Arts & Culture

The Story of Julie Blackmon's River Series

The Ozarks are the backdrop for Springfield photographer, Julie Blackmon, whose work is celebrated and displayed around the world.

by Jordan Blomquist

Jun 2024

Photo of kids on a lake by Julie Blackmon
Photo courtesy Julie BlackmonFind out how Julie Blackmon captures striking images in her distinctive photography.

At age 19, Springfield native Julie Blackmon wore her first camera everywhere, its long strap casually slung over her shoulder. “I was kind of into it from the very beginning,” she says of her interest in photography. That Canon AE-1 was a catalyst for what is now a successful and fulfilling career in photography. Her work has graced the covers of TIME Magazine, the halls of museums around the world, the pages of the New York Times and the homes of celebrities like Reese Witherspoon and Elton John.

Blackmon began to consider photography as a career in 2005—taking photos of her children, then the neighbor’s children. Soon she started taking classes. “It went on to be about way more than just my immediate surroundings,” Blackmon says. She transformed her images into profound statements on social constructs and captured everyday moments in a charming, whimsical way.

Blackmon started as a photographer but evolved into an artist using photography as a medium. She is influenced by not only photography and its rich history but also paintings and illustrations. There is not merely a single thing that keeps Blackmon motivated to keep creating, because “I feel like it’s within me,” she says. “I can’t imagine stopping. There’s something cathartic about each piece I start.”

Julie Blackmon lake photo
Photos courtesy Julie BlackmonCapturing Finley River started as an exploration to see how figures looked layered in the water. “It was kind of the life we were living that day,” Blackmon says. “Some [photos] are more fictionalized by me and some of them are, ‘Well this is what’s happening so let’s get it.’”
Julie Blackmon lake photography
Photos courtesy Julie BlackmonTo create Night Swim, Blackmon and her crew ventured to the river at 7 p.m., emblematic of her and her family’s own experience of going for evening dips. “Luckily, we didn’t see any snakes,” Blackmon says. She used a seven-foot-tall umbrella light, and the strobe of the light actually made the photo appear darker.
Aerial lake photo by Julie Blackmon
Photos courtesy Julie BlackmonTo capture the aerial perspective in River, Blackmon sought help from a neighbor, who got her into a bucket lift 50 feet above the river.
Lake photo by photographer Julie Blackmon
Photos courtesy Julie BlackmonThe destination in the photo Riverside is where Blackmon keeps her wooden raft docked, and her family has spent countless hours right there. “The retaining wall and the stairs have probably been there for 75 years or more, and I’ve always thought it looked so European,” Blackmon says. “Like Lake Como or something, where you can descend these ancient concrete steps to the greenish-blue water below.”
Lake photo by Julie BlackmonPh
Photos courtesy Julie BlackmonThis image, entitled Flatboat, was just acquired by the National Gallery of Art and will be shown alongside George Caleb Bingham’s famous painting The Jolly Flatboatmen in a 2026 exhibit. “I’m super excited about that,” Blackmon says.

Specific to the river series, Blackmon was inspired by Missouri painter George Caleb Bingham—specifically his paintings titled The Jolly Flatboatmen and Fur Traders Descending the Missouri. The former inspired her photograph titled Flatboat, which is an updated take on the painting and mixes age, race and gender. “It is interesting to me how famous pieces of art—seeing them—allows you to see your own life, or my own life, in a different way,” Blackmon says. Flatboat was just acquired by the National Gallery of Art and will be shown alongside Bingham’s The Jolly Flatboatmen in an exhibit in 2026.

Blackmon has referred to her photographs as “a fantastical look at everyday life,” and she has no plans of abandoning that vision anytime soon. “You only see yourself as good as your next new piece,” Blackmon says. “The joy really comes from just doing the work itself.

Learn more about Julie Blackmon and her work on her website.