Bookworm by Rosamund Purcell 2006

Rosamund Purcell is an 80 year old photographer who lives nearby in Medford, MA.  We recently viewed an exhibit of her work at the Addison Gallery on the campus of Andover Academy, and were treated to a conversation with her as she walked around her exhibit.

I first became acquainted with Purcell through her beautiful book ‘Egg and Nest’ published by Harvard University Press in 2008.  With an introduction by the naturalist/writer Bernd Heinrich and text by the executive director and curator of collections at the Westeern Foundation of Vertebrate Zoology in Camarillo, California, the book features hundreds of beautiful photographs of the eponymous eggs and nests.

This book was the first publication of Purcell’s collages and art photographs and features two kinds of photos among the 125 in that volume.  The collages utilize newspaper clippings, photos, playing cards, drawings of people, apes, and other animals and are unsettling in many cases.  The photos of the books and other artifacts from Owls Head are, in contrast intriguing, engaging, and often beautiful.

Purcell drew upon the junkyard of William Buckminster whose 11 acre property in Owls Head, Maine near Rockland harbor was the repository of thousands of discarded objects from bird and animal skeletons to telephones, books to typewriters, and on and on.  Purcell took dozens of these objects, primarily books which had been altered through the effects of rain, snow, wind, salt spray, back to her studio and photographed them, creating a beautiful photo as she explored the interaction between nature and the manufactured item, between the hand of the natural elements and the hand of man.

This is a strange book and one which I found ultimately disappointing.  Many of the photographs, reproduced with fidelity to color and form, were strikingly beautiful and thought-provoking, but the introduction by Sven Birkerts, the editor of the BU literary magazine Agni, and the text by Purcell were dense, jargon-filled, and offputting.   The exhibit at the Addison was far superior to the book.