Dick Blau is an early contributor to the repositioning of family photography as an art form. His long term family project, Thicker Than Water, was begun in the late 60s and continues to this day. Thicker Than Water looks at five members of two families, both Blau’s, considers their relations with one another, and describes how each person changes over time.
Of Thicker Than Water, Blau writes,
“These pictures are spontaneous transcriptions of my experience, an ethnography of family life, a phenomenology of domestic emotion…By selecting a moment, then stilling and framing it, I try to retain some feeling of the event itself. At the same time, I use the abstract nature of the picture-making process to clear a space for reflection. These photographs are my part of a discourse. Notes to (and about) the people I live with and love.”
—Intervalles No. 4/5, 2009, “Interdisciplinary Transcriptions”
Blau’s family work, particularly his portraits of his children, has provoked comparisons with major figures in the field. Libby Brooks of The Guardian includes Blau among the “greatest modern mappers of children’s bodies.”
“Since the 70s, artists like Nan Goldin, Dick Blau and Robert Mapplethorpe have used photography to challenge our cultural ambivalence towards images of children.Their project has been to overthrow the 18th-century Romantic idealisation of childhood in art, which fetishised children for what they were not: not sexual, not knowing, not polluted by adult experience, and, in so doing, to challenge the viewers’ interior sense of what childhood ought to look like.”
—Libby Brooks, “The Notional Paedophile,” The Guardian, October 3, 2007
Photographs from Thicker Than Water have been reproduced in a number of important studies, such as Anne Higonnet’s Pictures of Innocence: The History and Crisis of Ideal Childhood (Thames and Hudson, 1999), in anthologies like Marianne Hirsch’s The Familial Gaze (Dartmouth, 1999), and principally in a collaboration with his partner, the author Jane Gallop, that resulted in her book, Living with his Camera (Duke University Press, 2003), where Gallop reads Blau’s pictures against theorists of domestic photography like Susan Sontag, Roland Barthes, and Pierre Bourdieu.
In parallel to this personal line of inquiry, Blau has a deep and long-standing interest in popular culture, particularly in music, dance, and performance. Collaborating with anthropologists Charles and Angeliki Keil and Steven Feld, he has co-authored three photo-ethnographies — Polka Happiness (Temple University Press, 1992), Bright Balkan Morning (Wesleyan, 2002), and Skyros Carnival (VoxLox, 2011).
His most recent publication, Elephant House, photographs by Dick Blau, with an introduction by Nigel Rothfels (Penn State University Press, 2015) explores a new field, human/animal relations, through a study of keepers and elephants in the Portland Zoo. Pre-publication comments suggest that Elephant House is poised to make a substantial impact:
“You think you know all there is to know about elephants in captivity? Think again. Setting aside the familiar screeds and sentiments, Dick Blau and Nigel Rothfels offer a deep, multidimensional, and nuanced understanding of our relationship to zoo elephants, one that will challenge the animal rights critic and zoo advocate alike. The wonder and sadness evoked by the checkered history of elephant exhibition, the difference and commonality that bind these majestic animals to the people who care for them—it’s all here. You may not change your mind about the keeping of elephants in captivity after reading this book, but you’ll see the fuller picture. And it will be impossible to come away from Elephant House unmoved.”
Ben A. Minteer, Arizona State University
In addition to his photography, Blau also makes films and videos. Jidyll (1990), Blau’s experimental narrative based on the story of the Wandering Jew, has been screened in Germany, Poland, Hungary, Israel and the United States. Oh, Rapunzel, his collaboration with video artist Cecelia Condit, is in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art. His A Polish Easter in Chicago, played at the Cannes Short Film Festival in 2012. His films can be found on Vimeo and are distributed by Canyon Cinema.
Dick Blau has a BA in English from Harvard (1965) and a PhD in American Studies from Yale (1973). He is self-taught as a photographer, with thanks to Milton Rogovin who let him hang out in his darkroom when Blau worked at SUNY Buffalo in the late sixties, where he had gone to help found its ground-breaking Program in American Studies. (While he was in Buffalo, Blau also helped found the CEPA Gallery, the Center for the Exploratory Arts, which continues to this day.) Blau moved to Milwaukee in the mid-1970s, where he co-founded the innovative University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee Department of Film, which was listed by the Hollywood Reporter in 2011 as one of the top twenty film schools in the world.
Blau was born in 1943. His mother is actress Beatrice Manley, his biological father the painter Albert Freedberg, and his adoptive father the theater director Herbert Blau, who raised him from the age of six. Blau was married once and then divorced. He has a daughter from that relationship, Anna Blau Zay, and three grandchildren. His long-term partner is Jane Gallop, a Distinguished Professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Together they have two children, Max and Ruby.