Interview with Carolyn Marks Blackwood: Elements of Place
Image above: Evening V, 2013
Summer Exposure: Photographic Works by Martin Benjamin, Carolyn Marks Blackwood, Tom Fels, Dana Hoey, and William Jaeger at the Albany Institute of History & Art features diverse works from these five unique Northeastern photographers. Each artist has chosen a selection of images that highlight their individual artistic vision. On July 17th the museum presented a Reception and Artist's Talk to accompany Summer Exposure.
We are lucky enough to know Ms. Blackwood, and invited her to answer some questions about her work and approach to photography.
What body of work did you choose for the Summer Exposure show? Why did you choose these pieces?
The name of the show is Elements of Place. All the photographs were taken from my house which is on a 120 foot cliff overlooking the Hudson River, the Catskill Mountains, and 100 mile views to the South, West, and North. This place has become my muse. Over time I find I am deconstructing this place; I am interested in the details. I seem to go back and forth between the macro and micro. Before this show at the Albany Institute of History and Art I never had the space or opportunity to work at such a grand scale, and I always thought this particular work would benefit from being large. It has been a thrill.
Your work seems to be intrinsically tied to the place in which it was created, from your home on the Hudson. In the most literal sense, why take photos that are so close to home?
There is a world in a drop of water. There is a huge world laid out before me on the cliff. The scene is different every day, every minute. It changes with the weather, light, and seasons. I have a big sky here, which is rare on the East Coast, unless you live on a mountain or near the ocean. How lucky I am to have this 180 degree view, to be facing west with views of the Catskills across the Hudson River. The sun sets in the west. The storms generally come from the west, and I can watch them as they roll over the mountains and cross the river. There was a reason The Hudson River School happened here. I used to think that those painters like Frederick Church exaggerated the drama of color and light in their paintings, and now I know they did not. People travel to this place to paint and photograph. I am lucky to be able to live here and observe from this spot every day. This is my backyard, and it affords me the time and pleasure of making a study of this place.
Evening I // Cloud Series, 108
How would describe your photographs? Are they landscapes? Abstract images of nature? Something else entirely?
This question is strangely difficult for me to answer. I guess they are landscapes which are informed by abstract painting. I don't have the objectivity to characterize them in words. The expression of them is visual, but also very emotional for me. My work is my passion. I don't think while I am shooting. Its visceral, a-fly-by-the-seat-of-ones-pants feeling.
It is about making myself feel better, for sure. It's also about beauty, a dirty word in the art world. People need more beauty in their lives. Perhaps they would be kinder to the planet if they did. For me, this work mitigates the ugliness, meanness, cruelty, and sadness in the world. I have come to learn that the photographs have that effect on others too, which makes me that much less alone.
Is there any reason why there are no people in your photographs? Do you feel that people are a part of nature or just observers of nature?
It's funny, I love taking portraits of people, but that is different work altogether. No, I think people would make the work too on the nose. You would be able to see the scale of things, and so much of my work is taking things out of their context and not understanding the scale. Half the time people tell me they don't know if things are close up or taken from an airplane, and I like that. People are part of nature, but they have come to think of themselves as apart. They think of themselves so much more important than their environment or other creatures and have become the enemies of nature.
Ice at Sunset III
How has your photographic process affected how you see and think about nature?
The love of nature was instilled in me early. Perhaps it is as simple as my father taking my hand when I was scared of a thunderstorm and taking me up to the top of the house where we could watch the lightning and count out the time between the flash of light and thunder. He was also was an avid fisherman and took me out with him on the water. Much of the time, we would just be sitting quietly, basking in the beauty of the natural world.
What my photographic process did was show me nature's patterns. There are amazing patterns in nature that are there for all to see, but few do. I didn't for a long time. Because my work is informed by abstract painting, when I see things now, I see abstraction. I think art helps people see differently the things they see all the time.
Which natural phenomenon have you always wanted to photograph?
The Aurora Borealis. Last summer I went to the Arctic with a scientific expedition on the largest Coast Guard icebreaker. Because it was summer, it never got dark, and there was no Aurora. On the way home in the airplane I saw the first darkness of night in four weeks, and I watched the undulating curtain of the Aurora Borealis out the window for over two hours. I found out the next day that it was one of the most amazing shows of the Aurora in a long time. There was no way to photograph it. I plan on going someplace to photograph it, perhaps this winter.
The other thing that I experienced in the Arctic was that there was a 360 degree horizon. It felt as though we were on a flat round plate, and the sky with striated clouds and water and ice, went around in a circle around us. There was no way to capture this phenomenon or the full beauty of it. You can take a panoramic, but it will lay flat. I felt so inadequate shooting there. I have a series called Arctic Midnight, Horizons in which I tried to capture the majesty of the Arctic. It only captures one small part of the vastness. I wish I could have done the Arctic justice. I still am trying to digest; I tell people I am suffering from post-ecstatic stress syndrome.
Images courtesy of Carolyn Marks Blackwood
Interviewed by Nora Landes
Installation shot courtesy of Albany Institute of History & Art and the Artist