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Carolyn Marks Blackwood: Film Producer and Art Photographer

In addition to producing movies like "Thirteen Lives," Carolyn Marks Blackwood has found success as a late-blooming art photographer.

Carolyn Marks Blackwood is sitting in the home she shares with her husband Greg Quinn in Rhinebeck, New York, talking about all the happenings in her super-accomplished and busy life. The most immediate thing is the release of Thirteen Lives, which she co-produced with her Magnolia Mae partner Gabrielle (Gaby) Tana.

Thirteen Lives is the dramatic retelling of the 12 Thai soccer players and one coach who were rescued from a Tham Luan cave in the summer of 2018. The movie,  directed by Ron Howard and starring Colin Farrell and Viggo Mortensen star as the divers who rescued the boys and coach, is drawing strongly positive reviews. (Vanity Fair called it “breathlessly tense,” for example.)

I feel young, like I am just starting out.

In addition, Ron Howard has spoken of the great courage Farrell and Mortensen displayed in training the divers. “They told me, `Look, we need to do the actual diving ourselves,’ he said. “That specific technique of tight places and dealing with danger is part of our characters.”

“It seems to be a hit,” Carolyn says. “I am getting lots of emails and texts from people saying how much they loved the movie and took the ride, even though they knew the ending.” She and Gaby have two other films in imminent release.

One is Firebrand, starring Jude Law as Henry the Eighth in his last days (it’s being edited now) and another is Cottontail, which was filmed in Japan and is being shown at festivals. She is writing a number more. At 70, she feels strongly about not letting age constrain her.

“I try not to limit what I can do,” she says. “I don’t want the age barriers that are fixed in peoples’ minds, like, `Oh, I’m this age; that means I can’t do this or that?’ Because I am roaming around in my thought process and doing new things all the time, I feel young, like I am just starting out. Like I have lots of work ahead of me!”

Read More: Author Ann Hood on Staying Happy Even Through Tragedy

The Late-Blooming Art Photographer

Perhaps more than everything else (and that “everything else” is big)—and most aptly for Next Tribe—Carolyn is an art photographer, one who came to great renown when she was 54 years old. Her stunning photographs of the Hudson River Valley, where she lives, have been featured in numerous galleries and the subject of many intensely admiring write-ups, for the last 14 years.

I seem to see things differently than other people.

Her next show will be at Los Angeles’s Von Lintel Gallery in November. As the late Barbara Rose, the prominent art critic who “discovered” and championed her, wrote: “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.”

Another art critic, Carol Diehl, wrote: “Carolyn Marks Blackwood is a modern day artist for whom the Hudson River is also an unfailing muse. Consumed by her daily photographic study of the water over which her studio is perched—as well as the sky that hovers above it—Blackwood’s images are not the romantic vistas of her predecessors, but almost their opposite: focused close-ups that capture the river’s power through the drama of detail. Instead of coalescing several scenes into one, her photographs are a celebration of the variation a single geographic location can elicit through the constantly changing conditions of wind, light, day, night, temperature and tide.”

And, as her friend, writer Joan Juliet Buck, put it, “She sees nature like no one else, and has a particular affinity for winter, snow, and ice.” Carolyn herself has this to say about her work: “I love winter. I love abstraction in nature. I seem to see things differently than other people.”

The Duchess and Philomena

I have known Carolyn for several decades, through mutual friends, dating back to when my husband and I had a house in the Berkshires, in the general swath of counties near where she lives. I was delighted when she attended a reading for one of my husband’s history books way back when. I knew she was a photographer and that she had co-produced the stunningly revelatory Oscar-nominated movie Philomena, set in Ireland in 1952 and starring Judi Dench as a woman looking for the son that had been taken from her by nuns after she had had him “out of wedlock.”

Something that feels like a huge loss at the moment may actually turn into an opportunity.

That story had one-upped even Joni Mitchell’s The Magdalene Laundries in revealing the cruelty of certain fierce nuns of a recently bygone era. (A moment’s pause for a counterpointed toast of gratitude to today’s Ireland, where, as opposed to our own country, abortion is fully legal.) And I knew that she had also produced the elegant movie The Duchess, which won an Academy Award for Best Costume Design. Starring Keira Knightly and Ralph Fiennes and based on Amanda Foreman’s biography of the same name, it is about the Duchess Georgiana Cavendish, who, at 17 years old, became the reigning celebrity of England in the late 18th century. That movie took ten years to make, from book option to 2008 release—a length of time that shows the diligence, resilience, and positivity of Carolyn, who was a co-executive producer with Foreman.

“We went through four directors [among them Paul Greengrass, who left the project to do the second in the “Bourne” series, and Susanne Bier, who left to do Things We Left in the Fire], additional writers, and one other lead actress, who wanted us to wait for six months, which we did not want to do,” Carolyn says. “Which goes to show what Gaby and I have come to understand about the film business, and life—something that feels like a huge loss at the moment may actually turn into an opportunity.”

Carolyn says she and Gaby have five years worth of work in the pipeline. “I’m lucky,” she says. “It’s a good place to be,” she says.

A Tender, Artistic Soul

Carolyn has a fascinating story of lifelong accomplishment.

She was born in Anchorage, Alaska. Her father had attended West Point and was stationed there when she was born. The family then moved to Great Neck, New York, a wealthy Long Island suburb. Her father was a Wall Streeter and her mother worked occasionally as an interior designer. “My grandmother was a painter and collected art,” she tells me. “She exposed me to lots of art and museums.”

What keeps me young is I’m a perpetual student.

In public school, the “tender artistic soul,” as she described who she was then, was called an “underachiever” and had what would later be termed learning disabilities. But culture became her salvation and her road map.

“My father had a darkroom and I would watch the magic he would perform—he was a beautiful photographer,” she shares. “I got a camera at age seven and took it to camp and have been passionate about taking photographs since then.

“When I look at photos of myself when I was younger, I see that I was very pretty,” she says with striking honesty. “But I didn’t know it, so I didn’t count on my looks. I counted on my inner life. I did photographs (for me). I wrote ( mostly for me). And I did things without expecting anything back. Because I was so alone when I was growing up (I had sisters but…),  I learned to amuse myself and I was never bored.  I was always learning and studying and not afraid to fail and go places where I was not accomplished at all. Trying new things I was not good at; falling down and failing and learning: yeah, I am good at that. I think what keeps me young is I’m a perpetual student. I have passion and excitement for what I do like a kid does!”

At Livingston College, then the women’s wing of Rutgers University in New Jersey, Carolyn started singing jazz. She discovered she had perfect pitch. Distinguished jazz pianist Kenny Baron was her piano teacher “and music was winning me over.” She was in the music department’s practice room one day and in walked Bob Cranshaw, one of the top bass players in the world. He heard her singing jazz songs, influenced by Ella Fitzgerald, and asked her if she’d like to sing at Hoppers, a large popular restaurant in Greenwich Village. From there she spent a number of years as a jazz singer and she sang for the Joe Newman and George Coleman Bands.

After that came her years of screenwriting and producing. Happiness came in this stretch of time—she gave birth to her son Gabriel in 1982. But sorrow came as well: The man that she was very much in love with—cinematographer and filmmaker Christian Blackwood, whose impressive output includes 80 works, mostly documentaries—died when she was 40, after they had been together for five years.

Poignantly, she had married him very shortly before his death—in July 1992—from lung cancer. That same year, she met producer Gaby Tana—the daughter of Dan Tana, owner of the eponymous Los Angeles restaurant that was a movie and music industry “in” spot in the 1970s—through a mutual friend. Carolyn had never stopped working and Gaby was interested in producing a screenplay she wrote. (She and Gaby became official producing partners in 1997.) The work quenched part of the sorrow after Christian’s death but not entirely: Following a year of dating others, she stopped and spent time with a therapist, contemplating what to do next.

Love and Luck

What she ended up doing is what many other women were also doing 25 years ago: She composed and placed an ad for a partner for herself in New York magazine. She spent two weeks on it, honing it to perfection and received 600 replies; she replied to five. One of the five respondents was Greg Quinn, a horticulturist, currant farmer, and the writer of articles and books.

I work very hard and have lots of luck.

“I didn’t want a slick guy; I wanted an earthy guy,” she says. Which Greg was. “He was so different from anyone I ever met.” She was stunned by so many admirable qualities—among other things, he had personally had a hand, along with members of New York government, in overturning the 100-year-old state law that forbade the growing of the delicious fruit, black currants. Thus began a lovely love story. Carolyn and Greg were engaged for 20 years and they married five years ago.

Art critic Barbara Rose “discovered” Carolyn’s photography at a showing in the Rhinebeck Public Library. Rose, who lived in Rhinebeck, walked into the library one day 16 years ago, saw Carolyn’s images and was wildly impressed. She asked Carolyn to be in a New York gallery show she was curating.

“I use the analogy of playing softball in a field with friends and a Yankee scout asks you if you want to play for the Yankees,” Carolyn says, although she was already a highly accomplished producer.

Then came the onslaught of gallery shows—in Europe and the U.S. The photography is “just something I mostly do for myself and it just bleeds over to the public by way of social media and at my gallery shows.” She says she would love to be back in a New York gallery, but is happy with the galleries that already represent her (Von Lintel in L.A., Adamson in D.C.). “I am not good at pushing that rock up the hill.”

“I work very hard and have lots of luck,” she says. “There have been hard times (losing my husband at age 40) but I have been lucky in love. I have been with Greg for 25 years.  I have an incredibly wonderful grown son, Gabriel, and his sweetheart is fantastic. I have my health so far, and for that I am very grateful. I try to eat well and work out and take walks and be in nature. I have lovely friends who I have not seen very much, due to COVID. My mom is still alive and we share the same birthday—she is turning 92 in a couple of weeks. I also have a constant companion named Chica—a rescued Chihuahua who is very dear to me.

I am a very lucky duck.”

Some people make their “luck.” At any age. One of them is Carolyn.

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By Sheila Weller


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