Ellen Blalock’s photos, on display at ArtRage Gallery, help redefine the notion of family
As tough to pin down as a Donald Trump presidency bid is the definition of family. In 2011, it seems families have no clear-cut delineation: They are whatever their members want them to be. CNY Pride Families, on display at ArtRage Gallery, deals with the notion of family from a nontraditional point of view.
Ellen Blalock’s 29 black-and-white images depict people living in Central New York households: two women who live as a couple and are raising two children, two men who have been partners for more than two decades, two women who married in Canada, a household made up of a mother, daughter, grandchild and friends who see themselves as part of a family unit. Those images merge with texts written by members of each household.
In putting together the exhibit, Blalock, a photojournalist for The Post-Standard, chose images ranging from a small, intimate photo of two women to a larger image depicting 11 people and their dog. The photographer moves from straight-up head shots to photos portraying domestic scenes; one photo depicts two men and their three sons sitting on the floor while a cat lounges on the couch just behind them. Some of the most striking images appear in a vertical format, including one of two women and their son.
Each portrait contains some text, and the words, like the images, vary a good deal. The portrait of the 11-person household is accompanied by one sentence saying, in essence, we’re a family. There are also commitment vows, an 8-year-old girl’s description of her household, and a gay teenager’s discussion of his loving relationship with his mother.
And there are other variations in the narratives. Some are intensely personal, as in a female couple’s long text detailing how they adopted two children from Guatemala after other options, such as artificial insemination, failed. Other narratives focus on routines common to many local households—making a living, paying the mortgage, caring for children.
Some texts overlap personal concerns and legal issues. Minnie Bruce speaks of a court battle between herself and her exhusband which took place decades ago in North Carolina and resulted in the court awarding outright custody of the children to the ex-husband. Blalock’s image of William Knodel shows him holding two snapshots of his late husband, Keith. In his text, Knodel expresses gratitude for Canadian laws permitting marriage of same-sex partners.
The exhibit’s portfolio reflects collaboration on several levels. The project began with Blalock working with the Light Work Gallery and the LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender) Resource Center at Syracuse University. It continued with the photographer’s decision to create portraits combining images and first-person narratives. That led to a show with an abundance of text, sometimes a problem in photo exhibitions. Here, however, words and text work together nicely.
Finally, the show documents Blalock’s ongoing quest for a visual idiom best suited for individual projects. Several years ago, she had a show devoted to her family heritage on display at the Community Folk Art Center. She completely reworked the idea of a family album, creating an exhibition which blended photos, quilts and other materials such as small shells.
The ArtRage exhibit both continues her artistic journey and stands on its own. It presents intimate portraits with little sense of repetition, places text in various positions next to or below photos and easily engages the viewers.
CNY Pride Families is on display through June 18 at ArtRage, 505 Hawley Ave. The gallery is open Wednesdays to Fridays, 2 to 7 p.m., and Saturdays, noon to 4 p.m. For more information, call 218-5711.
Group hugs: Loved ones smile for the camera in CNY Pride Families.