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Issue No. 17 - Enigma

Carolyn Marks Blackwood: THE EPHEMERAL BEAUTY OF ICE AND TIME

Images above: © Carolyn Marks Blackwood / Courtesy of the Artist.

In the last year, Carolyn Marks Blackwood’s photographs of the Hudson ­– its water, its sky, its ice and its moods – have come to prominence in the world of art photography. From December 1-5, her work will be part of Pulse Miami beach at the Adamson Gallery along with Chuck Close, Vik Muniz, and Gordon Parks. Last year’s show at the Albany Institute for History and Art was followed in March by one at the Von Lintel Gallery in Los Angeles, a summer show at The Fisher Center for the Performing Arts at Bard college featuring her new abstracts of the river has been extended indefinitely in the Frank Gehry Building. Her photographs have been the covers for two Knopf books, Skyfaring by Mark Vanhoenacker , and The Wind Blows Through The Doors Of My Heart, the last poems by Deborah Digges.

She’s been a singer, a screenwriter, and produces movies with her partner, Gabrielle Tana, for their company, Magnolia Mae Films (The Duchess, Philomena, The Invisible Woman, Dancer). She now lives upstate, where she has been engaged for 18 years to the horticulturalist, farmer, and writer, Greg Quinn. She sees nature like no one else, and has a particular affinity for winter, snow, and ice. We spoke on a bluff overlooking the Hudson River.

Carolyn Marks Blackwood - Mist

Image above: © Carolyn Marks Blackwood / Courtesy of the Artist.

Joan Juliet Buck: What was the first photo you ever took?

Carolyn Marks Blackwood: I was seven years old. My father gave me a Brownie and I brought it to camp with me, and was just taking pictures of everything. When I came home, my dad allowed me into the darkroom with him. He was a fantastic photographer – mostly pictures of us, the family, in black-and-white. He’d have the tongs, and we would watch as the pictures developed. He’d use screens and do all kinds of effects. My Uncle Joe, Joseph Abeles, was a famous theatrical photographer who shot the Broadway shows for the New York Times. He did my head shots when I was a singer. I’d left college and didn’t speak with my parents for a few years, and poor Uncle Joe was very torn about that.

JJB: You were a singer?

CMB: I have perfect pitch. I still have a hard time listening to an orchestra if one instrument is out of key. When I was first in New York City, I remember walking down the street with a woman photographer friend, comparing our senses. I’d say, “Hear those car horns? That’s a 7th chord,” and she would say, “Look at the sparkles on the sidewalk.” We went through the world noticing things so differently. That’s when I realized that we all lead with one sense. I was brought up with an enormous amount of art and music, but I took my visual world for granted and mostly inhabited my audio world. Because of a learning disability, I was very dependent on my hearing to learn things.

I was at Rutgers studying sociology, and they had a fantastic jazz program. I started singing jazz. One day, I was playing in a practice room. There was a knock on the door, and this guy walks in and says, “Hi, I’m waiting to do a master class with Ron Carter. I just heard you singing, you sound great. Can I listen for a little while?” After a few minutes he said, “Would you like to come down to Hopper’s and sing? I’m with the Joe Newman Quartet.” He was Bob Cranshaw, a very famous bass player and one of the biggest music contractors. What luck! I left school to sing in the city. I left my husband at the same time.

Water-black - Carolyn Marks Blackwood

Image above: © Carolyn Marks Blackwood / Courtesy of the Artist.

JJB:   Then you spent a few years in Paris, writing scripts for television.

CMB: I started getting into photography there. I had a Rolleiflex, one of these top-view cameras. When I moved back to New York, I tried other cameras. I was never a technical genius. In the City in the 1980’s, I would drop off rolls of film at these street-corner film places. It always was color, 400 film by Kodak or Fuji. I never understood black-and-white. For me, color is essential.

JJB: Film to digital: when did that happen?

CMB: Greg [Quinn] got me my first digital camera in 2005 or 2006. This Canon that was supposed to be revolutionary – a digital that had “film quality.” Digital cameras weren’t as sensitive as film, not even close, but it was something being able to plug into the computer and not have to wait to see results. When we moved upstate to the farm sixteen years ago, I started photographing nature and the beauty that was around us. I wasn’t ever thinking of being a professional photographer. I was obsessed with it.

JJB: How did it become professional?

CMB: I donated two lighthouse photos to a fundraiser for the Morton Memorial Library in Rhinecliff in 2007. I had never shown anyone my photographs before. I didn’t know anything about printing or presentation, so I printed the two 8x10’s on my little printer, and put them in a frame from the local art store for the silent auction. After that, a wonderful local painter named Joseph Maresca curated a Local Artists show at the library and asked me to be in it. It was my first art show, the most thrilling thing that ever happened to me. They were very on-the-nose landscapes of the Hudson, but some of them were beautiful, with glowing, abstract qualities to them, and sold very well. Barbara Rose, the curator and critic, walked in and said, “I’m having a show in Chelsea with two painters and two photographers, would you like to be one of the photographers?” The show was called Magic Hour. It was about a new kind of Luminism that Barbara had been noticing. Beauty has been a dirty word in the art world, but Barbara basically said, “We need more beauty in our lives.” That’s how I feel. Looking at road-kill might be cool, but it just doesn’t feed me.

DipticRedV2 - Carolyn Marks Blackwood

Images above: © Carolyn Marks Blackwood / Courtesy of the Artist.

JJB:   You’re unencumbered by art theory.

CMB: Especially photography theory. In 2008, I joined the Alan Klotz Gallery. Alan has been immersed in photography for over forty years, and really took a leap of faith with me. Once, I said, “I have a cloud series I want to show you,” and he said, “No way! You can’t do clouds!” I said, “Why not?” He said, “Because of Stieglitz’s Equivalent, his cloud series, is the be-all and end-all of cloud series. It’s like a painter wanting to paint water-lilies.” I said, “I didn’t know I wasn’t supposed to do it.” Alan looked at them. They had nothing to do with Stieglitz’s clouds – they were abstractions. That was my first solo show at his gallery. I think I drove him crazy. “Hey Alan, I have a bird series, a fish series,” and he’d shake his head, saying, “Oh, no.” Most of the time, I could show him these things in ways he’d never seen them before. For my bird series, I would go into fields of thousands of birds in the fall, clap my hands to make them all fly up, and then I’d start shooting. They were abstractions. In the end, he’d go, “All right, let’s see what you’ve got.”

Birds - Carolyn Marks Blackwood

Image above: © Carolyn Marks Blackwood / Courtesy of the Artist.

JJB: You stopped photographing people at one point. What made that happen?

CMB: I saw the plane crash into the second building. That day caused a chain reaction that reverberates today. The trauma of that day also propelled me to find mitigating forces in my life. I stopped taking photographs of people and immersed myself in nature. It helped me see a bigger picture, find my spirit again. With all the ugliness that people perpetrate on each other and the world, I put my faith in the beauty of nature. It soothes my soul, puts me in touch with my best self, and lets me focus on the good. I am actually shooting to make myself feel better.

Lighting - Carolyn Marks Blackwood

Image above: © Carolyn Marks Blackwood / Courtesy of the Artist.

JJB:   Can you remember when you started photographing the Hudson?

CMB: Yes! The lights were coming on in Kingston. It was almost night, the fog came rolling in, and this swath of fog floated over the lighthouse. I knew what was going to happen, so I sat there and watched and waited. At the right moment, I shot. I shoot things that are there for only a moment. It’s not intellectual. It’s a feeling, an excitement. It’s ecstasy. I’m seeing something and asking, “Can I capture this scene? How I am feeling in this photograph?” I find myself early in the morning shooting in the mist, or at sunset, or when the sun is coming up and the moon is setting, or at magic hour, or when the weather is moody, immersed in a moment of such beauty. Shooting a thunderstorm coming across the river, I almost play chicken with it. I get so excited. I’ve learned to calm myself down, to zen-out in order to capture the lightning. I was shooting this fantastic huge ‘blue moon’ just before sunrise and saw this plane coming and knew it would cross in front of the moon. Your heart is racing, but you have to slow down your breathing as it gets closer and closer, and start snapping as it comes into your viewfinder. The moon is fantastic and the plane is red because the sun is coming up and– there it is. The plane flies across the moon and yes-yes-yes, and then it goes by.

Fog - Carolyn Marks Blackwood

Image above: © Carolyn Marks Blackwood / Courtesy of the Artist.

JJB: The beauty of the Hudson Valley gave early settlers an overwhelming concept of God as Nature. You can see this in the paintings of Frederick Church, of the Hudson river school…

CMB: My everyday life is here. I am making a study of this one place, day in, day out.

JJB: And you love winter.

CB: When it gets cold, every day I’m looking at the temperature at different parts of the river. I am on ice patrol. When you get that thin layer of ice, the first thin layer of ice that moves in the tide, that’s when you get geometric shapes. It’s very smooth ice. Some years, you just get brash ice, which is very, very wavy. Then there’s dancing ice, the smooth ice moving in the tide. It’s very short-lived. When I’m out shooting ice, my hands freeze. I have these special gloves, but my fingertips have to be out to handle the camera. There have been times when I’ve started getting the danger signs of being too cold. All of a sudden you can’t feel parts of your body, and you’re getting a little drowsy. I just whip myself into the car with the heater on, and I sit in there for a while.

IceSingle - Carolyn Marks Blackwood

Images above: © Carolyn Marks Blackwood / Courtesy of the Artist.

JJB: What time do you do this?

CMB : Early morning and late afternoon . There’s nothing worse than a nice sunny day. I like shadow. I like mood and color. Late in the day, when you have the long light, it’s wonderful. And colors, the colors that come out in the ice –my God! There’s natural blue in ice. Then it starts to reflect the sky, and if there’s pink in the sky, everything turns purple. There were a couple of evenings where the world, the sky, the water, and the ice turned blood-red.

Lava_Diptic - Carolyn Marks Blackwood

Images above: © Carolyn Marks Blackwood / Courtesy of the Artist.

JJB: Looking out the window here, there’s a little boat going up the Hudson, all that green over there in Kingston, there’s the river, and trees in the foreground. Your photos don’t represent this landscape.

CMB: They did in the beginning. Then I started to go in, from macro to micro. The things I show are details.   I always go out at the most dramatic time, when there is color or drama in the sky, or patterns in the water. If you’re a painter, no one ever asks you, “Was that the real color of the sky when you painted that?” With photography, people are always asking technical details.

“What kind of camera? What lens? Did you use photoshop?” I’m at the point where I just don’t want to talk about that. The work speaks for itself. In this brave new world, there are no rules. I’m cropping the hell out of everything. I’m painting with pixels. Frederick Church got to paint a scene and then stick a person who wasn’t there in the scene and no one asked him, “Was that person really there?” Why can’t a photographer screw around with what they’re doing without being asked every technical question? Yes! I crop the hell out of my work! For me, it’s just about the end result. I want you to feel something. The work happens through many different processes. I’m an agnostic, but there are times out shooting when I feel overwhelmed with the beauty of Nature and I feel a spiritual thing happen to me. I become a holy-roller, a person possessed.

JJB:   That comes through in the photographs.

Ice - Carolyn Marks Blackwood

Images above: © Carolyn Marks Blackwood / Courtesy of the Artist.

CMB: I shoot almost every day, because it makes me feel better. I have a practice of posting an original photo once or twice a day on Facebook. It’s a discipline. If I can make somebody’s day just a little bit better, I’m going to fucking do it. 80 or 85% of the time, it’s a picture from that day. No one was more surprised than me by people’s reactions. I didn’t have that perspective, that it would affect other people.

JJB: But you’re giving them away?

CMB: It’s a quandary in this new digital age. I’m not putting these huge files out there. If someone tries to copy them, the quality will be horrible. But it is a choice. Do I keep my photographs to myself, or do I share them and let people see them? For the gallery photos, I’ve been working with Chad Kleitsch for over seven years, a master printer , and a wonderful photographer . We talk in shorthand to each other by now. I am also starting work on my Story Series with the amazing David Adamson.

Water - Carolyn Marks Blackwood

Image above: © Carolyn Marks Blackwood / Courtesy of the Artist.

JJB: Your newer pictures now are much more cropped-in.

CMB: I’m getting very micro. I’m looking at the same scene, just getting deeper and deeper and deeper into it. And since I love contemporary art and I love abstraction, I start seeing that in nature. I’m seeing those squiggles, the different patterns of water in the camera, hoping that somehow they translate when I get them out of the camera. I like to flatten the plane. I love it when you don’t see perspective.   I want to see something I haven’t seen before. I want to take away the context so that you’re not quite sure what you’re looking at. But as soon as I tell you what you’re looking at, you recognize it.

JJB: There seems to be more black and white in your work now.

CMB: Not really. I love color but if I see something like a black and white piece of ice going by– what luck that was! It was grey day and the clouds were reflecting in the water. When people look at that photograph, they don’t know what they’re looking at. They are kind of gob-smacked when I tell them it was just two pieces of ice floating down the river.   They ask, “Was that piece of ice really black?” And I say, “Yes, it was REALLY BLACK, and it was next to the white piece! I didn’t have to change a thing.” You see, it’s there all the time. You just have to look.

BW - Carolyn Marks Blackwood

Image above: © Carolyn Marks Blackwood / Courtesy of  Von Lintel Gallery

JJB: In Iceland, when glacier water runs into the torrent and the torrent runs into a river, the ice is pale blue.

CMB: Ice Blue. The whole Arctic is like that, a symphony of different blues. I can’t even talk about it, the experience of going into the Arctic two years ago, and I can’t stop talking about it. I still haven’t digested what I saw. I long for it. We were with scientists in the Chukchi Sea for almost three weeks – that’s where they were going to drill. Thank goodness they decided not to. My biggest frustration as a photographer was not being able to do it justice. How do you shoot a 360-degree horizon that is so beautiful, it just makes you weep? I could only take small segment of the sky and water and horizon. It is a million times more beautiful than any of my photographs could show.

JJB: What is it with you and the cold?

CMB: I was born in Alaska! I love the winter. I love the ice. The first ice photos I ever took– I went out to shoot them, and around 20 photos in, my battery went dead. I thought, “I’m going to come back tomorrow and take this ice.” But the next day it was gone. It had all melted. It was my first lesson about the ephemeral. I had to wait a whole year to see ice on the river, and of course, it was never the same again.

- Joan Juliet Buck

COLLECTED BY THEA WESTREICH WAGNER AND ETHAN WAGNER

PETRA COLLINS: me, myself, and iphone