May 7, 2013
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
By Barbara Rose
She calls the place the "River House" and it is that- a cottage set directly on a 100ft. cliff, on the banks of the Hudson River. From that spot, Carolyn Marks Blackwood has photographed at all times of the day and all months of the year-the changing image of the majestic river that inspired Frederic Edwin Church.
Using a camera instead of a paintbrush, Blackwood has created a contemporary version of the vision of the Hudson River School, founded when Thomas Cole took a steamship up the Hudson in the autumn of 1825. His paintings and those of his students and followers, depict the American landscape in its purity, as a pantheistic manifestation of the immanence of the divine in nature.
The spirit of Blackwood's photographs is closely related to this sense of awe at the workings of natural forces, but she has chosen to view the river from it's edge as opposed to from a distance. In her latest series, she studies the crashing drama of the ice floes on the river from close range, as they collide and fragment- torn apart by tide and current. in many of her shots, the ice is actually moving rapidly, slamming against the shore or against other blocks of ice. She prizes this sense of danger and energy and indeed emphasizes its drama..
Her gaze, made permanent in the photographed image, is intense and selective and never random. In many of her shots the splintering ice is organized into formal patterns that contrast the jagged edges and triangular breaks. She does crop the image for formal reasons, but otherwise there is no alteration or deformation of what the camera records.
Given the present environmental context, it is difficult not to associate these cracking and apolcalyptically splintering forms , with the global catastrophe of the melting of the polar ice caps, but Blackwood is not a photojournalist. These are poetic and metaphoric images. In many respects, Blackwood's photographs represent a return to the tradition of pictorial photography which sought to deliver in photographs what painting had previously pictured. Her camera is not a means of documentation, but a means of expression.