I took this portrait of my family on Father’s Day in 1983. At the back there’s Rob, my partner and the children’s stepfather; then my eldest, Laura, with the curly hair; and Dylan, my youngest, with the homemade bowl cut. And in front, there’s Erik and Johanna. The dog was not ours; we were looking after him. Right after the picture was taken, the children went on vacation with their father, and Rob and I went to see friends. When we came back, fleas were nipping at our ankles.
I started photographing my family in 1979, the year we moved into an apartment in this house on Pleasant Street in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Our unit was on the first floor and there were two others above ours. It was the only place I could find. The house was quite dilapidated. We cleaned things up a bit.
It was a very intense time. My marriage had broken up. I was in my mid-30s and the plan was to go back to school to get a degree and secure a teaching position, maybe in a high school. I got on a course at Massachusetts Institute of Technology called the Creative Photo Lab, started by the US photographer Minor White.
I had met Rob, but he had gone off to South America with a friend. So for the first six months, I was alone with the kids. Rob’s a bit younger than I am, halfway between being old enough to be their father and not old enough. That makes melding together complicated. But we’ve managed to make it last.
As soon as I graduated, I got a job in a black and white photo lab, then worked as a photo technician. After that, I got a teaching position at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, where I taught for 25 years. I did a lot of research on women who were photographers and mothers, and how they balanced work and children. They all had ambition – like I did – to be artists. I was looking for role models. Years ago, the feminist art activists the Guerrilla Girls came to Wellesley. I asked how many of them had children. Some did, though none had more than two.
I started taking these group shots whenever the children went away for two weeks with their dad to visit their grandparents in Illinois. When they’re gone that long, you want a little reminder, a talisman. I would shoot on Polaroid 4×5 film and make little prints to use as bookmarks. It meant I still had the children with me.
The departures that these portraits marked presaged those bigger departures – of growing up and living your own life. The last time we were all together was summer 2019. We forgot to take a picture. It’s just not necessary any more. At some point, when I’m gone, my work will be their family album. I hope they’re all fond of the images we made. They were always free to not participate. There’s a shot of Laura that’s one of the few laughing pictures I really like – laughing pics that feel real are hard to get. Years later, we were looking at it and I said: “Oh, I just love this one. You’re so happy!” And she said: “I wasn’t happy. I had just broken up with my boyfriend.”
With your kids, some things are hard to understand, and some things are kept secret. As a mom, you want to know, but sometimes it’s best not to ask.
• Pleasant Street by Judith Black is published by Stanley/Barker.
Judith Black’s CV
Born: Salina, Kansas, 1945.
Training: MA, Creative Photo Lab, MIT.
Influences: “So many women who were both photographers and mothers, from Julia Margaret Cameron to Melissa Shook.”
High point: “Receiving a Guggenheim fellowship in 1986.”
Low point: “No more Polaroid Type 55 film.”
Top tip: “Robert Frank’s advice: Keep going.”