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Reading Messages in the Natural World: Rosamond Purcell and Sven Birkerts

At one point in her lecture, Rosamond Purcell shared the following anecdote:

“One day I went into the mammal department with this object and I said ‘Look, I think I really found a fossil, I think I found something,’ and I had the pleasure of having three people bending over this object for a long time and saying ‘two fish’… ‘perhaps Devonian’ …’maybe not’…for a long time. And finally I said, you know what, um, it is actually a piece of a rubber tire. And I picked it up in Hawaii on the road and thought, ‘I wonder what they are going to say to this.’”

This insightful moment seems to well illustrate the perceptive yet playful quality Purcell brings to her work as a photographer of natural historical objects, or, as Purcell describes, “art that nature makes.”

Indeed, as various images presented throughout the talk—stones that look like books, the shape of snail shell reflecting in a spiral staircase–I found myself drawn deeper into the photographs, staring intently with new revelation. It became a fun, perceptual puzzle of visual recognition— “Ah, yes, the nest of a Gila Woodpecker does indeed resemble an actual old leather shoe from the 17th century you once saw pulled from a Dutch canal in the Netherlands!”

Purcell encourages this relationship; “when you look at something, and you see something else, go for it!” She, too, is still uncovering layered visual meanings that exist within the natural collections she documents.

She spoke eloquently of her collaboration with Stephen Jay Gould, paleontologist and essayist, which spanned decades. “I can read Stephen Jay Gould’s work because he makes you think you really have understood it—there is something about the way he writes that keeps you going…at least it did for me,” Purcell said, whose essays, inspired by her work, were read throughout the presentation by author Sven Birkerts.

Purcell recounted meeting Gould for the first time following one of her shows—they became friends, and would eventually collaborate on three books, yet she held a deep admiration for Gould’s work years before meeting. While Gould has since passed away, through Purcell’s work his learned voice could be heard, his scholarly presence could be felt; they are a two-person symphony, his prose capturing the fragile soul of her striking photographs.

Purcell ‘s own musing on nature and art toward the closing of her lecture is illuminated as Birkerts reads Gould’s transcendent  words– “science and art meld in continuity…things of nature to things of art; flesh to rock to paper to ink illustrates the embedding of mind and nature.”

On that lovely note, I excitedly await a future talk by Purcell to learn how she is continuing to beguile museum researchers, while fascinating us all.

Guest Blogger: Neila Columbo, Independent journalist