Previously seen at art fairs over several years, Julie Blackmon’s new photographs currently showing at Robert Man Gallery continue to construct tableaux fictions of bourgeois family life. Rather than documenting the lives of her subject, Blackmon, a mother of three children, photographs her family, nieces and nephews using digital techniques to blend and recombine many images of the characters depicted in her imagery. Staged photography has remained a staple at contemporary art galleries, with the most ambitious of the genre being created by Gregory Crewdson. Representing the polar opposite of Crewdson’s bitter dramas of human alienation, Blackmon’s photographs come across as the idealized good life of affluent young families. In seeing Blackmon’s work singly or in small groups, the viewer will likely delight in the comical relationships depicted in the images as well as the carefully constructed formal and narrative qualities).
Whereas Crewdson often depicts despairing individuals inhabiting grimy film noirish sets, Blackmon photographs well dressed adults and children in splendidly appointed interiors and homes with the bright strobe lighting techniques seen in shelter magazines. In fact her work teeters more to the side of editorial illustration, and these confections often seem too sweet.
Not usually seen in galleries, similar efforts are frequently found in “work books” of commercial photographers. In these glossy pages (used by art directors in the advertising field to find photographers for assignments) can be found more than a few staged photographs depicting a quintessential American moment . A skinny tow headed boy tinkering with his soapbox derby car is one such trope. Another- the beautiful blonde young woman in bikini washing a classic red Camaro while being sprayed with a hose by the handsome varsity hunk. Similarly, recent Smuckers Jam TV commercials traffic in an idealized 1950’s representation of an American farm boy’s life of bluejean overalls and vintage bicycles filmed in gauzy soft focus. We owe these treacley scenes to the covers of Saturday Evening Post and the former illustrator, now celebrated artist, Norman Rockwell. And while Blackmon’s images, styled with the accouterments of today’s well off homes, avoid the nostalgia of Rockwell, they are heavily invested in cuteness. Because the compositions of the imagery are so expertly assembled from multiple photographs, the work looks more contrived than evocative.
Take “Lost Mitten” in which a gently contoured snowy hillside below a cloudy sky divides the picture frame roughly in half. A black labrador (often appearing as a prop in Ralph Lauren Ads) enters the photograph from the lower left, pointing our eyes to the red coated mother towing a beautiful wood sleigh and toddler while presumably his sister of 3 or 4 years age attired in a tasteful gray over coat and yellow knit cap prepares to slide down the hill on plastic sled. The mitten in question can be seen on the snow bank.
In Blackmon’s photograph, “Line-up” -seven children are placed against a granite block wall and overhead balustrade of a solid looking house. All the children are fashionably styled and are assembled across the lower half of the square image in a perfect composition which even includes the children’s’ chalk marks on the pavement. In what could be a portrayal of the mischievous nature of boys, one kid pulls his ears and sticks out his tongue for the photographer. But it looks like so much stage direction and comes across as cloying as the Smuckers Ad. When every child’s expression looks selected for maximum expression and every detail looks deliberately placed, the artifice comes on heavy handed in the same way that Norman Rockwell’s paintings left nothing for the viewer to imagine. Wide eyed, pigtailed blond girls, freckle faced boys, kindly gray-haired granddads and apron wearing grandmas, were some of the types cast by Rockwell. Each were photographed posing with particular expressions on their faces and then assembled in the paintings which would so deftly and obviously play on our heartstrings.
Representing the other end of the rainbow are the photographs of Gregory Crewdson. With considerable skill and evocation, Crewdson broke from the aforementioned sentimental imagery and rightly found himself to be a highly sought after artist. Over the years, Crewdson’s work, for all it’s power, began to create its own tropes- alienation and misery photographed in exquisite clarity and detail. Never the less, it serves as a contrast in which to examine Blackmon’s work. If Blackmon can be likened to Rockwell, Crewdson can be compared to Edward Hopper. The paintings of Hopper depict people in situations of which the interpretation is not as obvious as those of Rockwell. Viewers of his work can try to imagine the thoughts and feelings of these individuals, reflecting on their own lives and feelings.
In Blackmon’s photograph, “Girl Across the Street”, pictures the back of a very young boy of 18-24 months, with his hands and head at the sill of a picture window. The very formal composition uses the drapes and window as a proscenium to the stage like view of the lawn and house across the street, capturing the boy’s view of a girl of similar age across the street, arms akimbo, dressed only in panties. The picture’s details are perfectly propped- 1950’s era star burst wall clock on the left of the window, 50’s yellow tiered lamp shade and a half eaten chocolate donut on the floor. The view outside is a stone mid-century suburban house, lawn with small turquoise blue inflatable splashing pool and a scooter. At first glance, the scene conjures up this adult’s childhood memories of being confined to the house when the world outside beckoned powerfully. But for all of the precisely arranged details, the image seems rooted in stasis.
In Baby Toss, a photograph that I was initially drawn to, a super cute baby girl is frozen in flight against the pure blue sky of the upper right quadrant of the photo. Below, the man who tossed the kid stands with his hands stretched overhead to catch the kid. This little bundle of joy with a slight hint of terror on her face is wearing a green hand knit cap, a light brown double breasted overcoat with red buttons, striped purple and black tights and red shoes. Balancing the photographs composition on the left are the head and shoulders of another child whose knit hat, amusingly is pulled down over her eyes.
Whether depicting fantasy or reality, art seems to be most successful when the portrayal leaves room for the variable meanings that we find in living. In thinking of photographs of children the work of Sally Mann and Helen Levitt come to mind. In the case of Mann , the evocation of her work was so rich and multivalent that some viewers own darkest fears colored their interpretation of the work . Many years earlier, Helen Levitt photographed children candidly and in action, capturing a rich and evocative portrayal of their lives and relationships. There is an authenticity lacking in Blackmon’s photographs. However carefully Blackmon assembles all of the elements that comprise her imagery, for this viewer it never brings anything more to mind than cutely appealing imagery. Plucking the same heart strings as Norman Rockwell, there is never any squalor or struggle in Blackmon’s work. These images could easily be confused with those made for a lifestyle magazine.