The Documentary Filmmaker Who Archived the Arts
Michael Blackwood founded Blackwood Productions Inc. with a vision to create compelling documentaries about leading figures in contemporary culture spanning art, music, dance, history, science, and architecture. Blackwood rarely used narration and never allowed the filmmaking to compete with his subjects. The recipient of a host of awards, in 2010 Blackwood became a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
This November, the Norton presents three films directed and produced by Michael Blackwood. Each 2pm screening is followed by a virtual post-screening Q&A. See films and dates below.
In anticipation of the series, we spoke with Benjamin Blackwood, President, Michael Blackwood Productions, Inc.
Interview By Glenn Tomlinson, William Randolph Hearst Curator of Education, Norton Museum of Art
Glenn Tomlinson: How did your father, Michael Blackwood, get started as a filmmaker?
Benjamin Blackwood: Michael previously worked in the art department of an advertising firm, but was always interested in newsreels. His first connection to film predates his life in America — as a boy in Germany Michael’s parents ran a very specialized textile business which catered to the film and theater industry mainly in Berlin. Michael first learned English by watching British and American cinema during the immediate post-war years before emigrating with his family to New York. In 1954, he found employment with NBC Television as an apprentice editor under Isaac Kleinerman who was a strong influence. At NBC’s Special Film Unit, Michael helped create a series titled “Project Twenty”, comprised of hour-long documentaries on historical subjects, such as the Jazz Age, the Russian Revolution (“Nightmare in Red”), and World War One (“The Great War”). He also helped edit a condensed version of the documentary series covering the US Navy during World War Two titled “Victory at Sea”. Each program was made strictly from existing footage and photographs, which gave Michael valuable experience in research and editing. Michael’s capstone project during this period was his own short that he shot and edited independently, Broadway Express (1959). The silent (with sparse musical accompaniment), black and white film captures the New York City subway and its riders, mainly at night and during the morning and evening commute. Like his future films to come, Broadway Express is unadulterated, captures powerful anecdotal moments, and serves as a cinema verite portrait. In 1959, Michael moved back to his native Germany where he worked as an independent director and producer for West German television. In 1965, he returned to New York and the next year founded Blackwood Productions, Inc., the predecessor company to Michael Blackwood Productions, Inc. which was established in 1982.
GT: Not every filmmaker wants to make documentaries about artists and intellectuals; what motivated your father to choose his subjects?
BB: Michael started out in the 50’s and continued until 1966, making films on non-artistic subjects, such as politicians and business leaders, and other historic, non-fiction subjects. After founding his own production company in New York, he was able to pursue projects that interested him and so he chose to document artistic and cultural developments happening around him. His interest in art also blossomed at a time when New York City was becoming the capital of a growing art world that was moving away from abstract expressionism and earlier forms of modernism. The aim was to capture the most current trends in art, and to select established contemporary artists with some commonalities or who could be contrasted with their peers or predecessors. Reading articles and analyzing quotes from artists and reviews of exhibitions often served as Michael’s means of discovering interesting work and artists who were at meaningful points in their career. Oftentimes, inspiration for films came from curated group exhibitions, as well as consulting with curators who contributed to the planning of the films. In addition to artists, many of the films feature historians, critics and others who were personally or professionally knowledgeable about the subject matter. To Michael, each film was part of a larger series. His focus was not always on artists or the art world, but also modern and postmodern choreography, musical composition and architecture. He was also aware of the unique power of film to educate, and it’s unprecedented use as such in the context of the arts during the first half of the 20th century. So Michael’s objective was to continually film with artists, individually or as part of a series of interviews/studio visits with different artists that have something in common. The films were intentionally made in an austere fashion and were meant to be didactic. They weren’t intended for the general public, but rather a more informed audience. They were meant to complement, and not compete with written texts covering these subjects.
GT: What was it like growing up with your father? Did you grow up loving film, or keeping your distance?
BB: It was largely a mystery to me what my father did exactly for most of my early life. I was not introduced to his work as a child or teenager, only by chance or on occasion here and there. He traveled regularly to film and kept a fairly active pace, typically completing multiple films per year, and he was largely focused on current and new projects, and significantly less on completed ones. The audience for the films came exclusively from university and college libraries which ordered hard copies, with limited televised runs in select European countries. Since the films were not distributed commercially or shown theatrically too often, I wasn’t familiar with them at the time they were made. I was aware of some of the artists he worked with, and knew some of them personally. I only went on a single film shoot which was as a college student, but began helping with the archive and generally running Michael Blackwood Productions, initially part-time and concurrently with another career I had as a civil servant. Not having a background or historically any strong interest in film, I grew to love documentary film and really appreciate the collection in my adult life.
GT: As President of Michael Blackwood Productions, Inc., what are your most important goals?
BB: First and foremost is to preserve the film material we have by digitizing and archiving cut negatives, soundtrack, video tape and eventually additional outtake material. We have been slowly re-mastering many of the films that were shot on 16mm film as well as various video tape formats. The other top goal is to continue to publish the films digitally and make them more widely available than in the past, and have them shown to the public in contexts such as this so that they can influence artists and those who appreciate and study art.
GT: How do you view your father’s legacy, and what did he most want to share with his audiences?
BB: I think his legacy will be shaped by the scale and scope, and significance, of his contribution to the documentation of the fields of art and architecture in particular, as well as documentary filmmaking as a whole. Specifically, his unique approach of featuring the subject in a focused and first-hand manner, without a script or even lighting, and by observing rather than orchestrating a production. He wanted to really provide the audience with direct access to these important subjects — something that isn’t experienced easily in any other medium or context. Michael was relatively specialized compared to many of his fellow documentary filmmakers, despite covering a wide range of subjects (both current and historic), and arguably unmatched in terms of overall prolificacy and focus. His objective was to amass a rich documentation that would democratize the arts and educate the viewer, standing up alongside written text for posterity.
We thank Benjamin Blackwood for sharing these thoughts, and we hope that you will join us for these films offering insights into the art of Robert Rauschenberg, Claes Oldenburg, Christo and Jeanne-Claude.
November 9: Robert Rauschenberg: Retrospective, 1979, 45 min.
Q&A led by Cheryl Brutvan, Director of Curatorial Affairs / Glenn W. and Cornelia T. Bailey Curator of Contemporary Art
November 16: Claes Oldenburg: The Formative Years, 1975, 54 min.
Q&A led by J. Rachel Gustafson, Assistant Curator
November 23: Christo and Jeanne-Claude, 1995, 58 min.
Q&A led by Kate Faulkner, Associate Curator of Education for Public Programs
To find out more or register for this series please visit www.norton.org
Series Tickets: $15 Member / $30 Non Member