Nature photographers are a special lot. They can wait for days, weeks, to catch the perfect shot of a leaping lion, or the flutter of a butterfly’s wings on a waving purple flower. These artists revel in the sheer, random exuberance of the outdoor world.
And then there’s Rosamond Purcell. This photographer, based in Somerville, Massachusetts, favors a different aspect of the natural scheme. Her subjects are dead, and desiccated, stuffed by taxidermists, filed away in drawers or soaking in formaldehyde. She’s as comfortable in the neglected aisles of natural-history museums as her colleagues might be in a moonlit savannah or at sunrise on a mountaintop. Her simple process — shoot quickly, only in natural light, with no props — results in giving new meaning to unremarkable remnants of life.
In the insightful film about her, An Art that Nature Makes, Purcell reveals the paradox of her life’s work. “Anyone, I suppose, who contemplates desiccated animals and altered objects for a living,” she muses, “is bound by one box or another … cameras, cabinets, rooms, within which flashes the dark box that is the imagination. I’m stuck with containment and yet I’m always trying to pick the lock.” Filmmaker Molly Epstein, using a spiraling broad brush as well as intimate focus, has created an unforgettable portrait of an artist whose work is as beautiful as a Baroque still life, yet can also be so disturbing at times that some viewers must look away.
Purcell, who now resembles a cheery grandmother, wanted to be a writer when she was young. Then her engineer husband-to-be Dennis gave her a camera. She was frustrated until she took his advice: “‘Go closer,’” he said. The result of those two words is a lifetime dedicated to creating close-up views of how change, in its inevitable, unstoppable ways, affects objects in the world — and how viewers of that work can see glimmers of transcendence.
Purcell is passionate about capturing man-made decay, too — the way paint peels off metal and becomes rust, for example, or how ancient typewriter parts look like sea creatures — and, famously, how abandoned books, once filled with a writers’ precise words, can turn into birds’ nests. Pictured in “Owls Head, Maine” is a 13-acre junkyard owned by the late obsessive collector William Buckminster. For more than two decades, Purcell has climbed mountains of meaningless debris, letting her quirky eye spot isolated things that have no worth on the resale market, transformed by her into the subjects of meticulous works of art.
If you’re a minimalist or a neat freak, you’d probably run screaming from Purcell’s style of working and the weird things she loves to shoot. But many artists and natural scientists consider her work brilliant. Famed science writer Stephen Jay Gould (1941-2002) collaborated with her for more than 17 years.
The Gallery at Flat Rock owner Suzanne Camarata Ball, who’s hosting two screenings of An Art That Nature Makes this month with Flat Rock Cinema, admits she is “always looking for ways to bring people into the gallery and educate them about works I really love.” Ball became friends with Purcell when they both used the same Boston printer to frame their fine art. “She always stuck in my mind — it’s a great privilege to introduce her powerful work to art lovers who may not know of her yet.”
Purcell, too, tries to educate others — sometimes inspiring a love/befuddlement relationship with experts who aren’t as receptive to her work as Gould, et al. In one interesting scene, she tries to encourage a scientist to see, like she does, the deeper meanings of the items in his collection — to take an almost metaphysical new look. But he is unmoved. A museum specimen is meant to be collected, marked, and inventoried: why would anyone bother going beyond that?
There’s another scientist who loves Purcell’s work, though — James T. Costa, Ph.D., professor of biology at Western Carolina University and executive director of the Highlands Biological Station. He and Purcell became friends during his sabbatical at Harvard, at her exhibit exploring the history of science. “I’m a museum rat,” Costa says. “I love the way she portrays natural-history specimens in unexpected ways.” She doesn’t document such items as a biological illustrator would, strictly for the record, markers of their time and place.
Instead, “Rosamond captures that timeless change in things that most people think don’t change,” says Costa. “I consider her, in essence, the ‘muse of metamorphosis.’”
An Art That Nature Makes
When: Sunday, October 22 and Monday, October 23, 4:30pm both days
Where: Flat Rock Cinema (2700-D Greenville Hwy.)
Tickets: $10, available at the Gallery at Flat Rock (2702-A Greenville Hwy.).
Biologist James Costa will speak after the Monday screening.
An exhibit of Rosamond Purcell’s work will show at the gallery October 18-October 29. (828) 698-7000.