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CIRCLES by Ralph Waldo Emerson + Lisa McCarty

Instant film commanders time and mystifies the mechanic of the medium. In the few seconds it takes to reveal itself, the image dismisses the entire process and fixes the past but only slightly. The resulting print is all at once tethered corporeally, a product of non-permanence, and a metaphor for the nature of existence—tangible recall, a means to recollect a beginning and end simultaneously. But before too much discussion is given to the photographs that comprise CIRCLES by Ralph Waldo Emerson + Lisa McCarty, discussion should be given to the included text by Emerson that uses circles as a metaphor for life.

“There are no fixtures in nature. The universe is fluid and volatile. Permanence is but a word of degrees,” writes Emerson in his essay of the same name as McCarty’s photo book. Emerson believed that life was a process of continuous change rather than stability. “There is always another dawn risen on mid-noon, and under every deep a lower deep opens.” There are always circles to be seen.

Photographs are product of seeing—another circle with an ephemeral horizon. McCarty’s instant film images like Emerson’s Romantic perspective, are a collective approximation uncertain of our individual existence whose perspective changes and creates a duality of what was and what is—a doubling back on reason. The hardback book is small, about the size of a Book of Common Prayer and like the Book of Common Prayer, reads like intercessory petitions for truth through reason—something Emerson as a Transcendentalist, through solitude with one’s own thought—sought as a relation with the universe. Transcendentalism can at times feel to promote depravity of the human existence, and that true existence came from a higher and not fully understandable Nature but to retreat from contemporary society was to truly live. “[T]he way of life is wonderful; it is by abandonment,” wrote Emerson in Circles. Life is not permanent but the individual, nature, and society he believed, all connect to God. Photographs however, can ground even the most odious depravity by promoting connections with recognizable subject matter. The tree leaf and quasars are determined by the same natural laws and can both be framed by the camera.

Like Transcendentalism, McCarty’s images point to something else—sometimes allusively, and sometimes in direct step with the Emerson’s text, but always challenging permanence and highlighting our unknowing. If our ignorance of life renews itself, then the photographs suggest that truth can be found by exploring softly focused orb shaped everyday objects, tree lines, and blurs of light. Transcendentalism begs a language with which to contemplate our existence. Photography seems adequate. To look is to reason. If “the eye is the first circle; the horizon which it forms is the second; and throughout nature this primary figure is repeated without end,” then reason is informed by dialogue. If circles are part of the conversation so is photography. Virtue is not final, Emerson believed. To transcend is mystery by reiteration but virtuous in repeated practice. CIRCLES by Ralph Waldo Emerson + Lisa McCarty welcomes the new dawn.