Springfield, Missouri, Is Their Muse
Working in their home city, the photographer Julie Blackmon and her daughter, Stella, a filmmaker, find some mystery in everyday life.
By Steven Kurutz
Sept. 21, 2022
The New York Times
Julie Blackmon grew up in Springfield, Mo., a city of 165,000 people in the southern part of the state, and went to college there. She got married in Springfield and raised three children there. For much of that time, her home city struck her as “this generic town with a generic name, in the middle of the country, in the middle of nowhere,” she said. And then, about 20 years ago, she picked up a camera.
“All of a sudden I’m driving by Starbucks, and the guy that served me coffee every day is outside smoking a cigarette,” said Ms. Blackmon, whose third book of photographs, “Midwest Materials,” was published this month. “I remember thinking, ‘He’s got the most beautiful cheekbones when he inhales.’ He looked right out of a Balthus painting.”
Since taking a picture of the Starbucks employee, Ms. Blackmon, 56, has become a celebrated art photographer. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, New York magazine and The Oxford American. Reese Witherspoon and Elton John are among her collectors.
Springfield is present in the DNA of all her work. Her photos are set amid the front porches, backyards and half-deserted streets of her Midwestern town. Often elaborately constructed, the images are full of references to art history and pop culture as they capture subtly dark domestic scenes: toddlers left unsupervised near water; bulk groceries spilling out of a minivan in a Costco parking lot; two small girls posing stiffly in a driveway in matching dresses like the twins from “The Shining.”
Ms. Blackmon has described her photos as “everyday moments in my everyday life that I’ve told in a fantastical way.”
Ms. Blackmon isn’t the only one in the family who has pursued a career in the arts: Her daughter, Stella Blackmon, 30, is a budding filmmaker. Like Julie, Stella trains her camera on relatives and neighbors while using Springfield as her main setting. Last year, she made “The Virtual Years,” a seven-minute short about a teenage girl (her 15-year-old cousin, Goldie Winstead) trying to navigate the real and online versions of herself. (She has also shot an ad campaign for the knitwear label Babaà.)
The women’s roots in Springfield go back to the 1890s, when an ancestor moved there from Boston and married a doctor. The homestead is still in the family, owned by Julie’s uncle. The family is sprawling — Julie’s mother was one of 10 children; Julie is one of nine — and many of her relatives and siblings live within a two-mile radius of each other. “It almost seems like we’re some kind of weird religion,” Julie said.
Julie and her daughter make Springfield look beautiful and otherworldly at the same time, and their careers illustrate that a city far from the cultural capitals may offer the necessary brain space and inspiration for working artists.
Julie’s portraits are conceptual; Stella’s films tend toward documentary. Each takes what she needs from the same set of images floating in front of them: screen porches, stock tank pools, shallow rivers, dark garages, tire swings, empty fields.
On a recent visit to Brooklyn, where Julie keeps a pied-à-terre, the women were sitting beside each other at Clark’s diner, talking about their home and their work and how the two intersect.
“I can’t imagine working anywhere else but Springfield,” Julie said. “I grew up there and know it.”
Stella said she moved back home in July after eight years in Brooklyn, where she had held a series of jobs in the media business, including at New York magazine and A Cup of Jo, a lifestyle website. “I could see myself in the stories of Springfield more vividly because I lived it,” she said. “And my mom taught me how to see those stories everywhere.”
“Everybody is from a Springfield, Missouri,” her mother said, “but it’s kind of not cool to say that you’re still there. I’m aware that it doesn’t sound cool.”
When Julie developed a serious interest in photography in her mid-30s, she was struggling, she said. She had three young children at home, one of whom had been diagnosed with severe autism. Her father, who had Alzheimer’s, was staying with her at night, and her mother had just died.
“I was feeling really super-trapped,” she said. “Part of it was my life itself. But Springfield didn’t help. Where do you go? Target?”
Her family had moved into a rambling old house that had a darkroom in the basement. One of her sisters suggested that she get it up and running. She took a photography course at the nearby college, Missouri State University, where she had previously majored in art, and studied the work of Sally Mann and Diane Arbus, among others.
“There was a shift, maybe because of the limitations of my life and the limitations of Springfield, that changed the way I saw the world around me,” Julie said.
She cited a line from the Maurice Sendak book “Where the Wild Things Are” that describes the main character’s feelings when he is sent to his room: “And the walls became the world all around.”
“It was a little bit like that,” Julie said of her creative awakening. “Everything around me became like a giant prop closet that I had access to.”
She used family members as models and set shoots in neighbors’ yards and homes. The front porch that appears in some of her photographs is part of the white bungalow where her younger sister Millie Johnson lives.
“Without Julie’s photos, we probably wouldn’t think this porch is really something,” said Ms. Johnson, who recently posed for her sister while nine months pregnant and rowing a boat for an image called “Paddleboard.” “But she puts her scene in it and it becomes kind of magical. Julie is getting us out in the world. Julie is capturing our lives.”
Julie attributed her ability to find some mystery in seemingly ordinary surroundings to her late mother, Carol, who used to create carnivals in the backyard, with a fortune teller and everyone in costumes. “She had all these kids and no money,” Julie said of her mother.
Stella has inherited the trait. Like her mother, she is drawn to the Finley River in a nearby town, Ozark. “There’s a secret entrance to this rope swing and once you enter it, it truly feels like you’re in Northern Italy,” Stella said.
As a teenager, she assisted her mother on photo shoots. Now Julie has been helping her daughter: Stella filmed a scene from “The Virtual Years” while in the trunk of her mother’s car as Julie drove.
“I never saw that coming — you assisting me,” Stella said.
“Sorry I was such a bad assistant,” Julie said.
“I kept telling her to slow down, and her music was so loud, we kept zooming past,” Stella said.
Julie said she had long dreamed of making films, but would probably stick with photography.
“I think, in some ways, you’re doing what I always wanted to do,” she told her daughter. “But at 56 — really, I don’t even want to approach Final Cut Pro.”
Stella remembered when she first left Missouri for New York City. “It felt like everything Springfield wasn’t,” she said. “I remember seeing Ethan Hawke on a bicycle and my mind exploded.”
Toward the end of her time in Brooklyn, as her trips home grew longer, she said she came to appreciate all that Springfield offered her as a visual storyteller. She is now working on a documentary about rodeo trick riders, as well as a scripted series based loosely on her family’s twice-yearly reunions.
“You come back and see it with new eyes,” Stella said. “And then I think about things that we’re so used to that other people don’t see. Like we know when the alleyways bloom with wildflowers and moments like that.”
There’s a confidence that comes in working in a familiar place, her mother said.
“You know your history,” Julie said. “You know exactly who you are.”