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“Who looks upon a river in a meditative hour, and is not reminded of the flux of all things?”
~Ralph Waldo Emerson
by Suzanne Révy
I welcome the soft whiteness of winter in January after the opulence and indulgence of the holidays. Nature’s palette turns neutral, and my inclination is to contemplate a new year, to wipe the slate clean, and to appreciate the slow creep of longer and lighter days. I’ve come across four books that suit this meditative mood, mirroring the colors of winter and my own penchant to restart the year as simply as possible: Lisa McCarty’s Transcendental Concord, Dana Mueller’s May Days, Tema Stauffer’s Upstate, and Meg Griffiths and Eliot Dudik’s Nothing that Falls Away.
A fervent fan of Transcendentalist authors such as Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Bronson and Louisa May Alcott, Lisa McCarty decided to explore the nuances of their ideals by photographing in their homes and the surrounding landscapes of Concord, Massachusetts. She gave herself four rules: one, to photograph simply by traveling on foot with a film camera; two, to photograph deliberately, seeking specific sites in Concord that are referred to in Transcendental writing; three, to photograph with reverence for the natural world and its seasonal variations; and last, to photograph experimentally by playing with longer or double exposures and embracing all meditations on light. The resulting work and book are an ephemeral journey through light and time.
The book opens with an image of letters and words made in the Transcendental corner of the Concord Free Library followed by an image of McCarty’s dog-eared and annotated copy of “Nature” by Emerson. We then move through a series of pictures made in the homes and settings where the conversations on humanity and nature among these writers took place. McCarty’s pictures offer a visual connection to those conversations. One can’t help wondering about what those walls heard or who those artifacts witnessed. By using long exposures as she walked through the homes and landscapes of these writers, McCarty has made images that feel like memory, infused with a reverence for the texture of snow or light bouncing off water or through a house. She grounds her sequence of diaphanous images with clearly photographed pages of books by the Transcendental writers that she used as her guide to explore the area. A preface by Rebecca Norris-Webb and an essay by Kirsten Rian accompany the portfolio, resulting in a book that is at once a fleeting glance at Transcendentalism and a rich understanding of its ideals. Henry David Thoreau and company would be impressed.
Dana Mueller, on the other hand, presents a purely visual journey of her two one-month visits to Cuba in the spring of 2014 and again in 2015 in her book May Days. Her images of this island nation are blessedly free of vintage 1950’s era vehicles and the oversaturated color of so many pictures made in Cuba. She explores the light gray tones of the gravel and minerals used in buildings, monuments and open plazas under the baking Caribbean sun.
There are sublime portraits of the people she encountered and a stirring images of domestic pets alongside pictures of the character and architecture of the place. A dog’s plaintive expression is revealed by opening the first of several gatefolds throughout the book. As the reader flips through the pages, the gatefolds serve to create visual connections and disconnections. In one spread, a blue wall faces a portrait of a woman wearing a light blue skirt; as I open the gatefold, a bright empty hallway adorned with a potted plant on shattered limestone hints at a demolished structure. Her juxtapositions of texture, material and light are further enhanced with the use of photographic references: the cover and several images in the book are presented as negatives or printed so lightly that they appear to bleed through the paper. This is a light yet mysterious journey through Cuba; Mueller has revealed little of the politics or economics of the place, yet she allows the viewer to wander, exchange looks, and acknowledge a spirited, elegant and contradictory culture through a bright, clean vision.
Tema Stauffer’s book Upstate springs from a more documentary tradition than either McCarty or Mueller’s books, but shares a visual and emotional kinship. Her muted palette of blues and grays from pictures made in and around Hudson, New York is a piercing look at the imprint of American history on the landscape of the Hudson Valley. There is a forward by the novelist Xhenet Aliu and essay by Alison Nordström, which begins with the opening quote from Emerson.
The sequence starts in winter by the river’s edge with two images, one of an industrial site and the other of the Fugary Shacks, small hand built structures that were used by local fishermen. We continue with the vernacular structures on Allen Street and a 1970’s era car parked in front of the “Hairy Situations Unisex Salon” in Hudson, which is then punctuated with the first of three portraits of local men.
Stauffer’s rhythmic sequence of urban and rural landscapes through seasonal changes brings the past into view. With buildings in decay, Hudson is a reliquary, and yet, Stauffer offers hints of the present. The three portraits, a middle aged African American, a shirtless blue-eyed young man, and a swarthy, bearded hipster meet our glances as we wander through pictures that reveal the traces of economic booms and busts like ghosts in the warm light and peeling paint of Stauffer’s interiors. A winter path through a meadow and an orchard bonfire, both made in nearby Livingston, NY evoke an unknown future in this transcendent study of a quintessentially American place.
Nothing that Falls Away by Eliot Dudik and Meg Griffiths is a beautifully crafted book. Its carefully sewn signatures, bound to a cover clad in a soft blue cloth, is a joy to hold. This collaboration between two good friends is an homage to both the open road and the personal treks we each follow in life. Like the previous books, it is a visually muted journey, but this one travels the vast and lonely landscape along U.S. Route 50 which intersects the western state of Nevada. The Nevada section of this transcontinental route was dubbed “The Loneliest Road” by Life Magazine in 1986. It traverses deserts and mountains with the inherent changes in weather and light in the alternating geography of the four hundred mile route.
The book opens with images that reveal remote towns, and as in Tema Stauffer’s book, those images include a sense of past lives and the economic ebb and flow of remote locations. There is a ghostly presence in an image of pick-up truck with a snow plow or another of the Main Street of a town with several boarded up buildings beside an open casino. The central sequence is comprised of landscapes of sagebrush, sand, horizons and lonely telephone poles and trees. The journey ends with several images of white snowy roads, raising the question, “what’s next?” An introspective essay describing the emotional tenor of the journey by each photographer concludes this lovely book.
The return of the sun among the snowy days of January invite a calm awe and wonder about the coming year. The journeys in each of these books mirrors that quiet tone, palette and timbre. These meditative visual treks have grounded my senses, and I am better prepared to face a new year of unknowns.
by Lisa McCarty
Preface by Rebecca Norris Webb
Essay by Kirsten Rian
Published by Radius Books
by Dana Mueller
Published by Fraction Editions
by Tema Stauffer
Forward by Xhenet Aliu
Essay by Alison Nordström
Published by Daylight Books
Nothing That Falls Away
by Meg Griffiths and Eliot Dudik
Published by Zatara Press