“The book of Nature still lies on the table; there is, as always, one crack in it, not easy to be soldered or welded,” writes Ralph Waldo Emerson to his brother in 1836. Emerson’s Nature is a long essay, in the true sense of the word—an attempt to describe not only the physical artistry of the lakes and trees but the source and essence of that artistry, what the poet Dylan Thomas calls the “force that through the green fuse drives the flower.”
It’s in this fascinating (and confounding) meditation that Emerson introduces his famous “transparent eyeball.” For a trope that aims at clarity, “eyeball” has always felt to me slightly grotesque, a little too globular, viscous. But I’ve been admiring a series of photographs by UK photographer Al Brydon lately, and I’m starting to understand why it’s the “eyeball” and not the “eye” that matters to those, like Emerson, with a transcendental view of nature.
In Brydon’s series, Even the Birds Were Afraid to Fly, a single white line divides each photograph (or most of them), vertically, down the middle—“one crack” in Nature “not easy to be soldered or welded.” For Brydon, that crack relates to personal experiences of insomnia and political frustrations. It’s like a floater in the eye, distorting what ought to be a peaceful, scenic view.
That’s not as far off from Emerson’s complaint as it sounds. The eyeball—that distracted, often deficient device plugged umbilically into a bit of gray matter—has to contend, first and foremost, with the plight of its own warring hemispheres. I had something like this in mind while reviewing Nicolai Howalt’s recent book of Mars images. In other words, it can be difficult to tell sometimes whether or not we’re seeing nature, or the idea of nature, when looking at a handsome study of shoreline cliffs, heavily limbed hemlocks in snow, or starlings against a backdrop of clouds.
The strange thing is that, once you’ve looked and looked at this series, you start to see the line in Brydon’s previous work too—even when it’s not there. And that’s because it is there, just not in the image. It’s in you.
Kozu Books produced an impressive edition of this series, along with a collector’s edition that comes with a print. Copies of both are still available. Even the Birds Were Afraid to Fly is just one of several extraordinary projects created by Brydon in recent years. To see more, check out his website and follow him on Instagram.