To Feel Less Alone: Interview with New York Filmmaker, Fine Art Photographer, Carolyn Marks Blackwood

 “After sleeping through a hundred million centuries we have finally opened our eyes on a sumptuous planet, sparkling with color, bountiful with life. Within decades we must close our eyes again. Isn’t it a noble, an enlightened way of spending our brief time in the sun, to work at understanding the universe and how we have come to wake up in it? This is how I answer when I am asked ~ as I am surprisingly often ~ why I bother to get up in the mornings.
~ Richard Dawkins

“Do stuff. be clenched, curious. Not waiting for inspiration’s shove or society’s kiss on your forehead. Pay attention. It’s all about paying attention. attention is vitality. It connects you with others. It makes you eager. stay eager.”
~ Susan Sontag

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 unny thing about art. The production of it can be such a private act. And yet at the heart of creation is often an ache for connection. Connection to beauty, to that which feeds our soul, to the most precious moments from our past, to our wildest dreams for our future.

It’s a yearning to reacquaint ourselves with all that, despite the disappointments and losses, the happily-ever-afters that never materialized, still remains wondrous in this world, and in ourselves.

Seems such a selfish act, this business of creating. And yet what happens when the thing of beauty is shared? When we take it out into the light of day and invite others to come and see, to listen, to feel, to experience a bit of this wild and wondrous journey with us?

 

INTERVIEW WITH CAROLYN MARKS BLACKWOOD

 

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From above the Hudson River, New York ~

 

Deanna Elaine Piowaty: What a fantastic response you are receiving for “The Elements of Place,” your photography exhibit that just opened at the Albany Institute of History and Art.

 

elements of place

 

Deanna Elaine Piowaty: I imagine it’s not been all that much different from the experience you had opening each of your films? Those dueling feelings of exhilaration ~ that thrill of at last sharing publicly the sum of all your labors ~ mixed perhaps with an ache of loss as your “baby” is no longer yours alone? Not unlike the loss experienced by the women in your films Philomena and The Duchess,who found themselves faced with having to relinquish their babies?

 

Scene from the film, Philomena

Scene from the film, Philomena

 

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Keira Knightly and Raiph Fiennes in a scene from The Duchess

 

Deanna Elaine Piowaty: When a completed work of yours enters the public arena, does your relationship with it change? Is that photograph or film you nurtured still your baby? Or does it now belong to all who encounter it and take that story into their being?

 

Philomena

 

Carolyn Marks Blackwood: What an interesting question. The release of a movie is a completely different experience than the opening of a museum show. A movie is not mine. It is a huge group effort, but while it is very exciting and my name is on the line, unless I have written it, it feels a little distant.

 

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Carolyn Marks Blackwood: My photography work is mine and mine alone. It is my vision and implementation of that vision. The show starts and ends with me. My name is on the line, but so is my soul. It is thrilling, but also makes me feel very vulnerable. One hopes that the work speaks to those who see it and that they react. Perhaps a non reaction is worse than a negative one. Not sure. But if my work moves me, I always hope I am expressing it well enough so that it translates, that the work moves others too.

 

Carolyn Marks Blackwood 

Carolyn Marks Blackwood: As far as my relationship with the work changing, well, having big museum walls enabled me to bring the work to the scale that I had always envisioned it. I usually am constrained by how big the work can be and this was a rare and wonderful opportunity for me to see my work at the scale it was meant to be seen. Until now, I have only seen it like this in my mind’s eye. So there was a risk it would not work. That was my greatest fear.

 

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Carolyn Marks Blackwood: As for losing ownership by making my work public, I don’t feel an ache of loss at all. In a strange way, the show has actually allowed me to find the work. Of course I want my friends and family to like what I’ve done. But it would be a million times worse if I felt it was a failure.

 

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Deanna Elaine Piowaty: When you capture the majesty of the natural world around you, does that beauty, by you taking it into yourself, become autobiographical? Or do you see yourself more as a vessel, one who transmutes raw material into art so that others may see what you see, feel what you feel, but that the story is not yours to keep?

 

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Carolyn Marks Blackwood: I have come to realize that I see the world in my own way, my own weird way of seeing, which is different from everyone else’s. I think everyone does. If ten people look at something, not one sees the same thing. I happen to use a camera to express how I see things. But it’s not just seeing for me. It is feeling. Feeling how beautiful and sad the world is all at the same time.

 

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Carolyn Marks Blackwood: There are so many ways that human beings are the same, and yet people feel very alone in their own stories. When you are able to tell a story, whether it be photographically or in film, that touches a core story in people, they and you react. They feel recognized and understood and you feel so much less alone in the world.

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Deanna Elaine Piowaty: What do you hope your audience will come away with after viewing your photographs? Is it a knowledge we may already possess but perhaps in the busyness of our lives may have forgotten? Or are you asking us to notice something, feel something we might have missed altogether?

 

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Carolyn Marks Blackwood: I hope when people see one of my photographs they feel enriched, fed in some emotional way. I am certainly feeding myself by doing this, keeping myself sane. I am mitigating the sadness and ugliness that is so prominent in our lives. How people treat animals and children and each other, not to mention this planet, is heart-breaking. And so I look to beauty to sustain me. I wonder why beauty is such a dirty word in the art world. Really. There is enough road kill in my life. In Bill Cunningham’s New York, he said, “It is as true now as it ever was…..He who seeks beauty will find it.” I think if more people had beauty in their lives, perhaps they would be kinder to each other and the planet. I just need it. That’s the bottom line. I think everyone does.

 Carolyn M. Blackwood

 

Deanna Elaine Piowaty: When you take in a particularly powerful sunset or a striking formation of clouds are there sensations that immediately shoot through your body?

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Carolyn Marks Blackwood: Yes, I feel a kind of joy when I am shooting. It’s as if all the stars are aligned, allowing me to completely take in the moment and colors and details. The things I shoot are mostly ephemeral. Sometimes the scene is only there before me for a minute or so. When it all comes together, in that moment, I feel…possessed. A kind of elation. This feeling of joy can last for days after I am done shooting. I can feel it when I am seeing what I actually shot, and then later, processing the photographs. I get a thrill in seeing a photograph that expresses how I felt at that moment. It is much more than a visual experience. It is also an emotional one.

 

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Deanna Elaine Piowaty: Do you think we underestimate how much beauty feeds and sustains us? Can you recall the first time you were profoundly affected by a powerful work of art ~ either man made or in nature?

Carolyn Marks Blackwood

Oh, I can rant on and on about the lack of beauty in people’s lives, but yes, beauty does not have to be banal, or simple, but it does feed the soul. I was very lucky in that I was exposed to art my whole life.
My grandmother, who was a collector of art and also herself a painter, took me to see art from a very early age. I was profoundly affected by the work I saw. The first time I was conscious of being affected was at about the age of twelve, going to MOMA (Museum of Modern Art) to see the painting, Hide and Seek, which was up for many years and which really effected me. I would go to see everything, but I seem to remember that painting really ringing a bell for me.

 

Pavel Tchelitchew (American, born Russia. 1898–1957) Hide-and-Seek Date:     Derby, Vermont and New York, June 1940 - June 1942 Medium:     Oil on canvas Dimensions:     6' 6 1/2" x 7' 3/4" (199.3 x 215.3 cm)

Hide-and-Seek | Pavel Tchelitchew (American, born Russia. 1898–1957)
Derby, Vermont and New York, June 1940 – June 1942
Medium:
Oil on canvas
6′ 6 1/2″ x 7′ 3/4″ (199.3 x 215.3 cm)

 

Carolyn Marks Blackwood: I used to be a city girl and always lived near Riverside Park and the Hudson River, but now I am a country girl through and through and go to the city when I must or for looking at art, and then go running home to the country. It is amazing what one must do to walk down the streets of the city. You don’t even know how much it takes out of you until you leave….but that is another story.

Deanna Elaine Piowaty: When you’re selecting a story to make into a film, what are the qualities you look for? Do they share anything in common with the qualities you seek to capture in your natural surroundings?

Carolyn Marks Blackwood: My partner and I have a certain kind of movie we want to make. We have stuck to our guns. Our movies are stories about people, they take their time. Hopefully, they touch people and make them think and perhaps even give examples of what is possible. They are not technology driven, nor are they big blockbusters, but I think there is a hunger for this type of film. We make movies that we would want to see ourselves. That is the test.

Deanna Elaine Piowaty: I have to tell you that I was devastated after watching your film, The Duchess, based on Amanda Forman‘s biography of the 18th-century English aristocrat, Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire. Keira Knightly‘s character was given an impossible choice where each “option” brought with it unimaginable loss. Watching the film, one tries to imagine how we ourselves would handle such a situation, and it seems all but impossible that we would handle it with half as much grace as Georgiana did. And yet here lies the gift of this film: that loss is a part of life, will be at one point or another for each and every one of us, and it is how we handle this loss that will make or break us, that will define the legacy we pass on. 

 

 

Deanna Elaine Piowaty: And it’s a theme that is delivered to us again in your most recent film, Philomena. In both these stories, the women endured great injustices and had every reason to let that pain turn to hatred, hunger for retribution, revenge. But neither women in your films chose that route. Instead, they made the conscious decision to not only carry on but to infuse the rest of their lives with dedication to others. To love. Was this what drew you to these particular stories?

 

 

Carolyn Marks Blackwood: The two stories in the film Philomena and The Duchess show the plight of women in our society. We have more opportunities and equality now than ever before, but we still have a long way to go. The plight of women artists as compared to men artists is a microcosm of our society, which values men over women. And we are lucky in this country and other western countries when compared with the brutality suffered by women in other cultures. The plight of women in most of the world is abysmal.

I am very proud of Philomena, because I think it did change lives. It gave women who had given birth secretly or out of wedlock permission to speak their truths and to unburden themselves as Philomena did. It is the catalyst for investigations into what happened in the past so it will never happen again. I am very proud to know the real Philomena and her daughter Jane, who are emblematic of so many women and stories and who have been catalytic in changing public policy, and who are starting a foundation to help women and children find each other before it is too late.

Deanna Elaine Piowaty: I also deeply respect how, especially in The Duchess, the film didn’t take the easy route of vilifying the man who was responsible for the heroine’s great losses. Instead, the film revealed how Ralph Fiennes’ character in his own way was also trapped. Despite all the prestige and wealth bestowed upon him as duke, and not the least of this his enormous sense of entitlement. (A point brought beautifully home in that scene at the end as he watched through the window with envy his children playing outside and observed how wonderful it must be to be so “free.”) This is one of the greatest gifts of art: the ability to invite the audience to see a perspective very different from their own. Do you find that this spills over into your own life as well? Do you find that being an artist enables you to be more empathetic in general, to consider not just the viewpoint closest to your own but actually many different perspectives?

Carolyn Marks Blackwood: Yes, as a screenwriter, I have to become the people I am writing. I have to find their essence and find the human thread. As you say, the Duke in the film, The Duchess, was a victim too, although his position in victimhood was perhaps the enviable one. I think being an artist makes you more empathetic because it makes you tender and in touch.

Deanna Elaine Piowaty: What’s next for you as an artist? Will you pursue other projects for Magnolia Mae Films? Or is your photography what is calling to you most deeply now?

Carolyn Marks Blackwood: I am about to write a new screenplay, based on the book, The Sixteen Pleasures, and I am now working on a screenplay I wrote a long time ago. There is interest by a director and I am about to go to London to work on it with him. That one is called Barbette, about the aerialist who came from Round Rock, Texas, and in the 1920’s went to Europe where he became the toast of Europe. He dressed as the most beautiful woman you ever saw in his act ~ and then revealed himself at the end to be a man.

 

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Barbette

 

Carolyn Marks Blackwood: He was Jean Cocteau‘s lover, and lived a very grand life. But then WWII happened, and he had to come home and he had a bad accident. After that, he went down, down, down. He ended up going home to Round Rock, Texas, to his sister’s house where much of the story takes place. A real fish-out-of-water story. Excited to see it finally get done!

As for photography, I shoot every day, and will continue to. A lot of exciting things happening, but first, after a very intense last two years, I’m going to take a bit of time off and just rejuvenate.

 

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Further Notes

Carolyn Marks Blackwood was born in Anchorage Alaska and raised in Great Neck, New York. She attended Rutgers University and NYU. She is a writer and producer. She had a career as a singer-songwriter and backup singer in the 1970’s. She helped to develop television programs in Paris in the mid to late 1980’s when television there became privatized. She lived with noted Documentary director, Christian Blackwood for five years and married him two months before his death in July 1992. She founded Magnolia Mae Films with Gaby Tana in 1997.

The Elements of Place,” an exhibit featuring Ms. Blackwood’s fine art photography will be showing at the Albany Institute of History and Art now through September 7, 2014.

You may also view more of Carolyn Marks Blackwood’s work by visiting her website.

   

 

 

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