by Luca Fiore
“Pleasures and Terrors of Domestic Comfort” was the title of the exhibition with which, in 1991, Peter Galassi inaugurated the direction of the photography department of MoMA in New York. He had a heavy legacy on his shoulders: that of John Szarkowski, the most influential critic and curator of the 20th century.
In contemporary photography, at least until the mid-seventies, the story of public life visible along the streets had prevailed. Galassi explained that in “The Family of Men”, the historic exhibition of 1955, which Edward Steichen had always curated for Moma, few images were taken inside the houses. Over the years, however, attention had increasingly focused on the story of domestic life, where “pleasures and terrors” intertwine, often remaining invisible to classic street and documentary photography.
That exhibition, in addition to confirming some great names such as Lee Friedlander, William Eggleston or Joel Sternfeld, consecrated authors such as Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Nan Goldin and Cindy Sherman. Other photographers, especially women, have struggled to stay in the spotlight. Over time, however, thanks also to the publication of quality books, artists such as Sage Sohier, Sheron Rupp, Jo Ann Walters and Mary Frey have returned to being talked about, confirming Galassi’s intuition. The last in chronological order is Judith Black who, thirty years after the MoMA exhibition and 71 years old, publishes her first monograph: “Pleasant Street” (Stanley / Barker, 2020).
Black, in the short introduction page, tells the story of the book: in 1979, a single mother of four, she moved to Cambridge (Massachusetts) to enroll in the MIT photography master, founded and directed until recently by Minor White. She quickly realizes that she could not have traveled or spent much time on the street taking pictures. Her commitments as an assistant at MIT, the courses to follow, and the housework to attend to prevented her. She writes: “Our apartment was dark, but it became my studio. Sometimes the morning light was inviting. There were occasions that asked for a photo, such as a birthday, a graduation, a holiday. Sometimes we ventured to the outdoor steps when the weather got hot. The photos have become my diary, labeled with dates, places and memories.”
Pleasant Street is the name of the street overlooked by the house rented by the photographer, in which Rob also lives, who becomes the stepfather of Laura, Johanna, Erik and Dylan. The book opens with a self-portrait taken ten years earlier, in 1968, in which Black shows herself naked, pregnant with her first-born Laura. The story, if you can call it that, proceeds above all with individual and group portraits from 1979 to 2000.
Johanna in pajamas. Dylan disheveled. Erik sulking. Laura with long hair. Laura with short hair. All blond with mom’s blue eyes. Rob has a seventies mustache, even in the eighties and nineties. Judith notes that the photo of the four children sitting on the steps of the house was taken on July 9, 1982, before leaving for the holidays. On May 29, 1984 Dylan showed Laura’s haircut. On November 6, 1988 Erik is almost 18 years old. Children grow up. Parents grow old. The last shot, which gives the book a moving circular sense, shows Laura, on May 14, 2000: she has her son Malcom in her arms and is pregnant with Cadie.
Black is not so interested in telling family life in terms of “pleasures and terrors” that are consumed within the walls of the house. Yet from the faces of her loved ones both shine through. The innocence of childhood, the restlessness of adolescence, tensions, melancholy. It is, on the one hand, a common family album where we see the passage of time change the features of the faces and the shapes of the bodies. On the other hand, the sequence has the systematic nature of the documentation projects, as well as the technical skill of the professional photographer. Add to this the grace and feminine balance, which here is also a maternal gaze, which knows how to be patient, when you need to be patient, and severe, when you need severity. Speaking of these photos, when not all of them had been taken yet, Peter Galassi wrote: “Seen together they seem to say that true tenderness begins when sentimentalism ends.”