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A Brief Interview with Lisa McCarty

SM: Who are you?
LM: Lisa McCarty; lover of light; maker of images; wayfarer; transcendentalist.

SM: What are you?
LM: An experimenter, an endless seeker.


SM: When are you?
LM: Past and present. 

SM: Where are you?
LM: In Concord.

SM: Why are you?
LM: I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion. —Henry David Thoreau

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

SM: Prior to spending time with your work I did not consider how much transcendentalism parallels the photographic process, which is as I understand it, two fold. Creatively one should of course bring in to being something new, like in the case of your project Transcendental Concord, a body of photographs. Secondly though the photographic process asks that one is analytical in that a photographer engage in a dialogue with if not herself, then the photograph itself. This of course isn’t unique to photography and seems similar to how the transcendentalist like Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry David Thoreau functioned in their writing processes, an exchange of inward thought through conversations with one another and outward responses manifest in their writings. I see the photographs in Transcendental Concord as evidence of such an exchange and succinctly so as some in the series were taken inside while others are taken outside, much like the inward thought then outward response process. But I am wondering, how do you understand the photographic process and does it parallel transcendentalism? 


LM: Transcendentalism is a correspondence between Nature, neighbors, and one’s own mind. In this way, Transcendentalism can be a philosophy of living and a philosophy of photography. Reading the Alcott’s, Emerson, Hawthorne, and Thoreau has taught me how to be mindful and how to marvel in my daily life and thus, in my artistic practice. Transcendentalism and photography, for me at least, is not simply an approach to describing the world, but an approach to living and being present in it.


Transcendentalism also parallels the photographic process as both rely on experimentation. Emerson and Thoreau both referred to life as an “experiment.” Thoreau in fact uses the word “experiment” seventeen times in Walden. And what is photography if not an experiment? The medium was invented through experimentation, and I believe there is potential to discover something new about the world with every image I make.


My project Transcendental Concord is an attempt to live this philosophy and honor the originators of it. In the course of a year and in every season, I photographed simply, wandering on foot and with a film camera; I photographed deliberately, seeking out specific places in Concord that are referenced in Transcendentalist writings; I photographed with reverence to the natural world, observing variations large and small in the environment; And I photographed experimentally, incorporating long exposures, camera movement (from photographing while walking), and embracing mediations of light that I often could not explain. These images provide a glimpse into a world that is both past and present, a conduit to another way of seeing and finding meaning that is perhaps more relevant today than ever. There is still beauty, wonder, and inspiration to be found on a walk to Walden Pond and in every leaf encountered along the way.