A mother’s record of road-tripping with her children

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Distinct from her contemporaries, Judith Black turned her lens inwards: on her children, family and friends across the US

In 1959 the late Robert Frank (1924—2019) published The Americans: a constellation of raw black-and-white images picturing American society. The photobook became a hallmark of the documentary tradition and a critical observation of American life. It was also a milestone in photography’s relationship to the American road trip – one that stretches back to Walker Evans’ American photographs (1938) and its observation of modern American life. And continues through the colourful snapshots composing Stephen Shore’s American Surfaces (1972); Joel Sternfeld’s American Prospects (1987); and, more recently, Ryan McGinley’s magical road trips, Alec Soth’s lyrical Sleeping by the Mississippi (2004), Vanessa Winship’s brooding she dances on Jackson (2013), and many more. 

The American road trip has a rich relationship with photography, but, as evidenced above, it is one dominated by men. Judith Black’s latest book Vacation, published by Stanley/Barker but initiated three and a half decades ago, partly exists as a significant interpretation of a subject predominantly visualised through a white, male lens. And, distinct from her contemporaries, Black turns her lens inwards: on her children, family and friends across the US. “In 1986, I received a Guggenheim Fellowship that allowed me to take a break from my full-time job as a photo tech in a Brandeis University science lab,” writes Black, in the first-person text that opens the book. “I proposed to take the classic American cross-country road trip, not alone, but with my four children.”

Road tripping with children is distinct from road tripping alone. A fact articulated by Justine Kurland, who spent years building her work on the road before the birth of her son. In a first-person piece for The New Yorker, she writes, “[My son] Casper changed not only how I photographed but what I photographed; his being permeated everything I did.” Similarly, Black’s children also shaped her work. They give form to the photobook and feature heavily throughout. The photographs are warm, a family album of sorts. And, ultimately, they reshape and broaden the perception of what it means to be a photographer working on “the road”.

Vacation is published by STANLEY/BARKER.

Hannah Abel-Hirsch

Hannah Abel-Hirsch joined British Journal of Photography in 2017, where she is currently Assistant Editor. Previously, she was an Editorial Assistant at Magnum Photos, and a Studio Assistant for Susan Meiselas and Mary Ellen Mark in New York. Before which, she completed a BA in History of Art at University College London. Her words have also appeared on Magnum Photos, 1000 Words, and in the Royal Academy of Arts magazine.