This month’s Artist Spotlight features photographer Judith Black. Focusing on her family and all things domestic, Black is best known for using Polaroid Type 55 black and white film to capture the quirky and the wonderful of everyday life. Her photographs have been exhibited both nationally and internationally, and are featured in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art and the Davis Museum and Cultural Center at Wellesley College.
Tell us about yourself and how your photography has led you to this point in your career?
That is a long story! As the mother of four children in the 1970s and in need of a way to earn a living, I decided to take a big risk and get an MFA in photography. I ended up at MIT’s newly inaugurated Master of Science in Visual Studies program. After graduating, I worked in several photo lab positions, and then segued into teaching photography full-time at Wellesley College.
For my photographic work, I have concentrated on a subject close to home – my family. When I started photographing seriously, traveling even as far as the neighbor’s house to find a compelling narrative proved difficult, never mind finding a social documentary project or an exotic locale. Being a mother meant being home. I realized that my story might be interesting, or at least visually worth recording – if not for others’ viewing, at least as our unconventional family album.
What are you currently working on?
Our children are now middle aged, the grandchildren are growing up, and our parents are declining. Illness and accidents have reminded us that we are vulnerable to more and more losses. There is a fine line between photographing the ones you love for public display and exploiting that relationship. Sometimes I feel caught in that small space when taking new photos.
Working with the archive of thirty plus years of images is both fun and daunting. Putting books together is a challenge. The digital camera has mostly replaced the 4×5 press camera with Polaroid T55 film – which I have used and loved for the instant feedback it provided!
Where do you draw inspiration?
By researching the history of various aspects of domestic photography and women photographers, I found work by artists, historians, and theorists that enlarged my understanding of photographic representation and visual culture. Issues of identity, representation, kinship, self and community all lie embedded within our individual narratives. Constructed from oral and written histories, from memories and from family photographs, the stories are as interesting for what they hide as for what they reveal, for what they remember as for what they forget.
How do you stay positive about your work?
I still like the photographs I have taken over the years, and since they are of family, that keeps me liking them. Keeping positive about how one earns a living with the career is harder to some extent. I found that although my teaching position required a large time commitment, it was overall very positive and rewarding. Getting work out in the public sphere, however, takes a lot of time and effort.
What do you hope people take away from your work?
Everyone has family. Every family has stories to tell that are complicated. I see my photographs of my family as a way to portray the difficulties that all families face. Does anyone have adolescents who smile all the time?
Using images of family as a touchstone for memories reveals a deep collective need to make our personal narratives and memoirs a true representation of the past, which of course they can never be. Thinking about how to make sense of almost thirty plus years of photographing my immediate family and self, I realized that the photographs I exhibited were our family album made public – or perhaps the reverse, my “art” made useful within the domestic space. The photographs are actual physical memories, evoking stories, truths and lies, all of which are ever changing.
What does it mean to be able to share your work with others?
I was lucky to be in exhibits and publications in the past that put my work in good company and context. Because it is very personal work that I choose to make public, I am careful about what I share. The titles give a few clues, but the whole story is not shared. These pictures are not going to change the world, but they might enlarge our idea of what family is and what it means to be both the photographer and the mother.
What’s your advice when it comes to pursuing a career in photography?
First, make your work the best you can at the time and leave room for change. Find a peer group that will give you constructive criticism. Make sure you know the history of the medium. Find role models and figure out how they made their way to a career doing what they loved.
Then, there’s the advice that is always given at conferences and panels about a career in the arts: expect to spend fifty percent of your time making your work, fifty percent of your time promoting your work, fifty percent of your time making a living, and fifty percent of your time on your close relationships – that is not precise accounting, but you get the idea. We all have to make choices about which things to focus on at any given moment. I believe that with luck you can do it all, just not all at the same time.
What’s the first photo you remember taking?
When I was seven, I won fourteen dollars playing bingo on summer vacation with my grandmother. I bought a Hop-Along Cassidy brownie camera. I still have those negatives and prints. The amazing thing is that when I look at what I was interested in both then and now, it is still the same – it’s people, especially family.
What does your ability to express yourself through photography mean to you?
Everyone needs a way to get ideas and feelings expressed. My father always reminds me that I was never very good at numbers or singing, and I was definitely not an athlete. So what did that leave? I was lucky enough to have contact with some women artists early in my life. Expressing myself through the visual arts has been a core part of my life. Photography can also be very therapeutic in confronting some things about one’s self. That goes back to the need for self-expression.
What does public art mean to you and how do you see the mission of PNB supporting public art?
Isn’t most all art we know “public” in some way? Since way back when, architecture, sculptures, mosaics and paintings were seen as part of the public good.
But more effort is needed to bring all kinds of work to the public. The Boston area needs a big boost with this kind of project and anything that PNB can do to encourage both permanent and temporary outdoor display of photography through innovative means is exciting! Bringing both emerging and more established artists to the public eye is very important work.
Photos courtesy of Judith Black
Interview by Nicole Riverso