LISA MCCARTY: TRANSCENDENTAL CONCORD

I heard a man on the subway the other day say the world was just falling apart. From a certain perspective it’s not outside the realm of possibility. Where I live, crime and traffic skew an otherwise lovely day. Rents are rising, salaries decreasing, and national politics are utterly and frighteningly bizarre. It’s either unusually hot or unusually cold, and whether climate change or blatant discrimination or impediments to a calm daily life, it’s not a stretch to realize most of these problems are at the hands of we fallible humans.

  • Sunset, Walden Woods

  • Key to Henry David Thoreau’s Desk, from the collection of the Concord Museum

  • Philosophia, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Study, From the Collection of The Ralph Waldo Emerson Memorial Association at the Concord Museum

Inspiration is linked in some ways with what we need to get from it. If inspiration is a propulsion, it is also an exchange. The exhale of thought reaches the mind and also the heart of the inspired, resulting in a carrying forward of ideas or action reimagined. McCarty’s work achieves this, visual renderings of a time and place, immediate and current, yet suggesting the past. She achieves this in part through her play with long exposures and camera movement, enticing emotional content through abstraction of these literal spaces.

  • Louisa May Alcott’s Desk, Orchard House

  • Introduction to Nature by Ralph Waldo Emerson

With that in mind, she set four ground rules for the project:

  1. Photograph simply by traveling on foot and with a film camera
  2. Photograph deliberately, seeking out specific places in Concord that are referenced in Transcendentalist writings
  3. Photograph with reverence to the natural world by observing variations in the environment large and small in every season
  4. Photograph experimentally by incorporating long exposures, camera movement (from photographing while walking), and embrace all mediations of light.

McCarty did not predetermine the imagery and worked to be present to what and how she’d see the Transcendentalist world with the parameters she set for herself. While deliberate in which specific arc of history and geography she wished to focus, she followed intuition for what happened past that, calling them “opportunities for discovery.”

She continues, “Sometimes that meant just spending a whole afternoon in a meadow and perhaps taking only one photograph or no photographs at all. At other times that meant shooting directly into the sun, or conversely, photographing the ground beneath my feet just because of an impulse. Or, it might mean making a long exposure indoors without a flash or tripod, even though my light meter said I don’t have enough light, just to see what would register on film. And I’ve found that by leaving myself open to uncertain results, in return I receive unexpected images that often embody my experience and the concept more fully than anything I could have planned.”

The emotional, and perhaps even primal, segues between self and place are evident if we’re paying attention. On a tangible level we feel differently in various landscapes, memories colliding with visceral physical reactions. Geographer Yi-Fu Tuan considered this beautifully in his seminal book, Space and Place, noting, “An Object of place achieves concrete reality when our experience of it is total, that is through all the senses as well as with the active and reflective mind.” And in a way, this summarizes McCarty’s project in its entirety.

Her process of immersion fed inspiration and as she writes, “…the process deepened my understanding of their written work. Even though the landscape of Concord is much different today than it was in the mid-nineteenth century, it is still possible to experience many of the natural phenomenon that Thoreau describes in Walden.”

Allowing the land to cue discovery, McCarty made a point to visit Concord in every season, noting light and weather shifts and registering those and their metaphors with her imagery. She selected specific sites to photograph as a starting point and then opened up to intuition partnering in the decision-making between photographer and camera. Leaving herself open to unexpected images allowed experience to become part of the concept itself.

  • Walden Woods, Autumn

  • Page from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s American Notebook

  • Henry David Thoreau’s Writing Desk, from the collection of the Concord Museum

  • Window into the Concord School of Philosophy