jubilat Interview of Rosamond Purcell

Rosamond Purcell is a photographer and writer whose many books include Owls Head: On the Nature of Lost Things, Bookworm, Egg & Nest, Illuminations: A Bestiary, and Crossing Over: Where Art and Science Meet. Her work is the subject of the 2017 documentary An Art That Nature Makes. In March 2019, Andy Nicole Bowers interviewed Purcell in her studio in Somerville, Massachusetts.

JUBILAT: References to the Baroque often appear in commentary on your work. As someone who has always gravitated toward—and now studies—the Baroque, I'm intrigued by the possibility of placing your photographs into conversation with the aesthetics and concerns of this era. How do you see your work in relation to the Baroque?

ROSAMOND PURCELL: First of all, it would be very helpful if you were to define the era and geographic stylistic expression of Baroque you have in mind. What, historically speaking, are you drawn to? I'm turning it back to you for a reason—because I think we both have something different in mind when speaking of "the Baroque."

I wonder what aspect of the Baroque people are invoking in their commentary.

It's possible I have no idea what they mean! But I also think that there's no question that I am drawn to certain periods of time, especially to the seventeenth century, in which the Baroque may be present. What century are you drawn to?

The first thing that comes to mind when speaking of the Baroque is the Italian art of the early seventeenth century. But I'm drawn, I think, to all kinds of things that are termed baroque, whether or not they're truly of the Baroque period from an art-historical point of view. I think what I'm drawn to has to do with a certain combination of density and drama, a kind of minutely encrusted yet robustly muscular grandeur. I'm drawn, too, to the original connotations of the word baroque—anomalous, twisted, dissonant.

The seventeenth century is my favorite because of the early cabinets—the so-called "cabinets of curiosities." I am most familiar with the depiction and catalogue of the museum of Ole Worm from Denmark (circa 1650). I'm fascinated by what collectors collected and how, in the context of scholarly research, exotic birds, animals, and minerals were depicted and studied by collectors: Is this a huge leg bone found by a traveler to Madagascar from a giant man from Noah's Flood? Is this a drop of water in a jar from Noah's Flood? Is a sponge which moves and sways in the water but stiffens on land an animal that breathes or a plant? Did God make actual crabs and also stone fossil crabs that look just like the crabs crawling on the sand? As described by even earlier scholars, did a salamander walk through fire unscathed? Fascination lies in what collectors see and how the texts of earlier, less "scientific" times read, but the scholars of the seventeenth century did not necessarily already know what they were supposed to see in the exotic creatures brought to them by travelers to far-off places.

What I admire about the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, especially in Northern Europe, is that scholars and collectors were closer to the natural world. And that's because people were finding things and not knowing what they were. I am attracted to sixteenth- and seventeenth-century histories about how unknown creatures and artifacts from the past were eventually found and the research and conclusions that came from such discoveries. Every explanation for what this thing or that thing actually is, becomes mutable when you look at it with a clear unbiased gaze, with the gaze of an explorer and not that of a convert accepting older answers and conventional wisdom. You look at it, and you think. And then you keep on analyzing. The most compelling collections contain within them found specimens and objects that were thought not to have existed, but here they are.

This is all very exciting from my perspective. I'm glad we've found our way into this territory.

Absolutely. It's an arena full of artifacts I'm visually drawn to and occasionally academically informed about.

If I were to take the word Baroque and apply it to certain kinds of collections—scientific collections or museum collections of that period—it would, in my mind, be most applicable to the collections of Italy—and maybe France and Germany. But not so much to the one I'm most interested in and know the most about, which is the museum of Ole Worm in Copenhagen. Do you know a little bit about the reconstruction of Ole's cabinet?

Yes, and I find that project of yours fascinating.

Ole Worm lived in Copenhagen, Denmark, a compelling North Atlantic world, and his students came from that part of the world, including Lapland and Greenland. It was natural that his collections drew directly on those territories. Worm also acquired foreign specimens from Europe, Asia, and the Americas. His natural history museum was also like an early anthropology or ethnographic museum.

But there are a few aspects within Ole's cabinet that I'm pretty sure you might classify as Baroque because he did get many things from afar. On one of the shelves of Ole's cabinet is a statue of The Rape of the Sabines. This is evidence that he did possess a well-known Baroque object—a replica of a famous Roman sculpture.

One can't be sure, though, that everything pictured on the shelves in the drawing of the museum reflects Ole's organization—the drawing was made by a draftsman just after Ole died. But when I attempted to direct a recreation of Worm's museum based on the frontispiece to an illustration made in 1655, I took the illustration at face value and represented each artifact or animal depicted in the engraving by finding actual models or artifacts and borrowing them from modern museums to stand in the shelves in this recreation.

I'm intrigued by the kind of juxtaposition you describe in Ole's cabinet—the work of art on the scientific shelf. One of the (many) things that draws me to your work is the way it destabilizes received categories. I often experience your photographs as reclamations: Here, "objects" become subjects, artifacts and specimens are illuminated as—and enshrined within—works of art. I'm curious about how you see your photographs in relation to the perceived boundary between science and art.

Let's put it this way. If you take the word art out of the equation, it's much easier for me to talk about this. Because I'm not going to claim that my work is art. I hope it compels you to look at it. But I don't know exactly what you mean by art because the art world is a slippery slope.

I think I can understand where you're coming from.

If I were to find something on the ground that is an ordinary object, and it's been transformed because it's been outside for a long time, left to the weather… for example, let's take my favorite, which would be a book. With a book, the pages have become soaked; the materials have been warped. The letters have slipped and slid. Visually, the original meaning of the letters has become effaced, replaced, rearranged, because the letters have been rained on, snowed on, or in some other way transformed by the climate. The book then looks other than we expect—like the geological folding in ancient rocks.

That sight to me is almost always somewhat of a shock and always worth recording. Now, when I'm recording it, I'm not necessarily thinking how beautiful this is. That's not the point. I'm thinking how changed this is. Do you see what I mean?

I do, and I appreciate how swapping change for beauty recalibrates my perspective as a viewer of your work.

If you turn manmade objects over to the natural world and leave them to their fate under the sky or in a ruined place, they will eventually change because they will be eaten by insects, they will be gnawed at by animals, they will be rained on, they will disintegrate, they will molder. Eventually they belong to another realm.

This is perhaps a silly question, but do you have a favorite, or a few favorites, among the things you've found in ruined places and brought back to your studio?

Absolutely. There's no question I have a few things like that. And I have a few small collections of self-similar things. If you have a collection of, say, books, and the books from that collection have been in some way altered by the elements, each one changes into something different. There's often one in a collection of ruined things—a clock, a book, a toy train—that's better than the others.

What do I mean by "better"? That whatever this thing was meant to be, it has disintegrated to the point that it's almost unrecognizable but not quite, and you know almost immediately what it still is. It's like something that's vanished, but its image is still clinging to our perception of it. It's halfway between existing and vanishing. It's passing through.

Something about the language you're using to describe your subjects is calling to mind a quote by Diane Arbus…

I think it's that her subjects had already suffered their trauma.

That quote is definitely applicable. But I'm thinking of her saying that her photographs "are proof that something was there and no longer is. Like a stain."

I don't know that quote specifically, but there's no question…The thing about photography is that it's such an active sport. And still life photography… I remember a time when a photojournalist rushed through some place where I was teaching when I was in the process of photographing something on a windowsill. She said, "Go on, keep shooting it. It's dead."

God, that's nuts!

It's also that the photograph I was taking was out of context. It wasn't on a battlefield or in the middle of a crowded street; there did not appear to be an emergency; it wasn't a Weegee or a war story. It was just something on a windowsill. She was disgusted. She came up and said, "Go on! Shoot it! It's already dead."

A field photographer, a sort of "seize the day" photographer, might say that. But you know what I'm doing? I'm doing the same thing. I can stay with and follow a natural history object for a long time in natural light, the light is always changing, and in the end, there will be only one or two good pictures.

What happens is kind of like a symbiosis, a combination of my attention to what I'm looking at; the ability of the camera to see, to enlarge, and to record; and the specimen as it is soaking in or deflecting the light. The process involves a series of complex phases of attention.

This is drawing out something I really appreciate about your work… I think so many people do have this idea—and not just about photography (I've come across it in writing, too)—that if one's subject is inanimate, then it's inert. It's as if they've chosen to dismiss the life in still life… I am enthralled by your ability to capture life in that which is still.

You've described your work, or what happens during your process, I believe, as a kind of reanimation. What does reanimation mean to you in the context of taking a photograph?

Today, when there's so much light coming and going through the skylights and the windows, it's hard for me to sit here without wanting to get up and take a record shot of what I'm seeing. I love natural light, and if it were raining today, I'd just be sitting here. But, as it is now, I'm distracted by light passing over objects. In this cabinet there's a hand, and because the metal behind it in the cabinet has been split, and because the light and shadows are passing through, the wax hand looks almost like an hour hand on a clock… This is an arrangement that's been done for other reasons—the wax hand melting and ashes and old books—but actually, graphically, it's been rendered interesting because of how the sun's falling.

I'm seeing some parallels, I think, with the slippage of meanings we were talking about earlier—the warping and vanishing and reconstituting of meaning in a book that's been left out in the rain. … That seems like a kind of reanimation, too.

Yes, I would say that's another version of it. In that case, it's about an object that has itself slipped from one identity into possible identities. It's not just a book with one type of text; it's a book with morphing text.

Earlier, the word mutable came up in relation to the contents of early cabinets of curiosities—you spoke of a situation in which the explanation for what something is becomes mutable and compels us to keep on looking and analyzing. I think I'm seeing more about how mutability factors in at every stage of your process.

Well, photography is one thing and collecting another. I have collected all the things in this room not because many of them were objects that are familiar to us but because, as a result of what they have experienced, they are now something other than what they were originally meant to be. They're not self-similar anymore.

For example, here is some tin foil that has been in a fire. Tin foil: that's what it is. But if you go in close, it's like pictographs from India or the Southwest because of the way the char has marked itself on the silver in these irregular but distinctly gestural figures. You think you're looking at a cave painting or another archaic surface into which men and animals have been etched by flame.

I remember something funny happening around the shipworms in An Art That Nature Makes, the 2017 documentary about your work.

This is the funny thing (which has never been much fun for me): whenever I go into a natural history collection, I am immediately challenged because I am not a biologist. At least, years ago, I was unsure not only of what I wanted to photograph but also of how I wanted it to look until I had photographed it. When I first went into these collections with a camera, the keeper of the collection often did not have the imagination or the sense of humor to see what I was often searching for was a sense of imperfection.

Also, back when I was starting out, I often did not know or did not remember the names of the things I was looking for. I've gotten better, but it took a long time. Because I was not, in the beginning, interested in the scientific aspect of the skins and bones of museum specimens. I was interested in how something looked, especially if it was scary. [Rosamond is referring to a print hanging in her studio, the photograph is reproduced as a negative].

I've wanted to ask you about this photograph for years [see jubilat cover].

Well, it's one of the first photographs I took in a natural history museum. I wanted to photograph monkeys because they were terrifying and I was appropriately terrified; I could really get into it and take a picture, whereas rabbit or squirrel skins were still and smelly. But these monkeys were so expressive, I would have given up a great opportunity had I resisted such restlessness.

The reason I've reproduced this image as a negative print here, years after the original positive print, is because the negative just sketches in the shadows and does not over-delineate small details of these screaming figures with their wide-open mouths.

I was looking at a negative when I was preparing for a place in the Biennial 2018 at the Portland Museum of Art. My work was about World War I. I had read about the secret experiment station in the U.K., Porton Down. There, they experimented with how every sort of creature would respond to gas. They made masks for men, dogs, donkeys, horses, and they tested them with gas. They also tested monkeys with gas, but they did not make the masks for them.

That's an extremely poignant and powerful association you make between the monkeys in your photograph and those at Porton Down.

The expressions of the animals in the photograph are of such abject terror that I thought they were symbolic of something like the gas experiments, as well as being actual. If the image is shown as the positive, you see the fur. … It's visceral rather than expressive, somehow.

It's a privilege for me to see this image as a negative print and to hear what you had in mind as you worked. That picture is, in the best way possible, one of the most harrowing things I've ever seen. I think that conviction is both reinforced and enriched by seeing the negative print.

Well that's sort of good!

I've also wanted to ask you about this image because you've shown it at a couple of events I've attended; bizarrely (at least for me), it got a lot of laughs on both occasions! That's difficult for me to fathom because, as I've said—and, really, objectively—the photograph is utterly harrowing. I've been known to engage in nervous laughter, but faced with this image, I fall into a kind of speechless awe, an awe of the unspeakable. I'm curious about what you make of other audience members' laughter.

Well, perhaps there are two reasons why they might've laughed. One is because I might've shown the positive after showing a few other monkeys by themselves. And I think a singleton is more apt to elicit a kind of personal response, whereas if it's a group, well, it's a rave or something, who knows! I think I know what I said back then because I've changed my commentary since. This is important, because as you go along, you look back at pictures you've taken years ago and they return with a different kind of resonance than when you first took them.

What I said, probably, was that when I saw them grouped together and their mouths were stuffed with cotton, and their eyes also cotton, they reminded me of people who might have been in a medieval village when suddenly there was a meteor.

That does sound familiar. I'm still harrowed by that way of looking at this image!

I imagined where they were—this medieval village—but I would not have gone the distance of saying that they were an expression of horror that speaks to something that in fact did happen—something that you can only visualize because you have no idea what it would really be like. … Well, I think I could go to a war museum and find out what it was actually like, but I'm not about to do that right now because this is what I care about—that it's expressive.

I see.

I can give you another example of old pictures that acquire new resonance, this occurred to me yesterday when I was looking through an old group of bat pictures from the 1980s. I may take a picture instinctively and not have too many words about it at the time. … And then I can go back later and look, and all of a sudden something else occurs to me that informs a photograph for a different reason.

What has changed for you about the bat photos?

I recently found some black and white images of these bats on a contact sheet. Printed as negatives, they are more like bats at night. As if in a film, you see these images going from one to another, to another.

When I took the bat photos, I was reacting in a visceral way, not in a practiced way, not as I would in a kind of light I've used a million times. There are actions in these things that are not alive. And that has to do with the tiny bones and the intricate fashion in which they were put together.

I love that bat; he's looking over his shoulder, regarding us. The eye seems very much alive. I feel seen.

Oh yes! It's a different kind of implied atmosphere in that photograph: it's liquid, swimming, a dragon of the sky. And it's in color.

If I hadn't been photographing natural history specimens, most of which demand color, I definitely wouldn't have stopped with black and white. Without color, a parrot is a letdown. It has to do with what the silent subject seems to be asking for.

A lot would be lost without color in many of your photographs.

Absolutely. But sometimes things can be reproduced very well in black and white; it just depends on how graphic they are to begin with.

The contact sheet with the bats leads me to another thing I've been meaning to ask you about, which is what happens when images or objects are sequenced, juxtaposed, or fused. I'm noticing, of course, the arrangements in the cabinets and shelves throughout your studio; I also see some collages and assemblages. I'm curious about how these various yet related practices—collage, assemblage, and arrangement—fit together within your process.

Well, those are different parts of what I do. One of the things I do is to make displays of objects that are meant to be subjects unto themselves. … When I first get these objects back to the studio, I arrange them on the shelves as if they're sentences—ones that are partial. The objects themselves are broken, truncated; the colors are different from what it should be. … They're different from what you would find when you find an old lamp, a flashlight, a rubber toy. Everything has been compromised by the weather; therefore, it has become something other than a lamp, a flashlight, a toy. It's free to travel. It's free to be used in more of an interpretive way.

The point is that all these things are better off not being thrown away but rather elevated or placed into a sentence or a train of thought. I think the way I put together the sentences has to do with the physical inclination of one thing and the sway of another, or the collapse of one and the opening of another. It's all these different actions.

I love thinking of these arrangements as sentences. I never would've thought it on my own, but it makes so much sense. The different ways words can collide, hinge, open onto one another…

I'm not saying it's a sentence you can articulate at all. It's just a placement, or a rhythm that you get, or you don't.

Partial text, and that marvelous "book nest" [Andy is referring to the object that triggered Rosamond's work at the junkyard of William Buckminster in Owls Head, Maine, a book that has become other than as a result of its abandonment to the elements and the activities of nesting mice]—they serve as a lens in a lot of ways, no?

That's interesting! I hadn't thought of that image. I tend to just do my work and not interpret it very much unless I'm talking about it.

On the topic of partial text, there's also the termite-eaten text I've used in some collages, which came about because I knew someone who had a termite lab. I gave them the paper, the termites ate it, and then I took it back and made collages.

I've never heard that story! I wish I knew someone with a termite lab...

So do you find yourself rearranging quite a bit—rewriting the text of the studio, if you will?

Well it depends on what you mean by rearranging. I tend to avoid wholesale rearranging.

You know, after everywhere we've been, I'm still stuck on the reaction of the curator in An Art That Nature Makes—that shipworm scene.

Well, the thing is, the scientist Paul Callomon (the person you see in the film), a malacologist at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University in Philadelphia, introduced a classic argument that takes place sometimes between a scientist and an artist, and I was so happy he did because what he said was something like, "I don't see what you're seeing. I just see this as being important from a biological point of view because this is how these animals work—who cares about the patterns? Who cares about what it looks like? What we care about is the intrinsic scientific value of the specimen and what it tells us about the organism."

He was echoing what a number of biologists have said to me. It's like what happened when I photographed the mastodon tooth that reminded me of a mountain range. The curator told me, "It's a tooth." He did not appear to like the more poetic view.

But what you should also know about Paul Callomon is that he himself is a scientific illustrator/artist and he did know what I was talking about! He has a good sense of the ironic. … I'm not sure that he was absolutely behind what he was saying, but he did it and I was very grateful that he did play the part because that's the nature of complaints against the "nonscientific" attitude of artists from collection managers.

It's rather amazing to me that someone could work around such evocative and expressive things for years and manage to avoid seeing other things in them.

What's really funny is that the more you talk to these people, it turns out they actually do know what you're talking about!

I love your vision of a tooth as a mountain range. Can you say more about how the anatomical can "slip and slide"—to borrow the language you used earlier to describe the movement of text in a book ravaged by the elements—into the topographical?

If you look at human skulls, or really many kinds of skulls, you will see that they look like geologic formations. The sutures of the skull are like river valleys seen from the air. Maybe an ancient river carving down through the stone, the zigzagging of it. Or mountains. Something that looks like an aerial view but is not.

It's just the substance of what the skull is.

But it's also more.