separately, in their actual location, and will later be montaged in. Blackmon creates a believable reality in each individual actor’s portrait. However, viewing the piece as a whole, we are delighted by our recognition of the mannerisms and relationships that form the collective image.

Photo conceptualization has certainly been made more believable through the advent of digital photography, but it isn’t new to the field, as referenced by the historic work of Oscar Gustave Rejlander and H. P. Robinson, as well as the more contemporary assemblages of Jerry Uelsmann and Scott Mutter. What is different about Blackmon’s work is that in it we find the extraordinary in the ordinary.

Stolen Kiss, archival pigment print, 22″ x 22″

Blackmon’s early work was made using a film Hasselblad. She has since moved to a digital HD3II – 39 megapixel Hasselblad with a 28mm wide angle lens. Although her image frame has transitioned from a square to a rectangular format, her composition retains a circular choreography, where visual information can be found in almost every part of the image.

For example, in the image “Stolen Kiss,” what we see is candy being taken away from a baby (humorously referencing the familiar idiom), along with the excruciating expression of abandonment of the child from whom the “kiss” is taken. We catch the “thief “as he is already leaving the image frame. This is a very successful technique employed in a number of Blackmon’s pieces. Her subjects come and go, creating motion in and out of the frame, yet viewers require no additional information from a previous or subsequent frame to understand the impact of the narrative. All you need to know is set neatly inside the square format of each unique image.

Loading Zone, archival pigment print, 60″ x 40″

Wicker Swing, archival pigment print, 44″ x 32″

Blackmon’s approach results in some of the most skillfully complex photographic work being produced. Her directed performances of people and light in each image again reference cinematic production. The background lighting, while on site, has the control supremacy of complex studio lighting. Using a combination of both Novatron lighting systems and natural light in a perfect blend, Blackmon is able to mask this combination to perfection. She says that she doesn’t use an HDR auto system because she feels it’s too contrived. Instead, she carefully masks to get the effect she wants. The result is similar to that of Flemish painters, who managed to throw light into dark corners, far from the actual light source, in obvious violation of the inverse square law. The light in Blackmon’s work is comforting, and it is also a neutralizing factor that gives enhanced importance to the actors. She photographs the children using a strobe to stop action, but she may also shoot with an open shutter to capture reflections and shadows to add realism to the image.

The wonder of Blackmon’s work is that despite obvious direction and manipulation, the photographs in Domestic Vacations resonate with a sense of ironic reality and call forth a resounding and empathetic “yes” from anyone who has been part of the complex experience that is a family.

Product Resources: Camera: Hasselblad HD3 39; Lighting: Novatron (interior shots), Bowens Explorer 1500 with QuadX (outdoors). Printer: 44” Epson 9880; Inks: Ultrachrome; Paper: Hahnemuhle Fine Art Pearl paper. Computer: Mac OS X Quad-Core Intel Xeon with an Apple 30” cinema display


About the Authors

Julie Blackmon
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Award-winning photographer Julie Blackmon was named American Photo’s Emerging Photographer of 2008 and was among PDN’s top 30 in 2007. Her work is included in the collections of the George Eastman House, Rochester, NY and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, TX. Her book, Domestic Vacations, is published by Radius Books, Santa Fe, NM (2008).
Paul Schranz
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Paul Schranz is a photographer and a photographic educator. He holds a BFA in photography from Ohio University, Athens, OH and an MFA in photography from Northern Illinois University, DeKalb, IL. He is Professor of Art Emeritus, Governors State University, University Park, IL, where he taught photography and digital imaging. He exhibits nationally and has received grants for documentary projects from the Illinois Arts Council. He is the former Editor of photo technique and Director of Mesilla Digital Imaging Workshops. Schranz is currently a faculty member at Dona Ana Community College, Las Cruces, NM, where he teaches advanced digital imaging, photographic composition, digital printing, image enhancement and manipulation.