A Photographer’s Search for Acceptance in the Landscapes of Ohio
Blake Jacobsen’s images of family life and hair-care rituals offer a quiet rumination on queerness, masculinity, and working-class labor.
Blake Jacobsen, Cross to bear, 2020
In 2002, when he was living in rural Ohio, Blake Jacobsen convinced his hairdresser mom to give him highlights. He had been watching the first season of the new singing competition show American Idol and found himself captivated by Kelly Clarkson. Kelly had highlights, so Jacobsen wanted them as well. His mom dutifully helped him actualize his vision, much like she would help color and style his hair for other looks he became fascinated with—there was a period during fourth grade when he became the living embodiment of Ash Ketchum.
“She really would bleach my hair or dye it crazy colors, which was super taboo for boys my age where I’m from,” Jacobsen said recently of those early years. “But then, when I got older, she started to impose her own sort of rigid expectations.”
The title of the twenty-nine-year-old’s latest body of work is built, in part, around that ritualistic experience: taking care of roots. The name at once refers to the process of tending to undyed hair roots, or treating them with other harsh chemicals, as well as to the roots from which you came: your family and home. “The duality between love and care and harm and violence is really rich territory for me,” Jacobsen says.
Shown as the thesis project for his masters of fine arts in photography at the University of California, Los Angeles, taking care of roots includes a chapter titled buzzcuts, baptisms, and bleach: notes on gender and beauty in the bible belt. This subseries features photographs of Jacobsen’s mother doing his hair as well as the hair of various family members like his grandmother. The images swirl with the themes Jacobsen often engages with: working-class labor, gender expression, sexuality, religion, family, and community.
Here, his mother is both a conduit and gatekeeper of Jacobsen’s gender presentation while cutting his hair. There, she baptizes his grandmother Mimi in the kitchen sink, the depiction of a routine hair washing charged with tension: Mimi seems to brace herself as her daughter cradles her head. Elsewhere, Jacobsen and his mother swap tools of their respective trades, with him poised to cut his hair while she operates the camera’s cable release.
“When I first started this project that involved my mother, it was very intimidating,” he recalls. He points to the work of LaToya Ruby Frazier that features her mother, like the series The Notion of Family (2001–14), as inspiration. He was “forcing this dialogue to happen, and there was an awareness that certain truths may be revealed that I had been avoiding, and that was also why I wanted to do it. But it was hard.” Those truths included Jacobsen’s own sexuality.
Buzzcuts, baptisms, and bleach also includes landscapes that document the Ohio countryside. Jacobsen’s intent was to imbue the genre of landscape photography with a queer subjectivity. This materialized in work like Out of the closet and into the barn (2019), a black-and-white scene of a barn and farmland, which Jacobsen has imagined as a possible locale for cruising—a site of potential discreet homoerotic activity. In other lush, full-bleed color images, Jacobsen puts his own queer body into these same, often unforgiving, environments.
“Those two parallels have been there since the start,” he says of the inclusion of self-portraiture alongside landscape photography. “The awareness that photography could be used as a tool to represent myself or create a visibility for myself, along with photography’s ability to document a place or landscape.”
In 2009, at the age of sixteen, that meant shooting portraits of the landscape by day on a cross-country trip from Florida to Alaska and running off to secretly shoot self-portraits in area parks during the evening. Jacobsen published many of those self-portraits on platforms such as a fashion blog that he ran called The Style Manual and his Lookbook.nu profile, where he racked up more than thirteen thousand fans over several years. But now, those parallels have crystalized into this body of work that tackles specific questions: How do you belong somewhere that doesn’t accept you? How do you appreciate a landscape that doesn’t welcome you? These are questions that Jacobsen ultimately finds himself confronting as he wrestles with his hometown and family being at the center of a gravitational pull, despite the ongoing pain emanating from those very sources.
Throughout taking care of roots, Jacobsen also digs deeper into his family and the fraught relationships battered by migration, trauma, and tropes of masculinity. In Learning to carry weight (2020), his nephew Hudson attempts to pick up a jug of water. The photograph becomes a portrayal of “how masculinity and, specifically, toxic masculinity is being projected onto him through the way he’s fashioned, through the way that he carries himself, and through the weight that he’s decided to carry,” Jacobsen says. In another image, a version of that masculinity is represented as an American-made pickup truck, left rusted and decaying, having been taken over by nature.
In what Jacobsen calls one of the more powerful images of the series, Hudson crawls through a hole in a door that’s been kicked in by his father, Jacobsen’s brother. The family dog had chewed away at the jagged edges of the splintered wood. “It becomes, in a way, a portrait of my brother.”
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