ESSAYS ON BLACKWOOD'S ARTWORK
The Story Series
by Barbara Rose
In the past, most of Carolyn Marks Blackwood’s photographs have ranged from abstractions to specific subjects that reference nature. The Story Series is different. These narrative photographs are psychologically charged and enigmatic.
People have never inhabited Blackwood’s photographs. Visually, The Story Series is no exception. However, while there are no human beings in sight, the photographs conjure invisible characters, whose fates are suggested by a narrative caption at the bottom of each photograph.
In this series, she draws on all of her extensive visual experiences, as well as her own feelings and emotions, to create a new kind of photograph that demands the participation of the viewer, lending her images a distinct urgency and poignancy. For Blackwood, storytelling, which projects the recorded moment forward into the future or backward into memory, is a natural development, because she has been involved for decades with film, both as producer and screenwriter. Film of course, depends on narrative and it is with this narrative element that she asks each viewer to explore, becoming in essence, the author of his or her own private, individual script.
The idea that the work of art is made by the artist but completed by the viewer was first explored by Marcel Duchamp in “ The Creative Act”, a talk of signal importance that he gave in April 1957, at the Convention of the American Federation of Arts. According to Duchamp, “The artist acts like a mediumistic being who, from the labyrinth beyond time and space, seeks his way to a clearing… This phenomenon is comparable to the transference from the artist to the spectator in the form of esthetic osmosis taking place through the inert matter, such as pigment, piano or marble.” Sixty years later, Duchamp’s words seem to anticipate what Blackwood has achieved in these evocative and mysterious photographs.
In The Story Series, Blackwood starts with a scene, in a specific time and place that seized her attention. To begin the catalytic process of free association from the viewer, she provides clues by supplying provocative caption lines, which act as the beginning of a story. At that point, she hands the story over to the viewer, who completes it with his or her own experiences, expectations and personal history.
The photographs are taken from the point of view of the spectator, who then becomes the protagonist of the “story”. Like a Rorschach blot, Blackwood’s stories elicit subjective interpretation. Thus each viewer creates a different narrative. Some of the images imply crossroads and indeed many are actual intersections, the moment at which the viewer realizes the ramification of what has happened or what is yet to occur, depending on the choices made to go forward or to turn back. Her conception of the viewer’s experience is a kind of epiphany, a revelation where you gather strength, or lose hope.
These images suggest an active choice, an action to be taken in relation to a future that is unknown. Many of them represent that pivotal moment when you suddenly realize that the trajectory of your life must change- that you must travel an unknown path. Her intention is to have the Story Photographs challenge the viewer to ask questions that they have previously avoided, for fear of not having the courage to act on the answer. Participating in this cathartic dialogue the active viewer thus becomes a partner in the creative process.
The roads, junctures and clearings in Blackwood’s photographs have a plangent strangeness that corresponds to the Romantic concept of the unheimlich or the uncanny, in which the familiar and the everyday is suddenly transformed into the dreamlike. Viewers are invited to project themselves into the dreamlike landscape and imagine what awaits them. This dreamlike state is also how you feel when you cross a line in your life- when things you take for granted are suddenly foregrounded. What is “normal” is dramatically questioned. That house looks so nice, but what goes on behind closed doors? What drove this person onto the road in the middle of the night? What possessed her to go out into the storm? What is really happening behind the façades of neighborhood houses?
These photographs bring to life those uncanny moments when things that have been secret and hidden, suddenly come to light; when the subconscious comes to the surface. Alfred Hitchcock, the master of mystery, used everyday objects and places in a way that caused them to portend potential danger. There is an undeniably Gothic quality to Blackwood’s images of dark roads, isolated houses lit from within, storms, snow and shadows. The images are familiar but enigmatic-- sometimes frightening even-- or perhaps just comforting, depending on the viewer’s associations. Does the path lead to a dangerous encounter or a warm embrace? We all have our stories. Only our own individual, personal interpretation, tells how the journey will end.
Carolyn Marks Blackwood
The Story Series 2017
Carolyn Marks Blackwood: On The Edge
by Barbara Rose
Carolyn Marks Blackwood is a photographer who has spent her life looking at paintings. Consequently, it is no surprise that her photographs are related to the Pictorialists, a group of the most intelligent and sensitive photographers who created a style of photography based on painting rather than on documentation, to demonstrate that photography was an independent, creative form of fine art.
Blackwood’s work also connects photography directly to painting, especially that of the New York School, whose works were metaphoric, rather than literal; more emotionally expressive than objectively specific. Her images skate on the edge between Abstraction and Representation. Inspired by Color Field painters, and artists like Rothko and Newman, Blackwood focuses on images that have strong verticals or horizontals and which fill the whole optical field. Many of her compositions also recall the “all over” disposition of color that Pollack inherited from the Impressionists. One sees the totality, rather than focusing on one static point. The images are flowing, liquid and cover the whole surface edge to edge, just as the paintings of Rothko, Newman and Pollack and they create a luminous environment. It is telling that one of her favorite painters, Gerhard Richter, paints in two styles, one abstract and the other figurative. Her awareness of both possibilities simultaneously, is the key to her style.
The work is abstract in the sense that we cannot necessarily identify their origins, and yet their origin is always in things seen by all. To paraphrase Frank Stella, “ what you see is what you see.” The question is, what Do you see? There is calculated ambiguity in Blackwood’s images. They are suggestive rather than obvious. The eye must interpret what it sees. The sources of her abstractions are hinted at, but never defined with certainty. Indeed, it is this double-edged vision of the concrete made abstract, that makes her work an exciting challenge.
Blackwood’s studio in the Hamlet of Rhinecliff, New York, sits on a bluff from which one sees the Hudson River flowing below. The horizon stretches out as far as the eye can see. Most of her photographs are taken from this very special site where the four seasons change dramatically, transforming the landscape in both it’s forms and colors. In Winter, Blackwood takes advantage of the Ice floes and has based a series which captures the drama of Ice on the River shattering into shards with the tide. Recently, her fascination with natural phenomena brought her back to her birthplace, in Anchorage Alaska, and then on a scientific expedition in the Arctic.
Blackwood is sensitive to the manifold and surprising, sometimes almost imperceptible patterns of nature and natural phenomena. “There is a world in a drop of water” she says. From her 180 degree vantage, she watches the storms roll over the mountains and cross the river, creating powerful patterns of movement, which is one of Blackwood’s principal concerns. She is interested in finding the rhythmic structures in nature, and translating them. Perhaps her background as a musician plays into this. The extreme close up, powerful zoom lenses bring images to the surface, recalling pictorial space and surface texture; capturing detail that would otherwise be invisible. Contrasts between dark and light are vital to her vision. Once again this is a pictorial concern related to Chiaroscuro in painting. She captures the light and it’s luminosity as it shines through clouds and bounces off water.
Walter Benjamin foresaw the future of photography when he wrote in his 1931 Short History of Photography, “The camera is getting smaller and smaller, ever readier to capture fleeting and secret images whose shock effect paralyzes the associative mechanisms in the beholder.” Nature in it’s workings and not literally it’s recognizable forms but rather the feel of the wind and water, the movement of currents and clouds is what fascinates Blackwood. In this sense her photographs are related to the Impressionists’ attempts at capturing a fleeting moment in time. Because the moment is glimpsed and it’s source is not entirely revealed, the act of interpretation is the most important interface between viewer and art object. Although some of her images may read as cataclysmic, she is not involved with the end of the world, but with the beauty of the world now, this moment, this second, as she transforms a detail of nature into abstraction. This is the fine edge between abstract imagery and emotional expressiveness that creates a compelling mystery. Decoding that mystery is the heart of the experience of her work.
"The Wind Blows Through the Doors of My Heart"
2011 Exhibition Essay
by Alan Klotz
Carolyn Marks Blackwood makes deceivingly simple photographs. They are mostly of a single subject
matter: Ice, Birds, Fish, Clouds…things we all know and even have a fondness for. But these familiar
things are engaged in unusual activities which actually redefine their characteristics and even some of
their mystery. They certainly redefine our perception of the spaces in which we see those things in
these photographs. So what seems, at first, to be a simple picture, turns out to be a rather complex
visual and emotional experience.
As an example, we are shown ice breaking up on the Hudson River due to the opposing forces of tide
and current. The ice shatters in jagged shards, and is propelled in patterns by the water moving swiftly
below the surface. It looks dangerous as broken glass, as it swirls and collides. These collisions force
the ice to rise up like teeth, piling on each other, creating a rather threatening topology of chaos. Each
surface, canted this way and that, reflects the light differently, and are rendered more or less translucent
by their degree of lift. They often are strangely colored by the effect of sun or sky or some other unforeseen
miracle of light. The surface of the river is flat, as is the plane of the picture, yet the swirls
and eddies conspire to create the illusion of landscape complete with hills and hollows and heights that
seem to come together then break apart in apocalyptic disarray…one loses one’s balance, and one’s
breath simply looking at them.
But this is a photographic thing, you cannot see it even if you were there, as I have been, standing next
to Carolyn, on a cold winter’s day, on that humble Rhinecliff shore, watching the ice break up dramatically,
not 20 feet from where I was…but it’s just ice. It first has to be translated from 3D to 2 by a camera
before it becomes grand opera…specifically by Blackwood’s camera, guided by her eye’s way of knowing
just when it’s there…when it’s really there.
The same holds true for her cloud photographs, although they are not the hard edged, blade-like ice
objects. They are, rather, more amorphous, textural, and, dare I say it, painterly…where the atmospheric
traceries are the meteorological equivalents of brushstrokes. The clouds are all about the
colors present in the moment, dynamic and ephemeral. It’s hard to photograph clouds, not just
because they are moving, nor because of the proprietary hold on them by Stieglitz and Constable, but
because in order to be successful with clouds you almost have to get away from their identity…the
pictures can be nebulous, but not cloud-like…they can be recognizable, but not common. These are not
common, and like their Stieglitzian forebears they are non-metaphorical equivalents, aspiring to the
condition of music.
The birds are more like angry bees than birds…Hitchcock would approve. They add a bewitched layer
of texture to the already leaf, and branch confusion of a forest flattened by photography…keeping you
out, but somehow drawing you in.
The fish are of course still fish, but remarkably, the softness of the focus of these images allows you to
lose that thought, while being more reminiscent of the way Pollock used semi-circles of paint as
gestural swipes to give some bracketed order to the brambly wildness of some of his dripped thickets.
Blackwood’s photographs are full of energy…and like all good art they are both of this world, yet stand a
bit apart from it. We have all been mesmerized by fish tanks, and “looked at clouds from both sides now”,
while lying on our backs on a late summer day…but not like these fish, or those clouds…they are strictly
The Bard of the Upper Reaches
My favorite course in college was one of the obvious and simple ones: Shakespeare. We read maybe 20 of the plays and talked about them. Our professor was an eccentric old Greek, Pete Phialas, who had been dragged out of retirement by a student of his. This student became a dentist and paid the school to keep Phialas teaching what had been the student's own favorite course. Phialas had a thick accent and a childlike, giddy love of Shakespeare. He approached the plays more as dramatist than psychologist or philosopher: what were the subtleties of interaction between these characters? What did these turns of phrase mean?
Here's a taste of his approach, which I remember some 21 years on. Consider part of the famous speech about England, Richard II, act 2, scene 1:
This royal throne of kings, this scepter'd isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England
It is a dazzling speech to consider on its own. But Phialas pointed out to us that in it, Shakespeare directed his actor in how to perform it. It is spoken by John of Gaunt on his deathbed.
Each phrase is a breath. His breathing is uneven, and growing shallower - at first he can breathe out "This royal throne of kings" - but later, he has breath only for four syllables: "This blessed plot" - then shallower still, two syllables at a time - "this earth" - "this realm" - then inspired by his love of country, he summons the breath for an extra syllable: "this England."
Behold Phialas unlocking for his students a more complex appreciation of Shakespeare as dramatist: Shakespeare as a writer endlessly sensitive to the peregrinations of the human experience, and capable of distilling them down to the dramatic progression and the telling moment. These scenes have at their core the profundity of life, but at their surface they are dressed up full of color and excitement - they make it easy for us to enjoy them, they invite us in - they make it fun to learn the truth - a gift which, like Bottom's dream, hath no bottom.
At about this same time, I was looking at clouds a lot. The Shakespeare course provided me with a means to express something which had always seemed apparent: that while the lives of men are sometimes dramatic and meaningful, and often tedious and insignificant - so that, for instance, the 37 surviving plays of Shakespeare are a big deal in terms of the history of culture - the life of the sky is continuously Shakespearean. A great drama unfolds in the clouds, full of color and excitement. The clouds have majesty and variety, and they tell a complex and subtle story. This story has a cast of many characters, and divides up into scenes and episodes, but it has neither a beginning nor an ending. As long as there are vapor, light, and heat it will go on. We can read an act of Shakespeare any time we want, simply by looking up.
I don't come across my species of nephophilia - cloud-love - very often. But here we have Carolyn Marks Blackwood, a photographer who is apparently as avid a follower of the Bard of the upper reaches as I am, and a much more active one: she takes the drama of the clouds for one of her key subjects. Her show of photographs The Elements of Place is currently on display at the Albany Institute of History and Art - see details at the bottom. The work that follows is all from the show.
Evening II, Archival Pigment Print, 40”x40”, 2013
Now, this is embarrassing. I don't know the names of clouds. But whatever these clouds are, Blackwood composes them into a staccato landscape, diagonal bands of light stair-stepping from upper right to lower left. The light of the setting sun upon them is a violent red glow, like the light in a forge, and the clouds themselves look molten, as if they were boluses of hardened metal half-sunk in streaming iron. Seeming puffs of steam rise through the scene, and the eye seeks the cool blue shadows of the darker bands, scarcely finding any place to rest. The composition has little up or down to it, because it exists in the three-dimensional world of the clouds, unrestrained by a life spent crawling heavily on the surface of the Earth.
Since the advent of the digital camera, so many people are taking so many pictures that a good cloud photo can easily be chalked up to chance. Therefore we reflect on a body of work when considering cloud photography.
Cloud Series 109, Archival Pigment Print, 14”x14”, 2014
Blackwood encounters the sky in an utterly different mood here. The first image is martial and heroic. This one is less formally dynamic, but it is not relaxed - rather, it is poised. A backdrop cloudscape relates a straightforward tale in turquoises and peaches of day edging toward night. Foreground of it are unlit clouds, skulking along, Iago-like, staining the scene with threat. Foreground and background are in dramatic tension, and once again, they are lushly three-dimensional, moving through a space without bias.
Consider a third piece:
Cloud Series 5, Archival Pigment Print, 14”x14”, 2010
This is more akin to dissipation, dispersal. The clouds have lost their complex structure. They are spare and coming apart, making their way from form back to diaphanous vapor. The coiled energy of drama has been used up. The last few characters are making their way aimlessly from the stage, their lines exhausted. The scene returns to the beginning, to the blank page of the endless sky.
Let me insert here an apology for these descriptions; they read awkwardly to me. One encounters music and clouds the same way, as stimuli to the narrative imagination. But writing it out direct is like writing out a dream - stilted and unlike the thing itself. If this were a piece of fiction, I could hide Blackwood’s clouds behind a magnificent cast of characters. But it isn’t, and my speaking of the clouds directly fails - I do not have a language of clouds.
One might correctly argue that Blackwood is a consummate nature photographer. But this only captures part of what she is. She is a consummate photographer of abiotic nature. Living things rarely intrude on her work. Her nature is a nature of water, water in all its phases.
Hudson River Ice 200, Archival Pigment Print, 25”x30”, 2013
There is a serene majesty, an icy grandeur, to her outlook. It is indifferent not only to humanity, but to all things that live and die in organic form: to plants, to animals, to fungi and algae and bacteria. Blackwood’s Earth is given over to the inscrutable vitality of non-living things.
I am haunted by a tought, that if one could only see the world in its proper proportions, then of course life would recede to a trivial rank in the order of things, and science would assume the place in one’s heart that tragedy customarily occupies. The spin of the electron, the wheeling of galaxies: these would take their rightful places at the center of one’s attention. The heart and attention themselves would begin to dissolve, borne aloft on a wave of awe, and one would enter into direct unity with a vast cosmos. This cosmos would not be merciless, because mercilessness implies a certain caring about the thing denied mercy. This vast cosmos would be incidentally merciless, inconsistently merciless - it would hurt only because it would not care. The contours of its values would be alien to human conception. The first, and possibly only, thing we could understand about this cosmos before leaving humanity behind would be its tremendous beauty, beauty in every facet from the austere to the spectacular to the voluptuous.
The Bard of the upper reaches tells a tale of Shakespearean excitement, but it is not a human tale.
Ice 101, Archival Pigment Print, 30”x40”, 2014
I get a hint of this absolute cosmos from Blackwood’s photography. Looking at it, I conceive of her as being like a nineteenth-century explorer, steely, hardy, loving to live but not fearful of dying. I think of her with her face half-hidden behind tremendous lenses, surveying her chosen landscape of unspoiled solitude to distant horizons. It is cliched by now to imagine that a perspective which so thoroughly excludes humanity forms in recoil from some tremendous personal pain. One is tempted to manufacture such a biography for the Blackwood one deduces from her work. But I don’t know, first of all, if Blackwood is the explorer I take her for; nor do I know if she harbors some such pain. I don’t personally believe the a-human perspective is necessarily born in grief, nor can I verify that this perspective is hers. I think it exists to some extent in all of us, and I suspect she unleashes her measure of it in her nature photography, which is only a part of her creative work. I know one thing about this work, because I asked: that she shoots most of it at or near her home on the Hudson River.
Therefore I learn, or re-learn, two things from her work.
The first is that, whatever the real Blackwood is like, I need somebody to be like my idealized explorer, and her work comes close enough to this lost ideal that I can justify my construction of her. My Blackwood is not the fearful Bard, but she is his authentic follower. I need the figure and the work alike, and this is part of why her photographs mean so much to me.
The other thing I find is closer to home, a more ordinary but very useful truth: that if you are willing to walk out the front door and look at the world right in front of you, and really study it for a while, then splendors will unfold. This is what we get from the domestic Blackwood, the Blackwood who shoots where she lives. Surely she lives someplace nice, but it would be vague and drab before a less passionate eye. Only half its magic is itself, and the rest is her.
The Elements of Place: Photographs by Carolyn Marks Blackwood
June 28 - September 7, 2014
All images courtesy of the artist, except Richard II scene, via http://theplaystheblog.wordpress.com/2012/05/22/what-dies-with-john-of-gaunt-nothing-less-than-a-vision-of-the-world/