A little girl hoists a Hula-Hoop over her head in a darkening backyard. To her right, a boy flies through the air, caught by his mother’s camera between the moment he passes through the hoop and his imminent landing on mattresses on the grass. In the foreground of the dusky black-and-white photograph, Backyard Circus, sits a girl in a striped swimsuit. Her head is turned away from the camera as she watches her sister and brother.
The captivating blend of stillness and action emanates from most of the photographs in Niki Boon: Summer, opening at the Obscura Gallery on Friday, June 21. It is Boon’s first solo exhibition. The 16 archival pigment ink prints in the show reveal a rural family living somewhat outside of convention. Boon lives in Marlborough, New Zealand, with her husband and their four children, who they homeschool together.
Obscura’s owner-director, Jennifer Schlesinger, set her sights on representing Boon after choosing her work in 2016 for a Santa Fe installment of The Fence, a national public photography project that was shown in the Railyard Park. “She had never had gallery representation before, and she was hesitant at first,” Schlesinger said.
Boon, 45, corresponded with Pasatiempo about Summer via email over several days while she was traveling in Guatemala. “My camera lives on a bookshelf in our living room,” she said. “I grab it whenever there is something going on that interests me.”
Though she had some experience with photography and darkroom printing when she was in her 20s, she didn’t get serious about photography until her oldest son, Kurt, was born 15 years ago. At the time, she worked as a pediatric physiotherapist and took photos to record birthdays and other special occasions. Her daughter, Rebecca, now 14, fell ill with meningitis shortly after her birth, and Boon left her job to care for her. After Anton came along three years later, the cost of childcare made being a stay-at-home parent the most financially feasible option for the family. Their youngest child, Arwen, is 9.
“There were times I missed my work but, to be honest, my pull to be a full-time mother was really strong. I enjoyed being at home,” Boon said. She started seeing photography as a means of personal expression once they decided to homeschool the kids. “Our decision to educate our children alternatively came about from our frustration with the lack of freedom within the school system. We did not like the idea of the children being graded and compared, and wanted more freedom within their days to follow what they naturally enjoyed.”
School days are filled with music, art, chores on the farm, and trips to the natural wonders that surround them — coastlines, rivers, beaches, and mountains. Summer shows off some of this, as well as mundane moments, such as in Home Life, in which Arwen stands on a countertop, rummaging through an upper cabinet for a Band-Aid to cover a scrape while Anton climbs a wall nearby, caught once again by his mother’s camera, just as he was in Backyard Circus.
“Climbing on household furniture and structures is a pastime of his,” Boon said.
Waterfall is a stunning image of Anton standing under a rushing waterfall at a local national park that was actually taken at the beginning of winter. “The water coming down from the mountains is fresh even in the summer,” Boon said. “At this time of year, it is pretty cold. We dared my son to go under the waterfall. Not one to pass up a challenge, Anton took up the dare. The look [on his face] is one of achievement for sure — but also of the exhilaration of the feeling of ice-cold mountain water running all down his body, I have no doubt!”
But the vulnerability captured in Boon’s image, as well as in others in this show, may make some people feel uncomfortable. “I saw the influences of Sally Mann and Jock Sturges in her work,” Schlesinger said, referring to photographers who are known for their images of children and adolescents, often in stages of undress. “But Niki has her own unique style. There’s something about the perspective that I’m drawn to. She gets low down, like she’s a kid herself.”
Mann and Sturges capture some of the darker or more surreal aspects of childhood, and their subjects often confront the viewer with a penetrating gaze that telegraphs a complicated interior world. Boon’s imagery, though, projects a more innocent view of childhood, one dominated by small feats of daring, closeness with family, and an acceptance of their mother’s observation of their daily lives. In Boon’s vision, they are free and living a kind of childhood that for some has disappeared.
In that tension between real life and a Kodachrome nostalgia, Boon’s work stands on the precipice between a snapshot and fine art.
“I don’t think Niki was going for a reaction. She’s not staging anything. This is just life around her,” Schlesinger said. “These are universal childhood moments.” ◀
▼ Niki Boon: Summer
▼ Opening reception: 5 p.m. Friday, June 21; through July 27
▼ Obscura Gallery, 1405 Paseo de Peralta, 505-577-6708, obscuragallery.net