JTF (just the facts): Published in 2021 by Stanley/Barker (here). Hardcover three-quarter binding with reverse cover photo (250 x 250 mm), 128 pages, with 101 monochrome photographs. Includes an introduction by the author. Designed by Entente. (Cover and distribute the plans below.)
Comments/Background: It has been several months since Judith Black Holidays was released last June. If this review took a while to materialize, maybe that’s appropriate. All of the photos in this book, taken between 1981 and 2004, have been marinating in obscurity for some time now. So a little longer won’t hurt. In fact, it might help, as images often mature over time.
This line of thinking is central to Judith Black’s work, which is rooted in family, aging, changing relationships, and long-term thinking, and therefore often directed to the rearview mirror. She applied a historical eye to photo albums, women photographers, and self-portraits of all types, including found photos and vernacular snapshots by others. But its main objective – and the subject of Holidays– is her own family as she has lived, witnessed and shot by herself over decades.
Black’s website also comes with a history gauze. It doesn’t look like it’s been updated in a decade. But it’s purpose always feels current. Under the simple heading Why, she explains, “since 1979, I have been making images of my family that serve as a touchstone for memories… Future generations could look at them to reconstruct a story of their ancestors. Others might see it as something from their experience. Photographs are actual physical memories, evoking stories, truths and lies, which always change depending on the reader’s perspective.
In a case of life imitating art, Black’s career also followed the model of the buried archives, but not entirely by design. She earned significant belt notches after her MFA in 1981. Black earned a Guggenheim in 1986, was published by Aperture Magazine in 1987, and was later curated into the MoMA blockbuster. Pleasures and terrors of domestic comfort by Peter Galassi in 1991. This exhibition brought a variety of family and household photography out of the shadows, showcasing a hitherto neglected genre and bringing legitimacy to the general public. It was right up Judith Black’s alley, and her work fitted right in alongside Sage Sohier, Jo Ann Callis, Doug DuBois and other contemporaries.
With MoMA’s pen in her cap, she continued to photograph, but the trail of recognition gradually cooled. It is only in 2020 that she returns to the front of the stage with pleasant street by Stanley/Barker, the London publisher who developed a cottage industry by unearthing neglected works. Holidays is the successor to this monograph and a companion of sorts, with a virtually identical approach, timeline, design, and physical specs. But there is an essential difference. While pleasant street featured Black’s photos of his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Holidays collects his impressions of the hereafter. It is family life as it is found in the open sea, a deliberate expansion of domestic territory.
Holidays is rooted in a single road trip, a 6-week cross-country jaunt in 1986. With Guggenheim funding in hand, Black bought a station wagon, packed up his kids and camera gear, and headed west . Spending all that time in a car with four kids might not be everyone’s idea of a vacation, but for Black it was a break from the stresses of work and a good time for lovemaking. ‘summer. It was his chance to undertake the classic travelogue that had been a staple of American photography – Frank, Winogrand, Shore, Sternfeld, et al. But unlike his predecessors, Black steered the wheel toward extended family. No dark bars, gas stations or urban streets for her. Instead, she visited friends and relatives enjoying their summer, sometimes staying for a few days, photographing all the time.
His main tool was a 4×5 camera loaded with Polaroid Type 55 monochrome, tear-off film producing positive (presumably offered to subjects) and negative (archived by Black). The format’s distinctive processing artifacts mark the boundaries of most of the photos in this book. It’s a signature look that showcases their past character, and is also rather beautiful on its own. Black’s bulky camera usually meant posed portraits using a tripod, and many of his portraits capture subjects dutifully gazing back, patiently waiting for the click. But Holidays also shows a surprising degree of spontaneity. A snapshot of Diana, Miki and Angie seems fleeting and improvised. Another photo of the family laughing as they surround Aunt Christine around the dining table has an impulsive vitality. The ephemeral nature of these images and several others is enhanced by a bold flash. Many of the scenes will be familiar to anyone who’s been on a family road trip: bored kids in a park, fighting for attention, or being mugged from the beach. Today they could be broken with an iPhone, but without the seriousness of Holidays.
Photographs from this 1986 trip form the heart of the book, comprising its middle third. But since this is a study of the family tree, its chronology extends roots and branches to other dates. There are a few photos from before 1986 and several dozen more from later years, including later road trips. Along the way, we meet those close to Black, in shifting iterations of themselves. There are her children Laura, Johanna, Erik and Dylan, her husband Rob and her family Lynne, Milt and Christopher. Black’s Aunt Christine makes an appearance, along with her father, stepmother Gaye, and their extended family, including Phil and son Cody. His brothers Jon, Hank and Hank’s son Christian are pictured several times. And let’s not forget his sister Maggie and son Matt. Along the way, many others make an appearance, their relationships unspecified: Jeff, Devon, Jim, Peg, Anna, Diana, Miki, Angie, Tanner, Max, Aki, Eileen, Jake, Willie and Sophie. In the background of several photos, and sometimes in the foreground, is Judith Black herself. At the time of his self-portraits, the word selfie did not yet exist. But the fundamental need to affirm its presence is eternal.
Did you catch all these names? Don’t worry, you won’t be tested. But it’s a lot to remember. Jumping into the book is a bit like walking into a stranger’s family reunion. You don’t know anyone at first, and it’s natural to feel a bit lost. But Holidays is even more confusing than the real thing, as it captures these family members over a span of 23 years. Faces and bodies change over time, especially those of young people going through adolescence. When we meet Erik for the first time, for example, we are in 1982. He is a blond-haired boy of about 10 years old. Captured near the end of the book in 2004, he has matured into adulthood. It takes a few round trips to confirm that yes, it is indeed the same person. Multiply that example by several dozen identities, locations, and genetic permutations, and putting this book together becomes more work than vacation.
Fortunately Holidays comes with a Rosetta stone. An index on the back captions the images by name, place and date (the sequence is chronological). This list is very useful. There will be more page flipping as the reader sorts out which is which, but that doesn’t hurt much. The index is not only invaluable for decoding content. It’s a distinctive design feature in its own right. A sin pleasant street, the captions are typewritten, with various handwritten annotations and corrections. They spill through the green endpapers and onto most of the back cover. Perhaps it is a facsimile of Black’s original notes? Or they could be a clever adaptation. In any case, they lend the photos an improvised coda. Capped in analog squiggles, the preceding images take on a sketchbook quality and a certain road breeze, bouncing from place to place.
Before Holidays (and pleasant street), Black’s family archives had not received much attention. The photos exist on his website, but are organized there quite differently, and without recent updates. It is therefore pleasing to see them brought together in published form, under a motif — the holidays — which evokes both idleness and adventure. It comes at a time of a global pandemic, where vacations have become rather precious and domestic life heightened.
Each of Black’s exhibitions captures a special moment, a static point in time. Meanwhile, the larger world of images has changed dramatically since she made them. The boundaries between private and public have blurred. Photographs that might previously have been confined to family albums and shoeboxes are now being shared openly online. This includes selfies, food shots, kids on a play date, vacation snapshots, beach scenes, birthdays, reunions, and all the other topics found in this book. They might not usually be captured with the same care and skill as Black’s photos, but personal photos are taking over the field next door. Holidays. Domestic scenes and selfies bombard us daily. What does it mean to shoot your own family? Why take the summer off and travel great distances to perform an act repeated billions of times a day?
When Peter Galassi organized Pleasures and terrors of domestic comfort, the answers to these questions were very different. It offered a window onto an insular world, which has since opened up wide. Holidays takes the reader back to 1986 for a moment, a time when every family photo was a little treasure, and you might have to travel thousands of miles to see what a relative looked like. Representations of domestic life have since changed, but the power of good photos remains constant. Holidays would have been a valid book whatever the year of publication. That said, the long wait only added to its appeal.
Collector’s point of view: Judith Black doesn’t seem to have a consistent gallery representation at the moment. Therefore, interested collectors should probably contact the artist directly via his website (link in sidebar).