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In “Pleasant Street,” Thirty Years of a Family’s Life
Judith Black's new photobook traces her home life in New England from 1968 to 2000—and builds upon an American documentary tradition.
Judith Black’s new photobook traces her home life in New England from 1968 to 2000—and builds upon an American documentary tradition.
By Laura Guy
Judith Black’s photographs of her family, made over a period of thirty years, insist on the home as a site of concerted documentary inquiry. Published together for the first time in her new photobook Pleasant Street (Stanley/Barker, 2020), they are a study of domestic life during a period in which many established American documentarians turned away from their favored subject of the street, and toward the home.
In 1991, Black was included alongside many such photographers—William Eggleston and Larry Sultan, among others—in Pleasures and Terrors of Domestic Comfort, the first exhibition that Peter Galassi organized at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in his new role as chief curator of photography. Pleasures and Terrors is often cited alongside “Mothers and Daughters,” Aperture magazine’s Summer 1987 issue (and its accompanying traveling exhibition), in which Black’s work was also featured. Both projects engaged in documentary as a public form refocused on the private sphere, charting a new vernacular language in American photography to emerge from the 1970s onward. Galassi’s take on all this was that many artists “began to photograph at home not because it was important, in the sense that political issues are important, but because it was there—the one place that is easier to get to than the street.”
For a photographer like Sultan, his suburban upbringing was one among many subjects that featured throughout a lifetime in pictures. For Black, it seems home is all there is. Most of the photographs that appear in her new book were made inside or, occasionally, in the immediate vicinity of a house on Pleasant Street in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The clapboard-sided building—a trope that pervades American photography as much as it does the American psyche—provides a frame for this family album produced between 1968 and 2000.
Black’s work is formally considered and technically precise. Her subject is narrow in focus. Thirty-two years accommodate a handful of tousled-haired toddlers, plenty of scowls, and eventually, shaved heads and nose piercings. It also shares quarters with a mustached partner. The period begins with one of a number of self-portraits that punctuate the book. Black is shown reflected in a mirror, her pregnant belly cupped by tendril-like stretch marks, as her arms cradle a camera awkwardly in order to take in the scene. The period concludes with Black’s dungareed daughter, now fully grown, carrying her own children. The chronological arrangement of images folds back on itself to become a cycle—if only a cycle still determined by a pattern of family life that is often mapped in the linear terms of procreation and generation.
Pleasant Street sounds like an idyllic place to raise—and photograph—a family. In reality, the street, a fifteen-or-so-minute walk from the Creative Photography Lab at MIT—founded in 1965 by Minor White, a cofounder and longtime editor of Aperture—was the ideal location to stage a family album as a documentary practice. In 1979, Black, a single parent, moved her four children to Cambridge and enrolled at the Creative Photography Lab, where she both studied and worked as a technician. Rather than reflecting White’s emphasis on experimentation and individual expression, however, Pleasant Street belongs to a broader tradition of documentary practice connected to New England—from Paul Strand and Edward Weston, to the fine-grained black-and-white images of Black’s contemporaries Mark Steinmetz and Sage Sohier. (Both Steinmetz and Sohier share Black’s connections to Massachusetts and to publisher Stanley/Barker.) Here is a lineage of photography enmeshed with American national identity, typically white and largely conventional.
The photographs in Pleasant Street are all black and white, either made using medium format or, beginning around the mid-1990s, Polaroid Type 55 film. Neither process is a particularly speedy one, especially the large-format polaroid film that produces both a positive image and a negative. These are photographs that are made over time (reflecting a kind of persistent looking) and with time. They are carefully staged, their figures colluding, if sometimes wearily, in the act of making a photograph rather than posing for a snap.
There are few smiles in this family album. Black’s self-portraits are particularly haunting for the fixed stare she holds with the camera or, on occasion, with which she observes her subjects. The effect is distancing, and the safety of the home as subject produces unease. The certainty with which Galassi declared home “there” is not necessarily here. “Needless to say, our life was chaotic and often difficult,” Black notes in the book’s only text, referring to the contingent conditions through which homes, and photographs, are often made. “Sometimes I thought we wouldn’t make it.” Elsewhere, in a hand-annotated index, one self-portrait is labeled, simply, “HARD TIMES.” This is documentary photography in the middle ranges. Between the urgent commitments of paid employment and family life, Pleasant Street performs a kind of erratic housework, gathers up the traces of the home and shows image making for the reproductive labor it often is.
Laura Guy is an early career academic fellow in art history at Newcastle University, UK.
Judith Black: Pleasant Street was published by Stanley/Barker in April 2020.