If Mama Nervosa were talented photographers instead of bloggers…

“The stress, the chaos, and the need to simultaneously escape and connect are issue that I investigate in this body of work.  We live in a culture where we are both “child centered” and “self-obsessed.”  The struggle between living in the moment versus escaping to another reality is intense since these two opposites strive to dominate.  Caught in the swirl of soccer practices, play dates, work, and trying to find our way in our “make-over” culture, we must still create the space to find ourselves.” Julie Blackmon, Artist Statement

My lifelong friend, Steph, pointed me in the direction of Julie Blackmon’s photography, and rather blew my mind. I love her domestic scenes and I feel like the tensions she explores — between self and child, beauty and chaos, escape and connection — match up so well with the questions and themes we sometimes explore on Mama Nervosa.

“The expectations of family life have never been more at odds with each other.  These issues, as well as the relationship between the domestic landscape of the past and present, are issues I have explored in these photographs.  I believe there are moments that can be found throughout any given day that bring sanctuary.  It is in finding these moments amidst the stress of the everyday that my life as a mother parallels my work as an artist, and where the dynamics of family life throughout time seem remarkably unchanged.  As an artist and as a mother, I believe life’s most poignant moments come from the ability to fuse fantasy and reality:  to see the mythic amidst the chaos.” Julie Blackmon, Artist Statement

Blackmon is one of 9 children and a mother of 3. Her photographs are inspired by the domestic scenes of Jan Steen, a 17th century Dutch painter whose ribald scenes of boisterous families are so archetypical that they actually use the phrase “Jan Steen household” to describe messy homes with kids running everywhere. (So, see, my house is like art.) That she can connect these very modern images to art of the 17th century illustrates her point that family dynamics seem “remarkably unchanged” over time. In other words, our worries and issues aren’t news! But isn’t that intriguing?

Where can I begin with what I love about these images? First, I love the settings: beautiful, stylized interiors that feel like they’re from the past. Any of these interiors could be used for a lifestyle blog, right? They’re gorgeous. But the scenes are scattered and often cluttered (see the patio above — numerous balls, the unfurled hose, the brown grass). It’s confusing and exhilerating: can a beautiful space be messy? Seriously, can it?

These images flirt with danger: a child standing in the high chair that’s supposed to keep him safe so an adult can mop in the next room; a child playing with egg shells; a baby standing on the table. The kids aren’t in obvious danger but considering how paranoid modern culture is about child safety and supervision, they are taboo. Is this benign negligence? What would DHS think about children playing near an open fire while Mom has her head buried in an oversized fashion magazine? What do you think about it?

Adults are peripheral, distracted, and preoccupied in Blackmon’s photos. This reminds me of Jen and I discussing children’s television shows in which parents are absent: we enjoy the idea of the home as child-centered, parents as incidental to the dramas of their lives. Blackmon’s photos focus on the children’s experiences and emotions. Often they are naked, messy, and serious: these are not your professional portraits where kids play grown up; these kids mirror adults in expression and complexity. She does not sentimentalize childhood as particularly joyful, innocent, and magical.

Adults are permitted to be self-focused, even indulgent. We’re interested in, even comfortable with that, but when we discussed these shows on facebook, other parents were disturbed by shows that do not feature parental supervision.

This image is called “playgroup” and look how it focuses on the women’s interactions rather than the children. I know that my playdates/playgroups are organized so I can interact with grownups, with my children’s play incidental to that! At the same time, these adults are infantilized a bit, through the elaborate costume dress of the standing woman and the woman curled up on the ground looking up at her (it’s hard to tell, due to the angle, if she’s a grown up or a kid) and the sprawled legs of the woman on the left mirrored by those of the baby. Aren’t we all playing grown up, kinda? She depicts these adults without judgment. Blackmon isn’t taking a stand about the right or better way to parent, but representing tensions in modern parenting culture.

For balance, here’s “Merry Family” by Jan Steen:

I could go on and on analyzing and commenting on these images. What do you think?

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16 Responses to If Mama Nervosa were talented photographers instead of bloggers…

  1. I love these images (with the exception of Playgroup, which does feel judgy to me). They remind me of the conversation that was happening on a lot of mom blogs right after Christmas (http://momastery.com/blog/2012/01/04/2011-lesson-2-dont-carpe-diem/ got it rolling, and I love the way this blogger follows up http://thehappiestmom.com/2012/01/on-carpe-diem-motherhood-chronos-and-kairos-time-and-the-old-lady-at-the-store/) about the chaos of the day to day, and trying to find peace with and within that chaos.

    • But now I’m looking at Playgroup again and thinking about it as a commentary on the ways mothers are expected to perform for other mothers. Hmmm.

      • Interesting — I definitely want to hear more about your thoughts.

        I remember those carpe diem/kairos posts, too! I think of them often when I’m feeling connected (or disconnected) to my children.

      • Right, like PLAY group? PLAY? GET IT?

      • Blackmon actually commented upon ‘Playgroup’ during her talk at the Annenberg, saying that the photo was based on the daily playgroup she and her sisters and friends coordinate at a certain time every day, and freely admitted it was more of a playgroup for the moms. :) They get together at 4 pm and let the kids run amok while they chat and read magazines and whatnot. Her sisters are the dark-haired women in many of the images, and the kids in the photos are usually her kids, nieces, nephews, and cousins. I think because her characters are people she knows, and the images are based upon her own life, she shows them somewhat matter-of-factly.

  2. I also think it’s really interesting that the adult women in these images are occupied with feminine tasks (painting nails, mopping). Right now, D and Lucy are wearing bathing suits and playing in the bathtub with their doll bathtub full of water pretending to be vets taking care of fish and turtles. I heard them climb up on the toilet to get the band aids out of the medicine cabinet. I’m in the living room with the laptop. If she photographed this, would it read differently than the nail polish? Why?

    • Yes — fashion, hair dying, painting toe nails, listening to a PINK iPod… interesting. I think there are some male/Daddish figures in a few of them but they are sometimes blocked from view? It’s definitely a feminine/feminized space. Why couldn’t the Mom be gardening? Or in jeans?

      • The pink iPod character is a teenaged babysitter. :)

      • I’m thinking now about this idea that adults are permitted to be self focused and indulgent– I actually think that’s much more true for men than women. Women are expected to be child centered. Its part of the tension in the playgroup image– in all the images, really. And I think it’s part of the pinterest owl mobile mom vs benign neglect mom: are our houses messy because we are child centered, or are our houses messy because we are painting our nails and writing our blog and our kids are running amok?
        When we see images of dads parenting in pop culture, it’s almost always a joke about their incompetence- the house is a mess, the kids are in danger- but that incompetence is somehow endearing. Like when Ann Romney says Mitt was her sixth child. But the idea of an incompetent or distracted or self centered mom isn’t endearing. And I think that’s part of the tension around the feminized distractions. These images would be less interesting on some level if the women were occupied with more “worthy” pursuits. Maybe?

  3. I love her work. I think it represents what goes on in our hearts and minds at any given time. The struggle to be a great mom, and the struggle to still have a piece of ourselves left. Or perphaps a piece of our old selves. I was just thinking about myself and how it is difficult to juggle the roles I play each day. When I am at work…I am a teacher, professional, employee. As soon as I am done I become, wife, mother, etc…this switching on and off everyday is exhausting!

  4. Yes! I feel you on the switching. And I’m intrigued by ways of thinking about identity that don’t push us to switch but that allow all of our self to be present even in contexts where we are “supposed” to turn part of ourselves off. I think that’s part of what I find so fascinating about these images: they show mothers who are “supposed” to be doing one thing, acting one way, but are not– or in the case of the mopping, the mother is doing what she is “supposed” to be doing, but the baby is maybe in danger, out of sight.

  5. Have I mentioned lately how much I’ve been enjoying your blog? So ‘effen much.

    It seems to me whenever someone drops by my house they are both shocked and charmed by the chaos and mess and tell me, on their way out, that I am clearly doing something right and letting my children be children instead of having everything perfect. It always makes me feel a little… conflicted. Only half of us are ever wearing pants and there are scribble on the walls and books everywhere. There’s a lot of projects going on to. And children’s art framed on the wall and in progress.

    Blackman’s photos don’t strike me as “messy” at all. They are eerily sterile, if you ask me. And that the children are in danger in some of them strikes me front and center. Yes I noticed the open flame and the tricycles. And the baby (doll) standing up in the high chair with no one within arms reach.

    Yes, they are evocative and beautiful and I love them too.

    • It’s interesting to compare our perceptions. You’re right; although the scenes are cluttered, the periphery is spare and in some cases there’s hardly a thing in the room. The rooms certainly aren’t dirty in the same way that the Jan Steen painting is — dishes on the floor, etc. (And thx for kudos!)

      • I dont know this for *sure* but I think part of the reason the scenes look so clean is out of necessity—she does a lot of compositing/layering of images in Photoshop to create the story she wants to tell (meaning, she doesn’t usually shoot a scene as-is but rather takes a series of photos and layers them into one final image), and if the rooms are too cluttered it would be difficult for her to take bits and pieces of photos and put them all together.

        (She might also just be a clean freak—who knows. ;)

        • Cool, that’s really interesting to know about her process. I kind of figured there was photoshopping happening, but for some reason it doesn’t bother me? I teach a small unit about photoshopping and “truth in photography” with my CC students and we’re always like PHOTOSHOP IS TEH EVIL.

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