The big picture: a painterly vision of suburban America | Photography

Wwhen she was in her 30s, Julie Blackmon moved into an old house in Springfield, Missouri, which had a darkroom in its basement. She began taking photographs seriously – but never quite in earnest – choreographing the lives and objects around her. Her pictures are full of painterly references; one model was 17th-century Dutch scenes of domestic life, those curious curated freeze frames that prefigured Instagram. Another was storytelling, as Blackmon’s husband wrote fiction – and if he could “borrow details and ideas from real life, and then exaggerate or stylise them for the sake of the story”, why couldn’t she?

In the 20 years since, Blackmon has created a body of work that looks carefully, with a raised eyebrow, at the way suburban America lives now. The best of the images in her new book, Midwest Materials, seem to be cast somewhere between old master geometries and Charlie Brown. She has often focused on children – now that her own three are grown up, those of family and neighbors – making curious playgrounds out of adult worlds.

This picture is typical of her unsettling make-believes. The abandoned mask, bottom left, locates it as the end of a long pandemic afternoon. The lawn has been the site of numerous lockdown activities, but the adult organizer in the garden has apparently given up or departed (perhaps to take the picture). Your eye is encouraged to enjoy the spray paint sphere, the whorl of the garden chair, the red tracery of the hosepipe and the split melon, before being troubled by the presence of the large knife and the croquet mallet and the three cherubic toddlers. As in any pastoral worth its idyll, innocence comes laced with darker fears. “Most people assume my work is all about kids,” Blackmon has observed about her pictures. “It’s actually not that much. The kids and crazy scenes are often just metaphors for a certain psychological state.”

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