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Charming, chaotic scenes of family life in small-town America

Written by Jacqui Palumbo, CNN

Julie Blackmon’s show “Fever Dreams,” at Fotografiska in New York City, has been postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic, with a new opening date yet to be confirmed. In the meantime, follow the museum’s Instagram account here.

In Julie Blackmon’s photographs, her quiet neighborhood in Springfield, Missouri, is transformed into a theatrical stage where children reign. They gather poolside in the balmy summer; direct talent shows in the garage; and prepare to take flight off of kitchen chairs, leaving toys and household ephemera strewn about. Adults, when they do appear, are often cropped out of frame, obscured like the unintelligible grownups of Charlie Brown’s world.

The artist has lived in Springfield her entire life, calling her home city in the Ozarks region the “generic American town.”

Blackmon’s forthcoming show at Fotografiska, “Fever Dreams,” plays on fiction and reality.

Through her lens, Springfield becomes a setting for magic, chaos and discovery.

In her work, the photographer takes cues from Dutch genre paintings of the 17th century, where the home could become a setting for both quiet everyday moments and raucous behavior, carefully staged with symbolic details and elegant light. “The chaos and humor seem contemporary in some ways,” she said in a phone interview from her home.

‘Tell all the truth, but tell it slant’

The artist has also been inspired by the work of American photographer Sally Mann, whose landmark book “Immediate Family” from 1992 similarly toyed with truth and fantasy in evocative — and often controversial — scenes of her children.

Mann framed her work through Emily Dickinson’s poem “Tell all the truth but tell it slant,” noting in her foreword to “Immediate Family” that “When the good pictures come, we hope they tell truths, but truths ‘told slant’…We are spinning a story of what it is to grow up.” It’s an idea that stayed with Blackmon when she was first introduced to Mann as an art major in college — though Blackmon did not pursue photography in earnest until over a decade later, when she, her husband and three children moved into a home with a basement darkroom.

"Night Movie" (2011) by Julie Blackmon

“Night Movie” (2011) by Julie Blackmon Credit: Julie Blackmon/Courtesy the artist and Robert Mann Gallery

Blackmon may be influenced by her own upbringing — she grew up in a family of nine kids with a mother who encouraged them to run free — but her work is not autobiographical. “I don’t really ever want the work to be just about my life,” she said. “(But) even though the images are fictional, what I have to draw from here is endless.

“A lot of people assume there is not a lot going on here, in a generic town with a generic name in middle America, but I found that not to be the case,” she added.

When Blackmon began shooting, she started with portraits of her children, but today her practice has evolved into more complex compositions born from her imagination. Her kids have grown up and moved out of the house, so she asks the children in her large extended family or around the neighborhood to play the subjects in her work, tapping into the charm of her hometown to bring the stories to life.

In her recent image, “New Neighbors,” two young sisters stand side by side in matching red dresses with white collars and black bows, redolent of Stanley Kubrick’s unsettling twins from “The Shining.”

They face off across the driveway with a toddler on a tricycle, who has stopped in his tracks at their presence. Blackmon will often start with details — like the girls in their matching dresses — and then work out the scene from there.

“Sometimes it’s the unexpected moments that are the best and sometimes the moments that you dream up,” she said. “There’s no real formula to getting a piece that resonates with people.”

"New Neighbors" (2020) by Julie Blackmon

“New Neighbors” (2020) by Julie Blackmon Credit: Julie Blackmon/Courtesy the artist and Robert Mann Gallery

New interpretations

While the United States and many countries around the world practice social distancing and people remain largely confined to their homes to stop the spread of coronavirus, Blackmon has been looking at her work through a new lens.

“One of the things that inspired me when I first started (photographing) when my kids were little is that conflicting desire to connect and disconnect,” she said.

The need for alone time in close quarters can be seen in her photograph “Power of Now,” where every family member in the yard carries out their actions several feet apart, or in “Birds at Home,” taken during a period of confinement during a heavy ice storm.

"Power of Now" (2008)

“Power of Now” (2008) Credit: Julie Blackmon/Courtesy the artist and Robert Mann Gallery

But Blackmon’s work is not just about the lives of plucky and rambunctious children and the parents who must find balance; it’s also “a metaphor for being overwhelmed,” she said.

“At any age, we’re trying to live this delightful life and appreciate everything around us,” she added, but chaos can ensue, or the nagging feeling that something might go wrong.

Blackmon’s themes are universal — the desire to manage one’s life, and the impossibility to do so.

“Even if everything is wonderful, I have a feeling of being out of control,” she said. “Maybe this work is a way of making sense of that.”

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