Rosamond Purcell Resuscitates the Ruins

In Rosamond Purcell’s photography, what is passing or has passed from existence—be it a creature, a moment, or an idea—is filled with inviolable presence. Decay animates the artist here, even as the artist animates decay, seeking to unlock the vitality within it. As Rikki Ducornet has written, “Purcell’s intention is not merely to offer a glimpse of the world’s ‘fantastic edges’…but to remind us that the informed heart encompasses all edges, imagined and unimaginable, known, unknown and knowable.”

Purcell’s unique approach to the quietude of stillness can be found in her early monographs but flourished when she began to poke around “in the back rooms of old museums,” which led to three extraordinary volumes created with the late Stephen Jay Gould. She is also the author of Special Cases, a wide-ranging survey of “historical monsters” she curated for the Getty Museum, and her photographs of extinct and endangered species are featured in Swift as a Shadow.

Eric Lorberer interrogated Purcell on the phone for a small epoch. Both lamented that the interview could not take place in Purcell’s crowded studio, in which the detritus that has caught the photographer’s eye has come to rest and to be resurrected. Here, nothing is truly extinct.


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conduit: You created three books with the

late Stephen Jay Gould, thrilling works that point to the juncture, as aptly state by the subtitle of Crossing Over, "where art and science meet." How did this ongoing collaboration come about?

purcell: Oh, that’s a long story, and I can really only tell part of it here.…I had been working in the museum for a couple of years before I met Stephen. I was a fan of his writing; I had read his first essay books, and much to my amazement I understood what he was trying to say, which is part of his incredible genius—his essays are accessible to people from very different backgrounds. You don’t have to be a scientist to read and get something out of them. Anyway, he saw my work and liked it; he was really the only curator in the museum who understood what my pictures were about—that is, that they weren’t standard natural history records of the animals in place with a ruler or coin for scale, but that they were attempts to see the animals for what other things they suggested. Did they suggest a sort of aerial view, or materials that were artificial, or... you see, I didn’t come in with any expectations of what I was supposed to do with the animals; therefore I was able to consider them as raw data, visually speaking. I could use any tools I happened to have to contemplate these museum specimens, which are profoundly artificial, by the way—they are not really "natural" because of all the things that have been done to them. But I could contemplate them from the point of view of their being pure subject matter: form and shape and contour and texture. I could juxtapose the specimens the way I chose more or less, if the curators would let me do so. And Stephen Gould would be able to look at the pictures and to get something out of the juxtaposition that actually allowed him to talk about a general scientific principle. So whether it was size or scale, algorithmic properties, what it means to be twins… all sorts of subjects were inherent in the pictures.

So rather than collaborate with a poet or a literary writer, I had the very good fortune to collaborate with a natural historian. He was not only an historian of science, but he was a biologist who understood the physical properties of animals, both human and non-human. There’s so much about the way we worked together that was fairly unusual; most times a scientist will ask an artist or illustrator to please go out and get what they call "figures," to get an illustration that will demonstrate their point of view or theory, whatever it is that they are trying to explain in mathematical or quantitative terms. In this case, I would come to him with the pictures and he would look through them and he would read them the way somebody else might read tea leaves. From the particular composition or arrangement he could deduce general principles that were scientific, and not aesthetic or literary. It’s a backward kind of collaborating. The fact that he was one of the only people who really got it was because he himself was not very fond of nature photography—there were certain conventional ways of taking pictures and to start with a desiccated museum specimen was not a particularly conventional way of doing it. But I was starting with a specimen not to prove anything about it, but to look at it on its own terms.

conduit: The reader learns much from the interaction of art and science in these books—what do you think each of you learned from working with each other?

purcell: I’m not sure I had anything to teach him, but I think that I may have been able to show him, or surprise him, with some view that he might not have anticipated. He never told me what picture to take. Once in a while he would urge me to do more fossils than I necessarily wanted to, and I would try to talk him into more monkeys than he wanted to contemplate… we definitely had our preferences. In Finders Keepers there are a couple of chapters where he suggested the collector and really did imply the approach. One of the chapters where I felt we were in concert was the one on Augustino Scilla, where I photographed both the fossils and the original drawings that the man who found the fossils had made of them. And the chapter itself is all about scientific truth and artistic license, the conclusion being that the scientist and artist are one and the same. It was the sixteen hundreds, a time when there was no photography so you drew a picture of your specimen in order to fully understand it. The point of this is that the drawings, when compared to the actual specimens, are more refined and reveal more about the bedding plane of the fossil and what its placement was in the matrix than the specimen itself. And it has to do with the light and the shading and just the detail that a pencil drawing can give. I remember being absolutely thrilled to be able to photograph the fossils and the drawings that went with them, even though it might be viewed as copy-stand work. And I don’t necessarily think those pictures are thrilling. Of course Stephen liked it because it was the classical combination of the specimen and the data. When I turned some specimens inside out—the Howler Monkey picture in Illuminations for example, or the mastodon tooth that looks like a mountain—I would take a photograph in which the specimen didn’t look anything like itself; it looked like something else. I would bring the picture to him and he would know what it was that it looked like. [laughs] Then he would know why that resemblance also had a scientific resonance. So Stephen kind of legitimized the pictures in a scientific context. On the other hand, I think he enjoyed doing it.