Lisa McCarty stands with her arms crossed, nervously reading the room before stepping up to the podium. A small-framed artist with her head partially bowed, McCarty appears partly anxious and partly reverent of the guests who have gathered to hear her speak. Starting softly, her words begin to gain edge as she finds comfort in her pace, humbly detailing her own narrative and opening her love of her craft to the expectant room.
The photographer and curator visited Amherst on Thursday, Sept. 13 to share her work, “Transcendental Concord.” Listening to McCarty, it was apparent that she sees the world through a lens of appreciation and awe. Appropriately, she has labeled herself a “21st century transcendentalist,” citing a few of the original 19th century transcendentalist authors, including Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Louisa May Alcott, as her greatest influences.
McCarty says she first encountered these authors in an undergraduate class she took on American literature and was completely enthralled with their doctrine of awareness and reverence for nature. This idyllic literature resonated deeply within McCarty and now, 13 years after the completion of this course, she has just finished producing a body of work which pays homage to these inspirations. Fusing her identities as a photographer and a transcendentalist, McCarty made a documentarian pilgrimage to Concord, Massachusetts to photograph the romantic landscape that the transcendentalists first immortalized in their writings.
As a Southern photographer, McCarty’s deep love of transcendentalism is a complicated attraction, which results in a number of idiosyncrasies. The initial expansion upon original transcendentalist expression explains McCarty’s appreciation for the visual image. Breaking off the page and away from the text, the photographer attempts to reify the concepts her forebearers wrote about through her camera’s lens. Her shift away from 19th century methods of documentation is what firmly informs her self-evaluation as a 21st century transcendentalist. However, one cannot help but ask: what does it mean to bring the “machine into the garden”? Does this unnatural mechanism shift the scenery it attempts to document and skew the artist’s intentions of honoring tradition?
Perhaps the most interesting complexity posed by McCarty’s translation of transcendentalism is her southern background. Based in Durham, North Carolina the photographer claims her Southern roots with pride.
However, the original 19th century movement was largely based in the knowledge of locality, specifically regarding its region of origin, New England. The northern and southern regions of the eastern seaboard vary greatly in terms of both scenery and society, and this was certainly the case two centuries ago. In order to create intelligent work, McCarty must not only ask herself what it means to be in conversation with a 19th century literature movement as a 21st century visual artist, but additionally what it means to be a southern creator honoring a northern narrative.
While it is without doubt that McCarty is drawn to the physical landscape the authors inhabited, her speech and body of work suggest that what she is truly documenting is the emotional and romantic perspective of transcendentalism. McCarty’s body of work is intended to be a product of her literary pilgrimage, but without her additional context, we are not truly able to pin the images to any geographic location. Despite pursuing the “brave sincerity” she finds in the texts of Thoreau and Emerson, McCarty unintentionally slights her personal perspective’s sincerity by attempting to see the world solely through her forebearers’ eyes.
However, “Transcendental Concord” is uncontestably an important step in McCarty’s process of artistic self-determination. It is unfair to call her work passive, as there is still room for her to expound upon her own voice in her images. Until her gaze turns homeward, though, there is still something authentic to be longed for in McCarty’s understanding of transcendentalism — something that may be on the very near horizon in her work.
To view McCarty’s work, you can purchase a copy of her book “Transcendental Concord.” In the true sprit of transcendentalists, the book encourages readers to slow down and enjoy the beauty at their fingertips. Alternatively, you can view some of her work at the Eli Marsh Gallery in Fayerweather Hall until Oct. 12.