Julie Blackmon (b. 1966) explores domestic life and family dynamics in her richly detailed, orchestrated photographs. The National Gallery of Art has acquired two images by Blackmon, both from 2022: Flatboat, a gift from Bill Haw, Jr., and Paddleboard, a gift from the artist.
The oldest of nine children and mother to three, Blackmon draws on art historical and popular culture motifs and combines them with her personal experience as part of a large family. Inspired by the photographs of Helen Levitt, Diane Arbus, and Sally Mann, whose works she first encountered in college, Blackmon began to picture the small pleasures, disappointments, and fleeting joys of childhood. Her subject is her sprawling family, including her many nieces and nephews, as well as friends and neighbors, who have become her “troupe of players.” Working in bright, saturated color, her witty photographs are full of detail and layered meanings. They are unabashedly fictitious, evoking both a theatrical set and a film still.
Paddleboard pays homage to George Caleb Bingham’s Fur Traders Descending the Missouri (1845) by replacing the two men with a heavily pregnant young woman and a small boy, thus centering women’s labor. The cargo of the fur traders has been swapped with a tall stack of coolers. The child swimming in the background, with a shark fin strapped to their back, adds a menacing note, suggesting the struggle for survival despite the apparent tranquility of the scene. In Flatboat Blackmon has restaged Bingham’s iconic painting The Jolly Flatboatmen (1846) as a tableau of children and adolescents loafing on a raft. However, in Blackmon’s present-day reimagining the central white male figure of the painting becomes a young Black girl reveling in the joy of a summer’s day.