Monday, September 29, 2008

How to Photograph Literary Landmarks - The Old Manse

Photographing The Old Manse in Concord, Massachusetts

As I began working on A Journey into the Transcendentalists’ New England, I read Ralph Waldo Emerson’s book, Nature. He wrote it while living at the Old Manse, and the book serves as one of the foundations of Transcendentalism. Here is a key passage from the beginning of Nature:

In the woods, we return to reason and faith. There I feel that nothing can befall me in life, -- no disgrace, no calamity, (leaving me my eyes,) which nature cannot repair. Standing on the bare ground, -- my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, -- a mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.
For me, this became a central tenet to my photography. Try to become Emerson’s “transparent eye-ball” and see “all.” This was particularly difficult on Boston’s Common during rush hour, but not so much at the Old Manse.

In Nature, Emerson writes of the importance of escaping not just from the society but also from one’s “chamber.” To that end, I wanted to capture a sense of the chamber in which Emerson wrote. Unfortunately, at the Manse (as at many literary landmarks), you need special permission requiring an application and a fee to shoot photographs for publication from the inside, so I set up this shot of the outside.

At the Old manse in Concord, the noises of the outside world fade away to be replaced with the sounds of place: the rustling of leaves, voices drifting across the yard, the occasional splash from the river, and, if you listen very carefully, echoes from the past. Of all the historical sites I’ve visited and photographed, the Old Manse is one where the past always feels close, so it was not at all surprising to find this colonial soldier guarding the bridge (actually, just a costumed volunteer).

Friday, September 26, 2008

How to Photograph Literary Landmarks

Photographing Literary Landmarks

One of my favorite parts of the three books I have done in the past four years is doing the photography. I have had the great fortune to photograph the Alcott’s Fruitlands farmhouse at sunrise on a cold January morning, William Butler Yeats’ Galway tower in the sunshine, Emily Dickinson’s bedroom, and Earnest Hemingway’s Cuban house. Each of these places presents a new challenge and offers new insights into the connections between literature and place. In the following series, I will explore some of the strategies I’ve used to create the photographs that accompany my books. I welcome your additional comments and suggestions.

Read Into It
All too many visitors have very little understanding of what was written at the literary landmark they’re at. Not to sound too much like a school teacher, but a little knowledge here can go a long way. While you may not be a scholar in the poetry of William Butler Yeats, you will want to know enough to realize that much of Yeats’ poetry is about the magic and mysticism found in nature. For example, while looking for the beach Yeats wrote about in “The Song of the Wandering Aengus,” these two swans who magically appeared as the sun broke out for the first time that day served quite well as symbols of what Yeats accomplished in verse.

Along the same lines, I had studied Yeats’ poem, “The Wild Swans at Coole,” numerous times and when my tour of Coole Park in Galway lead down to the water, I was thrilled to catch this view of the swans:

They only appear seasonally at the lakeside, so it was fortunate for me. But you don’t have to rely on luck. At the Old Manse in Concord, I knew I wanted to capture the paths that led Emerson from his study out into the woods that inspired his book, Nature and so walked around until I found this shot:

I will discuss photographing The Old Manse in the next installment of Photographing Literary Landmarks.