Rosamond Purcell is known for her photographs taken in natural history museums and, to quote from the title of an article in the Atlantic magazine, for her “eye for anomaly.” She captures the fragmentary, the misshapen, and the unusual, while reflecting upon science and art. Purcell, who grew up in a family of academics and collectors, has collaborated with scientists, literary scholars, and even a magician. Her work is profoundly poetic and often elegiac (for a wonderful introduction to Purcell’s world, I recommend Molly Bernstein’s documentary). I admire Rosamond’s wide knowledge and polymathic curiosity: I never know where our conversations will take us and topics seem inexhaustible. This time, though, we met via Zoom with an agenda: I wanted to talk about her relationship to a specific place here in Maine and to the objects she discovered there.
VP: I immediately thought of you for this issue on materiality because I had seen and fallen in love with your studio when I visited you in May 2018. Back then, you gave me a copy of Owls Head: On the Nature of Lost Things, in which you tell the remarkable story of how you became acquainted with what people would refer to as a junkyard, and the relationship you wove with its owner William (Bucky) Buckminster for the next twenty years, along with the resulting works that were born from this journey, for instance the twenty-foot long wall that was shown last fall at the Addison Gallery (1). Could you recap that story for us?
RP: In 1981, I had been invited to teach at the Maine Media Workshops in Rockport, Maine. At the time, I used ambrotypes, glass-plate portraits from Victorian times. These stiff Victorian men, women, and children were combined with animal illustrations from that period; because of the glass material, the two would come through and blend. So, an old woman would be part of a bear, or a man would also be a huge owl standing on a branch. The glass was combined in the photograph to create a double impression of humans and beasts sort of joined together in ungodly ways. They were published in a book called Half-Life.
I was in Rockport to teach this method to a small group of workshop participants. But the fact is, I always prefer not being in the classroom, to be working outside of a lecture hall. I wanted to go on field trips, so we drove around to an old graveyard and down the road. I had to stop: we had come upon a roadside lot that had been filled with great piles of discarded things—hundreds of buoys, bottles, and scrap metal. The metal reminded me of a giant graveyard made by Titans. I just had to see it, so we stopped and went in. It turned out to be thirteen acres of these materials of all kinds. It was an establishment where people brought things they wanted to discard—old bed springs, license plates . . . not so much old cars, but lots of plumbing parts. We started walking through. Because it was so vast, everybody could go in separate directions and find what it was that they were looking for or didn’t know they were looking for. It was clearly a place for exploration. Because it was a visual workshop, everybody was primed to look for something that might trigger an idea. I didn’t speak to them about what we were going to do because I had no idea, but I became fascinated, as did several others, with certain kinds of things that were there. I was trying to take in the whole place at once, which you couldn’t do because it was thirteen acres and what can you do when you have a classful of people who may want their lunch any minute? The thing that cemented my decision to go back happened the next day in the classroom . . . should I tell that story?
VP: Of course! I was going to say, it was not just that one visit, you kept going back after that.
RP: The reason I was galvanized to go back right away was that I didn’t want to leave (and there were other people who didn’t want to leave), but I was conducting a class after all, so we had to leave. The next morning in class, one of the students walked in and said “here, I found something for you.” She had gone back and continued to dig into a hole in the ground, in which we had discovered a lot of old books. She handed me a book—half book, half nest. It was an object that for me was situated halfway between the man-made and the animal world. Two books were glued together, but there was also straw at the other end. In itself, it was a structure, but one that would have never been made at a printing press; it couldn’t, because you needed to have the traffic of a small animal to complete it. So, the booknest was the first key object that gave me the idea that these things were no longer part of the material world of human beings. They were in the domain of natural destruction and predators and so forth: they would break down and the copper would turn green because of the weather. Owls Head is by the sea and the salt water affected everything. The seasons come and go; things get wet, freeze, and get heated. I responded very much to this positioning of man-made things in a natural environment.
VP: Which goes back to what you were saying at the beginning when you were talking about the Half-Life project, in which humans and animals merge.
When you describe Owls Head, we learn not only about the different areas, which gather different kinds of things, but also, and most importantly, we understand their density. You talk about the accumulation of matter in geological and archaeological terms: you excavate and find layers and artifacts—and many of the objects as they weather end up looking like ancient artifacts.
RP: Absolutely! Wait one minute . . . I want to show something, it’s right here. [Chuckles, leaves the screen, and comes back.] I want to show you one thing that I think answers to that: look at this!
VP: is it an oil lamp?
RP: It is! It is the bottom of an oil lamp, and as found there. Can you see the color? It doesn’t look like a new oil lamp. There was much there that seemed like it came from different times and places. I always thought of this as a Roman oil lamp. It received the gift of having been weathered over years in Maine near salt water. The point is that it was part of a conglomerate of undifferentiated things. In order to successfully “work the place,” to find what you might want to purchase for the very modest price the proprietor would suggest, I didn’t have to explain why I wanted it—I just knew: oh, Roman, yes. I’m sure that if I looked at real Roman artifacts, I wouldn’t find the equivalent, but it was good enough for me. The whole place consisted of many of the same kinds of objects over and over again, but although many of them had been manufactured in the same place, no two of these were alike. Some had been crushed or altered or recolored by the environment. You never knew how utilitarian objects would be transformed by being outside for months or years and what they would end up looking like.
VP: I’ll get back to the idea of transformation, but first, I want to talk about digging like an archaeologist in these very deep layers of matter, and how, after you found something, you would interpret it. The idea of you deciding that this oil lamp base looks Roman, it’s your interpretation. I was reminded of the word used for the discovery of relics and also (in French at least), for that of archeological sites and artifacts: “invention.”
VP: Yes, after all, the Latin verb invenere means “to find.” The other interesting term, which you mention in your book, is “translation.” Once you “invent” a relic, you “translate” it to where it’s going to be kept.
RP: That I know! I remember reading about monasteries and how objects going from one place to another were “translated.”
VP: In a way, this fits your story to a T because all these “relics” were first “translated” to Owls Head, where Buckminster reorganized them, and then, you purchased some. There are several processes at work: the objects, having lived their life, now often fragmentary or broken, were brought to the site, where they were submitted to the effects of nature before you found them and brought them to your studio, where more transformations awaited as they were given a new abode and new neighbors.
RP: If I found something that I wanted, I would bring it to Bucky, and he would accept or deny the chance to sell it. He often said: “I’m going to hold onto that for a while longer.” And then, if I came back, I would try again, and very rarely did he decide it was okay to part with it. I never put anything in my pocket or took anything away that he didn’t see.
VP: This is the other thing that I thought was very moving in the book: your relationship with Buckminster and how it took time to get him to accept you.
RP: At first, I couldn’t even have a conversation with him. I tried a couple of different approaches, and one of them was to bring my friend Wendy Kaminer, who is a very good interviewer and journalist. She jump-started the conversation. And then over the next twenty years, I came back many times (2).
VP: I’d like to return to the geological metaphor: I think it’s central to what you describe. One might think that geology is about rocks and mountains, which feel very solid and stable, but it’s really about the history of the earth and about the processes that generated what it is today—it’s alive and in mutation. It occurs to me that they are extremely slow processes, just like the way your relationship with Bucky unfolded. It’s not just the objects themselves that made you go back over and over, it’s their patina, and that too is a process that occurs over time (in the book, you recount how it always fascinated and attracted you, even before you first set foot at Owls Head). That fits in with our theme since patina varies in function of the material and the conditions of the object’s life.
RP: And it can show up in surprisingly unlikely places, just like the lamp I showed you.
VP: But besides materials weathering in a predictable manner, like copper producing verdigris (3), you list all the processes that might affect these objects and that metamorphose them. I was struck by the fact that there is one word that recurs throughout the entire book—do you have an idea what it is?
RP: I’m hoping it’s not “I”! [Laughs]
VP: That’s expectable! It’s you who are telling the story! No, the word that for me truly encapsulates your book is “like.”
RP: “Like”? L.i.k.e?
VP: As in: “something is like something else.”
RP: Oh, you mean comparisons, similes.
VP: Yes. To me, that signals that you are talking about hybridity, not unlike what you did in the Half-Life photos. Because things were crushed, weathered, decomposed, and decayed, they changed purpose, color, texture, shape, and even density as they became soft or crumbled. At one point, you mention alchemy: this is exactly what the alchemical process is about—transmutation! What I noticed here as well, just like what you were saying at the beginning of our conversation, is that we have an intermingling of the natural and the man-made, with boundaries constantly in flux.
RP: Yes, that’s really important.
VP: Speaking of how things are transmuted into something else, or into something that looks like something else, I should note the remarkable number of sensorial observations in the book—not just visual. You are a photographer, someone who looks and sees, and so of course you talk about shapes and colors, but also about textures and even smells.
Another important theme for me that I see at the core of your two decades of visits to Owls Head is the drive to collect, with different motivations for you and for Bucky, who was so interested in and knowledgeable about the industrial past of Maine.
RP: No question. He was very canny about it.
VP: In a way, all these objects are memory triggers—historical and collective memories, as well as personal ones: you tell many stories about your own past.
RP: I guess I can’t keep myself out of things! [Laughs]
VP: You talk about the dialogue you engage in with the objects, how when you’re in your studio, the stuff that surrounds you sometimes prevents you from getting to work. When something calls your name, isn’t it because you associate it with something in your past?
RP: Maybe in a general manner. Take the lamp: it was a utilitarian object that was abandoned and transformed by the elements, and now it looks like something else—my past is not involved, but it does involve historical objects. We were taught how to look at certain things and how to appreciate something that has nothing to do with our culture. What I find compelling is to find familiar things that have undergone such a metamorphosis that now, just by virtue of their appearance, they look like something that has been transported from an earlier time.
VP: You know the expression, “the past is a different country.”
RP: Yes, I love that.
VP: Those quotidian, common objects become special, old, ancient, exotic . . .
RP: I know! [Laughs.]
VP: Here’s the thing—you tell me if you agree. In the opening chapter, a message that comes across is that there are as many readings as there are readers, and one can also suggest that even for a single person one never reads the same thing twice in the same way, whether it’s two hours later or two years later.
VP: So, what I got from your book is that the same is true for viewers—and for you in particular. You write that your profession is “to take a hint from something small and build on what [you] see” (p. 11).
RP: That’s right.
VP: You add that you “have a tendency to see things doubled,” which is like what you said earlier about your Half-Life photographs. But then, when you add that you “want the surface and also what lies beneath,” that in a way summarizes Owls Head and your relationship to it. You saw the top of the piles of junk, but you kept digging further down, to find stuff that you brought home, where you gave it a new context. I realize that we didn’t talk much about what would happen after you brought things home.
RP: I was very determined to take objects that were suggestive of something else and to reposition them in a way that was a joke. There was a phase when I was trying to make exhibits and give the labels false information, creating false history, and that I really liked. I was a person who, for years and years, didn’t do well academically and was always being hounded to do better.
VP: Was it a kind of revenge? The revenge of the artist?
RP: Getting back, rather than revenge. I have nothing but respect for academia and for knowledge, but I’m too easily distracted to buckle down and finish the task.
VP: Which goes back to why I suppose that pile of junk that spread over thirteen acres was so compelling to you: because there was so much to be seen and discovered.
RP: Also, it wasn’t immediately special in any way, and it wasn’t immediately a work of art or a rare object. It just got rid of the burden of having been documented, of being known, and of being part of scholars’ conversations. I just prefer things that look like something else. They may not have any sort of curatorial value or (be about) the avarice that humans have for objects—not at all! It’s just for the appearance. The appearance of things.
- Rosamond Purcell: Nature Stands Aside, Addison Gallery of American Art, Andover, MA, 1 September–31 December 2022 (see reference below for the book that accompanied the exhibition).
- Buckminster died in January 2010; see his obituary.
- In an interview with Terry Gross for Fresh Air, Purcell talks about how particularly beautiful verdigris is and how one can thank the salty air for it. In that interview, Purcell also talks about working for years in the “backrooms of natural history museums . . . finding photographic excitement in fragments of things” (NPR).
Bernstein, Molly. An Art That Nature Makes: The Work of Rosamond Purcell. New York: Film Movement, 2015.
Fisher, Marshall Jon. “An Eye for Anomaly. A Photographer Finds Her Subjects among Things That Are ‘Not Quite Right’.” The Atlantic April 1998.
NPR, “Photographer and Writer Rosamond Purcell: In Her New Book, ‘Owls Head,’ She Finds Art in the Overlooked.” Fresh Air, 2 February 2004.
Purcell, Rosamond. Half-Life: Photographs. Boston: Godine, 1980.
—–. Owls Head: On the Nature of Lost Things, New York: Quantuck Lane Press: 2003.
Wilkins, Gordon, ed. Rosamond Purcell: Nature Stands Aside. New York: Rizzoli Electa and Andover: Addison Gallery of American Art, 2022.
Image at top: Rosamond Purcell’s studio, Somerville, MA, with a detail of Wall, mixed-media installation, complete size is 121 x 264 x 5 in. (307 x 671 x 13 cm; photo: Véronique Plesch, May 2018).