In an age that celebrates throwing things out, Rosamond Purcell is interested in the objects we hold on to, whether in the collections of natural history museums or in the rusted chaos of a Maine junk yard. The photographs she makes of time-worn things are haunting and delicate, shot in natural light to emphasize the life-like qualities of stuff that was never alive or is long dead. Purcell’s work is the subject of An Art That Nature Makes, a documentary directed by Molly Bernstein, which opens today at Film Forum in New York City and runs until August 16, and screens September 2 to 8 at Laemmle Monica in Los Angeles.
In the film, Purcell can be seen poking around the 13-acre junk yard that is subject of her book Owls Head: On the Nature of Lost Things, her visual and written account of 20 years spent excavating the site and haggling with its proprietor over rusty typewriters and carved duck heads. The film also follows her deep into the collections of the Academy of Natural Sciences at Drexel University, where she examines samples of wood riddled with holes left by shipworms, setting chunks in a sunny window to photograph. Natural history collections are a longtime interest of Purcell’s—with Stephen Jay Gould, the Harvard evolutionary biologist and science historian, Purcell produced several books that explore the relationship between science and nature, combining his writing with her photographs. Elsewhere, we are introduced to her collection of ruined books—moldy and slumped or transformed by squirrels into nests—which make up Bookworm, her 2006 book, or watch her photograph reflections in antique mercury glass apothecary jars, a technique she used in a collaboration with Shakespeare scholar Michael Witmore to explore Shakespeare’s work through photographs and language. As the filmmaker Errol Morris notes in the film, her subjects share a sort of worn down poetry. “Rosamond Purcell is one of the great photographers,” he says. “She has captured the history of objects by photographing them in Romantic decline: books scourged by worms, petrified food-stuffs, biological specimens gone wrong, the inexorable entropic winding down of everything.”
Bernstein was introduced to Purcell’s work while making a documentary about the magician and historian Ricky Jay—Purcell collaborated with Jay on Dice: Deception, Fate, & Rotten Luck, a book about his collection of crumbling vintage dice. Says Bernstein in a statement about the film, “Rosamond’s work mesmerizes by transforming the apparent nature of the object she photographs without losing sight of what the object is.” In pursuing a balance between the transcriptions of facts and the transformation of objects into fantasy, Purcell takes up the advice of her occasional mentor Minor White: to photograph things for what they are but for what else they are.