Photographer Rosamond Purcell wrote, “I often place fragments of paper or glass in available light in the hope that they will transcend recognizability and change into ‘something rich and strange.’ I am endlessly greedy for the sight of transformation of objects from one state to another. ” Since the 1970s, when she wrote this, she has applied her aesthetic to objects found in natural history museums, cast off things she finds in antique stores and other detritus which reveal an unexpected beauty. What started out as an obsession with books left to decay, and took on a new life as a sculptural monument to a lost ideal, has grown into a refined way of laying out the world’s found objects, most of which happen to be things of nature.
Purcell was inspired by the Ole Worm’s 17th century Cabinet of Curiosities. Its very densely packed cube contained preserved animals, horns, tusks, skeletons, minerals, and other man made objects.
Molly Bernstein, the director, mingles interviews with natural scientists with images of her work, with biographical background including footage of her husband who is especially enlightening about Purcell’s process. What a stimulating collaborator Purcell can be. Stephen Jay Gould, the late great science writer, co wrote three books with her. Several curators describe her knack for delving deeply into things you would not normally notice, and being able to transform something that is really a relic, or a dead thing, into something else that takes on new life. It does not mean that all scientists enjoy working with her, however. In a revealing argument with a scientist, he continually refuses to accept that there is another way to look at a natural object other than as a natural object, not as an aesthetic object.
Nor are all of her objects beautiful. More than a fair share of them fall into the creepy category. I was especially troubled by her photographs of hydrocephalic skulls with poetic names — blooming tulips. There is also a curious collection of teeth belonging to Peter the Great, which would be almost humorous if it weren’t obvious that these teeth are still healthy.
When she lays out the murre’s egg to be photographed using Mercator projection, it results in a pattern not unlike a Francis Bacon drawing.
Even more expert at holding together collections of things about to fall into ruin is the owner of a junkyard named Bucky. The film opens with Purcell trolling his 13 acres of stuff. She notices old shoes, 19th century fire extinguishers, decayed books still resting in a bookcase, and a collection of decoy duck heads which eventually become a gift for someone else.
Bucky is a taciturn New Englander who you can tell doesn’t enjoy developing a clientele so much as getting the sale over with. Rosamond keeps coming back to the place for years, enjoying her hikes on the mounds of discards, almost as if she were a sherpa climbing a rare mountain. Bucky’s junkyard opens and closes the movie in a deliberate tribute to what is central to Purcell’s sensibility. What may look like a waste space is just a locked treasure house to which she holds the unique key.