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Issue No. 18 - Humanity

A Conversation Between Carolyn Marks Blackwood and Barbara Rose

A Conversation Between Carolyn Marks Blackwood and Barbara Rose

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On November 17, the Roberto Pollo Gallery in Brussels,  opened Carolyn Marks Blackwood's The Story Series. The show is an outstanding debut for Blackwood and her series in Europe, with 52 large scale images,  in six rooms on three floors.  This show will be up for view until January 13, 2018. The day it closes in Brussels, a show of The Story Series will open at The Von Lintel Gallery in Los Angeles. This show will be up thru February 24, 2018. 

Blackwood sat down with Barbara Rose, Art Historian and Critic, for an interview about The Story Series

Barbara Rose: How did you get the idea for The Story Series?

Carolyn Marks Blackwood: My husband Greg and I were driving back to the country from New York City late one night, and it was snowing, but not sticking to the roads. I was fascinated by the visual effect of the snow hitting the headlights and whipping the windshield. So when we got home, I asked Greg if he would drive me around with my camera. I wasn’t really sure of what I was doing or getting, but it felt exciting and right. It was about one in the morning by the time I finished shooting, but I wanted to see what I had gotten right away. It was thrilling to see that the snow had become a frame-to-frame pattern, which is something that attracts me.  It became almost an abstraction. That was how it all began. Then I started going out at night, especially during storms, to see what I could get using only the available light. The atmosphere and the light in some of the photographs evoked so many feelings. They were strange and touched me.

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 BR: When did you add the text to the photographs?

CMB: I posted a few on Facebook, and added a line of story with them just to see what would happen. The response was amazing! People started to add to the story, to take what I had given them, and make the story their own. Hundreds of people got involved. Then I realized the power of putting up an evocative photograph, with the beginning of a story. Jerry Saltz, the art critic of New York magazine, added one of the stories. He was one of those people who immediately championed them. The process was very spontaneous. It made me realize how powerful a ‘story series’ could be.

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BR: Where are the photographs shot?

CMB: The photographs were all shot in my neighborhood during different times and weather conditions.

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BR: How do you decide on an image to capture?

CMB: It’s very visceral and primitive—completely unintellectual. I roam around, and when I see a kind of light or atmosphere, I shoot, and hope I’ve captured it.   There is a gut feeling—a kind of nostalgia or melancholy—that I feel right before I shoot.

BR: How do you create the eerie light and color effects?

CMB: I don’t create the light. I look for the light. My camera finds the light. The only lights that I use, sometimes, are my headlights. When I’m walking around the neighborhood, I depend on streetlights, and the light in the sky at a magic hour, or the light coming from inside buildings. 

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BR: Why do you make such unusually large prints?

CMB: To help people participate in the stories. I make large prints so that they feel they can walk into the scene; walk down that road, or into the storm or darkness. I want them to be provoked into feeling or remembering something. 

BR: How do you see yourself in the context of the history of photography?

CMB: I don’t. I am not that well informed about the history of photography. I am more informed about painting than photography. I suppose that I am in my own little bubble and ignorance is bliss. I’m sure photography has lots of rules that I don’t want to know. But there are certain photographers that have always had a power over me. As a little girl, a book of Alfred Stieglitz’ photos, which he shot during the 1893 blizzard in New York City, held me for hours. They were so beautiful and moody. I guess that if I had to choose a photographer who informs me, it would be Stieglitz.

BR: That makes sense, since Stieglitz was the first great photographer to use only natural light.

CMB: I could look at those photographs for hours, and could feel the snow and the wind in my face. They evoked that feeling of being in a snowstorm for me—of being safe, warm, and cozy in front of a fire, while the storm raged outside. A few of those snowstorm photographs reminded me of the time my friends’ parents dropped us off at a lake and forgot to pick us up. We were little, had no way to call them, were literally freezing, and starting to panic. I love that certain scenes can be catalytic to memory and emotion.

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BR: What other artists do you feel close to?

CMB: I am very eclectic in my taste. I love painters and painting. I could name everyone from Rubens to the Impressionists, to Joan Mitchell, Rothko, Agnes Martin, and Gerhard Richter... My taste runs from old masters to contemporary art. I see abstraction in nature, and understand minimalism by seeing it in nature all the time, but viscerally, not in an academic intellectual sense. My work, like my interests, runs the gamut of styles, and I think that confuses some people.  But I am honestly not doing it for them. I do my work for myself. So yes, I am interested in abstraction in nature, but this more narrative series interests me just as much.

BR: Do you always work in series?

CMB: Generally yes. And the series seem to be seasonal and ongoing. I have a Cloud Series going all year-round, which includes storms in different weather conditions and seasons. I have a Water Series, an Ice Series, a Bird Series (I go out into fields during the autumn and capture thousands of birds gleaning fields before they fly south), and even a Fish Series, which I took the first day of the Dutchess County Fair. The fish were prizes and they were all crammed together, which made me sad, but they were certainty wonderful. I love fields of color, usually flatten the planes, and see things from edge to edge. Even in some of the images of The Story Series, you will find my attraction to this flattening effect, especially during snowstorms. But yes, although I have a very eclectic body of work, I tend to focus on one theme at a time. 

BR: Who or what is your inspiration?

CMB: I guess my inspiration is basically nature, and the fragility of it all. There really is no ‘normal’, and what we think of as normal every day life, has such pathos underneath it all. Things aren’t what they seem on the surface. And I am interested in digging for what’s beneath the surface. I’m also sensitive and always have been, and I guess I am trying to reach out to other sensitive people.  The loneliness of being a human being is implicit in The Story Series. I am feeling something, and perhaps hoping that other people will feel it too, so we are all just a little bit less alone. When I say that, I mean as human beings who will be here one minute and gone another. That is where I find the vulnerability and pathos. I also need beauty and nature in my life, and have tried to include them in The Story Series.

BR: How do you think of the captions?

CMB: Well as you know, I am also a screen writer, so when I see a scene that evokes something in me, I try to express it, leaving it ambiguous enough so that the viewer can find their own story. If asked, I could tell you the whole story that I saw in the photo and caption, but I chose to just plant a seed and allow the viewer to grow that seed themselves.

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BR: Are you emotionally involved in creating the captions that lead to the stories?

CMB: Yes, of course, but maybe a bit too much.

BR: What should the viewer see in your stories?

CMB: If a viewer is moved by a feeling, or light, or atmosphere in the photograph, and the corresponding beginning of the written story touches them, they will write their own story, or remember something, or just be moved by what they feel in that moment. There is no ‘should’. It all depends on the person and their experiences, and emotional make up. Each person will feel his or her own personal story.

BR: What were key moments in your life?

CMB: I’ve had many key moments like everyone else. But the ones that drive this series have something to do with being lonely when I was a little girl and swimming in my own bubble of feeling. Sometimes feeling overwhelmed by my emotions, and sometimes enjoying them. Although I have a beautiful life now, with good work, a wonderful husband, a son, family, and some great friends that I love, those childhood feelings never leave me. I suppose The Story Series is a way of expressing that. Many of the stories and moments expressed in this series are those key moments, when things have changed. When you leave a spouse, a boyfriend, or someone leaves you. When you feel stuck and want to move, or find the courage to completely leave your old life behind. When you find courage in yourself and see what you’re really made of.

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BR: How does painting influence your photography?  How does it affect The Story Series?

CMB: I think that painting has affected all my work, especially the series of Abstractions in Nature. But it is in this work too—especially in the snow images, where the snow covers the whole image from edge to edge. It is obvious to me that I am attracted to the aesthetics of color field painting.

 BR: In what way does reading and writing film scripts affect The Story Series? Did film give you the idea to do these works?

CMB: If I think about it, it is probably not a coincidence that I seem to be combining the two things that dominate my life. I have a lovely peaceful feeling making this series. Combining film, screenwriting, and photography feels natural to me. And it is very satisfying.

BR: What is your ambition?

CMB: That’s a big question with so many layers. The simple answer: to be true to myself. 

All images © Carolyn Marks Blackwood

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