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Julie Blackmon's Missouri photos show the art that's 'right in front' of us

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Julie Blackmon
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Haw Contemporary
The 1980s Mistubishi van in Julie Blackmon's "Costco" was maneuvered into Haw Contemporary for the art photographer's exhibit, opening at the West Bottoms gallery on Friday.

As the Springfield photographer prepares to fill a Kansas City gallery with her work, collectors on both coasts are identifying with what's universal about southwestern Missouri.

When considering the trajectory of her career in photography, Julie Blackmon lets out a little sigh. Even after 20 years in the practice, she seems a little bewildered by it all.

“Oh, gosh,” said the Springfield, Missouri, native. “I mean, one thing kind of led to another.”

Though Blackmon began garnering national attention in about 2003, she has since become a celebrated art photographer. Now, her career is having something of a moment.

In September, her third book of photos, “Midwest Materials,” was published, and New York Times Style reporter Steven Kurutz wrote a laudatory profile of Blackmon and her daughter, filmmaker Stella Blackmon, two weeks ago.

The elder Blackmon also has a show up at the Robert Mann gallery in New York, and, ahead of a dedicated exhibit at Haw Contemporary in Kansas City, she has now spread out in the West Bottoms gallery space.

“We've actually never filled the whole gallery up, upstairs and downstairs, with one artist’s work,” said owner Bill Haw.

Haw Contemporary is hosting an opening reception for Blackmon’s photography on Friday.

The 1980s Mitsubishi van used in her piece “Costco” was maneuvered onto the gallery’s ground floor for the engagement, too, “with about a half-inch to spare on either side,” Haw laughed. “I was prepared to sledge hammer the door open a little bit more if we needed to.”

Haw and Blackmon spoke Tuesday about the exhibit with KCUR’s Up To Date host Steve Kraske.

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Bill Haw
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Haw Contemporary
Photographer Julie Blackmon poses with props and the van from her photo "Costco." The Mistubishi belongs to one of her friends.

Blackmon said she first got the fever for photography in college, “the second my professor showed us the work of Sally Mann or Helen Levitt or Diane Arbus.”

“But, you know, life gets in the way,” she said. “I got married, had three kids, so I really didn't pick a camera back up until I was 35.”

Blackmon, now 56, said she was struggling at the time: Her mother had just died; her father, who has Alzheimer’s disease, was living with her part-time; and she was looking after three young kids at home.

“My sisters probably were a little worried,” she remembered. “They're like, ‘Why don't you get that dark room in your basement up and running, Julie?’”

The revived diversion gave her something else to focus on, she said.

Given her success so far, Blackmon could have left Missouri long ago to practice her art elsewhere, but “I can’t imagine working anywhere else but Springfield,” Julie told the New York Times in September. “I grew up there and know it.”

There’s also something universal about the locale that can draw people in.

“A lot of people are from a place like Springfield, Missouri, but they're not still there — not if they're cool at all,” she told KCUR Tuesday. “I'm just doing my work, working with what I have, in my place that I love.”

It hasn’t stopped her from creating a national market for her art. Blackmon’s work is sought out by galleries in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Chicago, Los Angeles and New York.

Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, New York Magazine and The Oxford American.

It’s also in the private collections of Sir Elton John and Reese Witherspoon, something Blackmon wouldn’t have believed was possible when she started making photos.

At first blush, many of Blackmon’s pieces appear candid and effortless, as if she’s firing off shots while her family and friends go about their normal routines. Closer inspection, though, reveals expertly curated scenes of chaos, tranquility and joy.

“I kind of learned from one of my professors — it just stuck with me. He said that he loved to read fiction, and he loved it because sometimes fiction could tell the truth better than the truth itself,” Blackmon said. “So I started borrowing details from my real life, and then exaggerating or stylizing them for the sake of the story.”

She said her photo “Flatboat, 2022,” was inspired by George Caleb Bingham’s “The Jolly Flatboatmen,” painted in 1846 and on view at the National Gallery of Art.

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George Caleb Bingham
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National Gallery of Art
George Caleb Bingham's "The Jolly Flatboatmen," on view in the National Gallery of Art, served as inspiration for Blackmon's "Flatboat, 2022."

More often, inspiration comes from her surroundings: a neighbor’s front porch or her cabin and the Finley River, which winds through Webster, Christian and Stone counties. Her family and friends also contribute ideas.

“It's just what is presented right in front of me,” she said.

In her composition “New Chair,” Blackmon has nine subjects arranged in frame (10, if you count a lounging cat soaking up sun on a front porch). Getting that many people, most of them kids, in place at the same time is rarely easy, Blackmon said.

“They are totally chaotic and crazy. I'm really, really lucky nobody's drowned or gotten hurt,” she laughed. “But really, after doing it for a while, when they hear you say, 'Oh, man, that's right on. That’s so cool!' — whether it is or not — they do get into it. They love those photo shoots.”

Her encouragement, and lots of patience, can sometimes lead to breakthroughs. When staging the scene for her flatboat image, Blackmon allowed time for the girl who serves as the shot’s focus to get comfortable.

“She was just so happy that she knew she was gonna be kind of the star of that shot. But she's very shy,” Blackmon said. “It took a while for her to loosen up.”

“When she finally did, it was so cute, even aside from what I knew I was getting,” she said. “I was like, ‘OK, she's finally having fun.’”

An opening reception for Blackmon’s solo exhibition “Metaverse” begins at 5 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 7 at Haw Contemporary, 1600 Liberty St., Kansas City, Missouri 64102. For more information, visit julie-blackmon.com.

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As culture editor, I oversee KCUR’s coverage of race, culture, the arts, food and sports. I work with reporters to make sure our stories reflect the fullest view of the place we call home, so listeners and readers feel primed to explore the places, projects and people who make up a vibrant Kansas City. Email me at luke@kcur.org.
When I host Up To Date each morning at 9 a.m., my aim is to engage the community in conversations about the Kansas City area’s challenges, hopes and opportunities. I try to ask the questions that listeners want answered about the day’s most pressing issues and provide a place for residents to engage directly with newsmakers. My email is steve@kcur.org.
Elizabeth Ruiz is a freelance producer for KCUR’s Up To Date. Contact her at elizabeth@kcur.org or on Twitter at @er_bentley_ruiz
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