A Conversation with Lisa McCarty

Lisa McCarty is the curator of the Archive of Documentary Arts at Duke University. She’s also a practicing artist and a friend. Lisa earned her MFA in Experimental and Documentary Arts at Duke, and she still lives in Durham. I reached out to her to talk about her work as a curator and as an artist. The following conversation is from an extended email exchange between us.

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Lisa McCarty ‘Lantern, Concord Museum’ from ‘Transcendental Concord’

J: Hi Lisa! Recently you became the curator of the Archive of Documentary Arts. When did you begin the position? Can you talk a bit about the archive as well as your vision for the archive as you go forward? 

L: Hi Jay! I was appointed Curator of the Archive of Documentary Arts  ADA) in the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Duke University in August 2014. The mission of the ADA is to collect, promote, preserve, and provide access to audio, moving images, photography, and text from around the world related to the documentary endeavor for the purpose of inspiring reflection, research, creative expression, and dialogue in this moment, and for generations to come.

The Archive of Documentary Arts was initiated within the Rubenstein Library in 1991 with the acquisition of Paul Kwilecki’s photograph’s and papers. The acquisition of William Gedney’s photographs and writings in 1992 strengthened the library’s commitment to the collection of complete archives by individual photographers that include not only finished prints, but documents of the entire creative process including work prints, negatives, journals, and related ephemera. The ADA continues to collect individual archives as well as portfolios, photobooks, audio, moving images, and vernacular image collections. The work of over 300 documentarians resides in the ADA, as well as the archive of our partners at the Center for Documentary Studies and the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival. Collection formats cover the history of photography, filmmaking, and audio recording from daguerreotypes to inkjet prints; from 35mm nitrate film to digital video; from wax cylinders to WAV files.

My vision for the ADA involves three major components. First to build on our strengths by continuing to collect both historic and contemporary examples of documentary art and provide more opportunities for it to be discovered. Second, to expand the collection to include both different kinds of documentary projects and work by a more diverse pool of makers. And third, to expand our outreach efforts so that more of the documentary community knows about the work the ADA is doing. I would like the ADA to become a destination for research, and for more artists to think of the ADA as a possible option for the long-term preservation of their work.

J: Thank you for providing that background about the archive. I like the notion of different stages of the creative process being tangible and available for visitors. It’s interesting in itself that this archive is defined as a “documentary” archive. For me one of the most fascinating questions about photography is what constitutes “documentary photography”. The definition of documentary seems nebulous and so difficult to pinpoint, even when the medium has existed for nearly two centuries. You mention that part of your vision for the archive is “to include both different kinds of documentary projects and work by a more diverse pool of makers,” which to me implies that “documentary” can be a broad term, that it can encompass all sorts of approaches. So I’m interested to hear your thoughts, as the curator of a documentary archive, on this issue: what does “documentary photography” mean to you? 

L: I am so glad you asked this question Jay! It is one of my favorites and one that is asked and answered and re-answered a lot in these parts with both the Archive of Documentary Arts and the Center for Documentary Studies residing here at Duke. The short answer is that there is not a single definition that can describe what “documentary photography” is or can be. I will say that it might be more useful to attempt to describe what I call the “documentary endeavor” broadly as opposed to “documentary photography.” Describing a “documentary endeavor” opens the umbrella a bit more and acknowledges that documentary work is created not solely through the creation of images, audio, or text, but is created first through relationships with people and places. One of my favorite attempts to describe this kind of work comes from former director of the Center for Documentary Studies, Tom Rankin. Tom has described documentary work as being, “derived from an in-depth understanding of place, history, and the current situation, in concert with a personal relationship to the proposed work. Ultimately, the commitment is to use documentary expression to motivate the thinking and reflection of others.”

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William Gedney notebook fragment – courtesy William Gedney Collection, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University

Most creators who would define themselves as documentarians will tell you that while their end product might be a series of photographs, they engage in many other mediums to create those photographs which are actually equally or more important than the images themselves. So the documentary endeavor utilizes photography, moving images, oral histories, and writing, but also observation, immersion, conversation, translation, walking, planting, porch sitting, organizing, fundraising, letter writing, curating, and archiving. I might also add that these activities are usually carried out over long periods of time, with some projects lasting decades and that after the formal project has concluded, the creators often sustains the relationship created.

So as a Curator of the “Archive of Documentary Art” it is important to me that I collect not only the finished photographs, but the records related to their making so that I can capture these other, yes sometimes nebulous, activities that led to the work both for their value to future researchers but also to in an attempt to capture a variety of snapshots (forgive the pun!) of what the documentary endeavor is and can be.

J: I was recently reading Bruce Davidson’s interview with Charlotte Cotton in the Aperture Interview issue from last fall, and he said “Too much in photography is shoot and leave” as he discussed his efforts to engage with subjects over long periods of time. It sounds like there’s a connection between his attitudes and those of the Archive in the sense that you are emphasizing close relationships in the making of work. Susan Meiselas’ Kurdistan project seems to fit a lot of the criteria you mentioned, and I see that Meiselas’ work is in the Archive. Given that the Archive collects all sorts of materials that relate to the making of work, it sounds like there’s a lot of potential for the Archive to change how you think about certain photographers’ work. Now that you are familiar with the collection, are there any noteworthy photographers in particular whose work is more in-depth and multifaceted than you originally thought?

L: Definitely. Because the Archive does collect all aspects of the creative process we are able to give researchers access to letters, journals, and other documents where one is able to discover just how long it took for an artist to complete a project, how many rolls of film shot in a particular place, how the photographers approach changed over time, or the number of years a photographer corresponded with their subject or collaborator. Or for example, my favorite discovery of the last year has been the handmade photobooks of William Gedney. Gedney’s archive first came to Duke in 1992 as a donation from the executors of his estate, John Szarkowski & Lee and Maria Friedlander. Despite his prolific output in his lifetime and having some prestigious exhibitions including a one-man show at MoMA, his work was not widely known. However, because Gedney was a meticulous archivist of his own work we are able to know his work in a much more nuanced way because he left behind not only finished prints, but negatives, contact sheets, work prints, journal, letters, and  the photobooks I’ve been concentrating on. Gedney is most known for his photographs of Eastern Kentucky and San Francisco, but in his archive I was able to find evidence of his career long practice of making handmade photobooks and journals. There is in fact a completed photobook, or plans for one, for each of Gedney’s major bodies of work.

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William Gedney, spread from ‘A Time of Youth’ 1969 – courtesy William Gedney Collection, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University

Knowledge of Gedney’s intent to share his work not only in gallery exhibitions but as books has the potential to shape future study of his artistic practice. While only one of the books Gedney completed in his lifetime was ever under contract to a publisher, it is clear that Gedney believed his images should be experienced and disseminated in books. Practically speaking, the distribution of his work in book form would have allowed Gedney to remain reclusive while providing a means to publicly share his photographs. Moreover, the book, and in particular the handmade book, was desirable to Gedney because it embodied his interest in “intimate gestures.” In his photographs, Gedney was able to capture vestiges of his subjects’ interior lives and the subtleties of their interpersonal relationships as articulated through body language and facial expressions. The handmade book, which relies on the touch, support, and proximity of the maker and reader, enabled Gedney to marry form with content. As a photographer who was both attentive to and reluctant of intimacy, the corporeal book must have seemed the ideal medium.

To date, it is likely that just a handful of people have seen the books so I organized an exhibit to highlight this work which is currently on view at the Rubinstein Library entitled Intimate Gestures: Handmade Books by William Gedney. But this exhibit would not have been possible without Gedney’s archive. Because he left so much behind the Library, as well as external advocates such as Margaret Sartor & Roger May, have been able to build a legacy for Gedney that is informed by his images and his words.

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Installation shot of ‘Intimate Gestures: Handmade Books by William Gedney’ on view at the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University

J: Thank you for the background on Gedney’s work. I’d like to talk about your work now! I’m curious to know more about your most recent project ‘Transcendental Concord’ which seems in some ways to be a departure from your other recent work. Projects like ‘Developer Drawings’ and ‘Experiments in Impossibility’ read as interrogations of the medium itself and photographic processes, and you don’t seem so concerned with depicting the outside world. The Concord work does include ‘straight photography’ while you continue to experiment with the medium, such as your photographs made with keeping the shutter open while walking. Can you talk about what led you to make the Concord work, and how did you decide which photographic methods and strategies to use for this work? 

L: This may surprise you, but Transcendental Concord is not actually that much of a departure from recent work as you may think! I do consider the investigation of photography as both medium and subject matter to be at the core of my practice, however I am interested in how this concept can manifest itself in a myriad of ways. In fact I don’t think such an investigation could be successful unless I allowed the work to evolve in both form and content, and perhaps look quite different from previous work. With the range of photographic approaches and processes available today, it is of the upmost importance to me that with each project I ask myself what approach and process is appropriate for the project as opposed to defaulting to one camera or one methodology.

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Lisa McCarty ‘Kaleidoscope Picture (12:00 – 1:00 a.m.)’ from ‘Lumen’

I believe it is often taken for granted that there is content inherent to every method, and each camera and photographic process used throughout the history of imagemaking has built-in constraints that create wholly different images. By utilizing such a diverse array of processes and approaches to imagemaking, I aim to reexamine the fundamentals of photography and question whether the medium has been perfected, or merely streamlined. My practice of imagemaking is always evolving, much like the history of photography itself.

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Lisa McCarty ‘Philosophia, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Study’ from ‘Transcendental Concord’

To speak specifically to my motivations for Transcendental Concord however, this project is part of a much larger component in my practice of seeking out and documenting places important in the history of photography and philosophy. I consider such endeavors pilgrimages and Concord has been haunting me for some time. I have been fascinated with the work of the Transcendentalists for about ten years- basically since I first read Nature by Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walden by Henry David Thoreau as an undergraduate. I read them both as part of a course called Literary Altered States and I happened to be taking my first darkroom photography class at the same time. Reading their work 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, are not simply approaches to describing the world, but approaches to living and being present in it.

The Transcendentalists also believed in experimentation. Emerson and Thoreau both referred to life as an “experiment.” Thoreau in fact uses the word “experiment” seventeen times in Walden. Knowing this, and my penchant for unifying form and content, the method for photographing Transcendentalism revealed itself. I photographed simply, wandering on foot & 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 in the environment in every season; And I photographed experimentally, incorporating long exposures and camera movement. While my process was highly researched, I had no preconceived notion of the kinds of images I should produce- I was open to capturing the world of the Transcendentalist however it presented itself to me within these constraints. So yes, sometimes there are blurs, bursts of color, and mediations of light that I can’t explain. At other times, the stark clarity of the sky above or a canopy of tree branches in perfect focus was in order. The range of images represents a spectrum that I hope will speak to and resurrect the ideals of Transcendentalism.

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Lisa McCarty ‘Walden Woods, Autumn’ from ‘Transcendental Concord’

J: From the way you describe the transcendentalists and what you’ve learned from them, it sounds like we could all learn valuable lessons from them. Instead of being constantly chained to our electronics (I say as I type and stare into my computer screen), we can choose to spend more time marveling at the simple pleasures of life, even in mundane settings. I’m interested in your choice of words when you say “resurrect the ideals of Transcendentalism”, which I interpret to mean that we’ve drifted so far from this basic appreciation of everyday beauty. I think there’s some truth to that, and it’s good to see you engaging with the world in such a way in these times.

L: Thanks Jay. Your interpretation is pretty spot on, but let me make one point of clarification- I believe everyone has the ability, and at some level a need, to appreciate the simple pleasures and moments of beauty in daily life. I also think some electronics, like digital cameras and phones, can aid this process by allowing us to save some portion of the moments we appreciate. So I think there is still a basic appreciation of everyday beauty, but that we take ourselves out of those moments too quickly with the impulse to share or broadcasting them, and perhaps and even deeper experience is possible if we allow for it. To quote Thoreau, “We are enabled to apprehend what is sublime and noble only by the perpetual instilling and drenching of the reality that surrounds us.”

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Lisa McCarty ‘Window inscription by Nathaniel & Sophia Hawthorne, The Old Manse’ from ‘Transcendental Concord’

J: Do you have anything you’d like to promote, either related to your own work or to the archive at Duke?

L: I’d like to promote the Gedney show at the library though it will be coming down soon: http://library.duke.edu/rubenstein/documentaryarts/exhibits/intimategestures

J: Lastly, what’s the best BBQ place that you’ve visited in North Carolina?! 

L: I am sorry to disappoint, but I actually don’t go to many BBQ places because I’m a pescatarian. So my favorite BBQ restaurants are ironically those that have veggie friendly options- yes such a thing exists! The Pig in Chapel Hill, is one such place and has amazing BBQ tempeh!

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