Photo Books

Lisa McCarty’s New Book Explores the History of the Transcendentalists

May 18, 2018

By Conor Risch

When Lisa McCarty was making her first images as a photography student, she was also studying Ralph Waldo Emerson’s book Nature and Henry David Thoreau’s Walden; or, Life in the Woods. “I remember taking walks with my first film camera and I would have those books in my bag, and I remember consciously moving back and forth between” the books and her camera, McCarty says. Their writings, Emerson’s in particular, “first taught me how to see and be attentive to the world, which is exactly what I was trying to do with my camera at the same time,” she says. This “coincidence in my artistic life…really resonated and has influenced me ever since.”

As McCarty grew as an artist, she continued studying the work of Emerson, Thoreau and the other writers and intellectuals known as the Transcendentalists, who created a philosophical movement in the 1830s and ’40s based on an appreciation for the natural world and for the inherent goodness of humans. McCarty says she’ll often visit places “out of curiosity or because of my reverence for a particular artist or a particular writer.” When she finds a site she feels compelled to visit repeatedly, that often leads to new photography projects. “That’s exactly what happened with Concord,” Massachusetts, she says. Several Transcendentalists lived in or near Concord, which is the setting for McCarty’s new book, Transcendental Concord, out this month from Radius Books. She began going there 15 years ago, after she graduated from college, and visited several times before deciding to start a project. “The place became important as a point of inspiration and a place I really felt something in,” she recalls. She thought that “not only could the Transcendentalists be an influence, I felt capable of maybe making something in their spirit.”

Rather than creating a body of work about the Transcendentalists, McCarty says, she wanted instead “to try as much as I could to be a transcendentalist photographer now.” McCarty spent time during different seasons in Concord, walking in many of the same places that Emerson, Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Amos Bronson Alcott and Louisa May Alcott did, making analogue photographs of the natural landscape. Some of the areas, such as Walden Pond or nearby Walden Woods, have changed more than others, but McCarty says she thought about things such as the quality of light, which may have been the same as it was in the 1830s. Her goal wasn’t to illustrate passages of text, but “there were of course certain concepts and certain passages I had in mind,” she says, “and I was very aware of the visual symbolism in Emerson and Thoreau—Emerson in particular uses the metaphor of the eye a lot.”

© Lisa McCarty from the book Transcendental Concord, published by Radius Books

”Louisa May Alcott’s Desk, Orchard House.” To create her book, McCarty photographed sites important to the Transcendentalists, including the places where they lived, some of which are preserved as museums. © Lisa McCarty from the book Transcendental Concord, published by Radius Books

She visited museums that house important artifacts, and made photographs of painted portraits, books and other ephemera. She also photographed the interiors of important places such as Emerson’s study, the Concord Free Library and Orchard House, the home of Amos Bronson Alcott and his family, including daughter Louisa May. McCarty’s attention to natural light, and her use of motion blur and multiple exposures lend a dreamlike quality to the images, which seem not only to be in the spirit of the writers, but to reveal something of their presence.

As she began working on the book and was thinking about the text she wanted to include, McCarty added another element at the suggestion of Radius publisher David Chickey: She photographed her own dog-eared and underlined copies of books by Transcendentalist writers Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, and Amos Bronson and Louisa May Alcott. “Let’s make this a book about books,” McCarty recalls Chickey saying. The images of McCarty’s paperbacks serve as transitions between sections of the book, which is sequenced according to the cycle of seasons. Thoreau used the same organizing principle in his book Walden.

McCarty says she was hesitant to include her books at first, because she didn’t want to focus on her experience. “I wanted this to be an opening or a gateway for other people to be able to find this work, because it affected me and my life and my outlook so much, I want to facilitate that for others.” But the images of the texts do just that, giving readers glimpses of the writing that may encourage them to delve further. She also includes a reading list and mentions the museums and other locations in and around Concord that are open to the public.

As she spends more time with the Transcendentalists, she says, their work feels “more relevant and more urgent than ever before.” The way they “invite readers to look more closely at the world” around them, and encourage people “to slow down and consider how you interact with nature or the built environment or your community, your place in it.”

Many of the books McCarty references are available at your local library, and, she says, “Hopefully you’ll be able to find this book and [those of] the Transcendentalists in some libraries together, which is so thrilling for me.”

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