Saturday, January 12, 2013

The Photography of Rosamond Purcell

Northern Masked Weaver

Rosamond Purcell: Photographer of Decay

Once attracted to subjects that critics considered grotesque, photographer-author Rosamond Purcell turned her attention to the old, the burnt, and the destroyed. In these objects, she finds beauty and truth.

Whether it is a deceased animal, a decayed book, or an eerie specimen from a medical museum, many don’t find beauty in death or decay. We tend to be afraid of things we don’t understand. Thankfully there are a number of photographers who provide an insight into that which frightens and disturbs many. Photographers such as Joel-Peter Witkin, Kate Breakey, and Rosamond Purcell (under construction but see links below) offer visions into these worlds.

Purcell is one who looks past what others may see as a monstrosity or as an item to be tossed having no value. She turns these things into serenely beautiful photographs. Her eye sees historical images and artifacts, and helps us delight in the unusual and to see connections to our own evolution. Long before wunderkammer or cabinets or curiosity became mainstream, Purcell was out there documenting these repositories full of wondrous and exotic objects. 

The Boston based artist is known for her portraits of decay, museum collections, and fractured found objects and is often referred to as the “doyenne of decay.” In her book, Egg & Nest, Purcell worked with the ornithological collections of the Western Foundation of Vertebrate Zoology. Here she takes close up photographs of eggs and nests, things others may toss away as meaningless. She forces us to view them in detail forcing us to see them as sublime objects, forcing us to realize their color and texture. 
An egg of the Red-winged Blackbird with its black markings looks like Chinese characters or nature’s calligraphy.

A nest of Bullock’s Oriole looks like sticks with intertwined with colors of yarn, but it is composed primarily of pieces of plastic.

One last image from this book is a detail of a Common Tailorbird nest. These birds actually sew leaves together with stitches of spider silk, caterpillar silk, and plant down. They use their bills as needles.

Purcell takes the time to focus on the intricacy of the nests and the perfection of the bird eggs. A blue egg photographed alone becomes a blue planet and together look like eggs from an Easter basket. A Woodpecker’s nest resembles a wooden shoe. Yes these nests are marvels of natural history and Purcell turns them into objects of art.

"Purcell is fixed....on the state of decay. This bent is evident in her exceptional new volume, Bookworm, which recasts mangled texts as works of art."

.....David Pescovitz, Slate Online, November 9, 2006

Purcell’s next book of photographs is called Bookworm. For most of us books are here to convey information, not many see the beauty in a decayed worm-eaten tome. When books decay and are invaded by mold and insects, Purcell sees them as objects that convey a different sort of information, beauty in burned, molded, the shredded, and the mildewed. She teaches us to read differently and to see beauty in the not so pretty.

In this first retrospective of her work we see a 19th century French economics text re-interpreted by foraging termites and books burned beyond recognition. They may be filled with foraging termites and burned black, but she photographs them to put forth a new type of information, an appreciation for deterioration and purification. She photographs books as if they are the last remnants of civilization.

Foucalt's Pendulum, paperback book eaten by termites in Bali. Photograph, 1996.

Dante’s Inferno. Burned and found on the street outside the University of Massachusetts.

These are books as they were not meant to be. These photos may be more interesting than the text, some almost taking on the look of a handmade book or a pulled print. Some of the books have become nests for creatures that have passed on, with their skeletons embedded into the book’s pages. Bookworm's reproductions are imaginative evidence of those processes that render literal meaning irrelevant.

Purcell is fixated on finding beauty and the exquisite in what she photographs, but her eyes see these differently than many of us do. She makes us question, what is a beauty, what is a monster? Can we find and see the exquisite as she does? As with the photographer Witkin, some of her subjects may be physically “damaged” but she still sees intelligence and alluring qualities that make them captivating to the viewer.

In her book, Special Cases: Natural Anomalies and Historical Monsters, Purcell explores the differences in us. She has taken photographs at natural history and anatomical museums, has used models of her own creation, and used artwork from numerous private and public collections. With her photographs she delves in subjects such as dwarves, giants, conjoined twins, hairy people, albinos, and humans with animal heads. 

One of her photos shops a hydrocephalic child where the skull has opened. Horrifying, no. Instead Purcell’s photograph of this subject shows how the skull appears to have opened like the petals of a flower.

The passion for collecting is a full time job, an obsession. All collectors seem to have one thing in common, they believe passionately in what they collect. In the book Finders, Keepers, Eight Collectors, Purcell teams up with paleontologist Stephen Gould to look at this collecting obsession. Together they look at collections that span 300 years from the monarch Peter the Great to the wealthy Lord Rothschild, collections from a blind ornithologist van Wickevoort-Crommelin to amateurs and their fossil finds. 

In the photographer's afterword from the book she says, "She is intrigued by the relationship of collectors or curators to their collections, in short the grey area between a rational scientific system and human idiosyncrasies." She has found whether a private instruction or a person living in the country collecting what they find of interest, both have a instinct to arrange them systematically to they can find them and try to make sense of them.

Below are some photographs from the book. Again, many find these to be disturbing, but Purcell photographs them in a way to make them strangely compelling. Maybe we find them compelling because they are things we do not see everyday.

Albino Bird of Paradise

Naturalist Willem Cornelis van Heurn's Frogs in Jars and other Miscellani

Arm holding an eye socket, Collection Albinus, Leiden

On her way to Owls Head Lighthouse in Maine, she came across a piece of property that was once an antique shop. William Buckminster owns the property and became the subject of her book Owls Head. His property is 11 acres packed with stuff. She found many many decayed objects including a massive collection wooden lobster buoys, scrap metal and wooden windows all heaped together. garbage  Broken clocks, an old typewriter, birdhouses, ruined chandeliers, moldy books all in piles were dug through and photographed in black and white. You'll have to read the book to discover what Buckminster's most prized possession.

A rusted old typewriter from Owls Head

 'Owls Head,' She Finds Art in the Overlooked. Listen to NPR interview

Whatever Purcell photographs she takes the mundane and recasts it as an extraordinary object.

Photographer Rosamond Purcell explains her process working with scholar Michael Witmore to create the unique images seen in the Folger Shakespeare Library exhibition, "Very Like a Whale." For more information, Very Much Like a Whale.

“Till That Her Garments.” Photograph by Rosamond Purcell

Some links to information about the world of Rosamond Purcell

An interview with Purcell at Bostonia

A review of her work at the Boston Review

"Doyenne of decay"

Her Photographs illustrate a National Geographic article

Books by Purcell

1 comment:

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