‘An Art That Nature Makes: The Work of Photographer Rosamond Purcell’

An old discarded book transformed by the steady work of hungry termites. A meticulously arranged box of human molars collected by Peter the Great. A soliloquy from Shakespeare evoked from the strange, reflective swirls and defects in an antique mercury bottle. These are a few of the many mesmerizing images featured in the film “An Art That Nature Makes: The Work of Rosamond Purcell,” which brings to public attention a major photographer long underrecognized by the art world.

A collector of objects who is also deeply curious about the universal human urge to collect, Purcell and her obsessive eye are themselves difficult to classify. This blurry boundary is well captured by writer Jonathan Safran Foer when he asks: “Is she an artist? A scholar? A documentarian? A living cabinet of wonders? Her originality defies category.”

The daughter of an eminent Harvard University historian, Purcell grew up in a rarified academic environment, one in which literacy and the written word were preeminent values. But while her initial ambitions to be a writer were in some sense fulfilled — her book “Owls Head: On the Nature of Lost Things” shows her to be an accomplished prose stylist — she found her true métier in images.

And it is the images that take center stage in “An Art That Nature Makes,” images that are both emotionally and intellectually challenging. Supplemented by her own interviews and that of a lively crew of commentators including filmmaker Errol Morris and magician/author Ricky Jay, her work is analyzed in ways that spur us to view time and mortality from new and unusual angles.

The film begins and ends with scenes of her 20-year relationship with Owls Head, a massive and unruly 13-acre junkyard in Maine, and her friendship with its proprietor, William Buckminster. In the retrieval of carefully selected objects from the junkyard — and in the photographing of those objects back in her studio — we see the essence of her obsessions and her engagement with collecting and classification. In-between we are treated to the highlights of an extraordinary career comprising portraiture, large-format Polaroids, collage, a re-creation of the wonder cabinet of the 17th-century Danish natural philosopher Ole Worm and stunning collaborations with biologist/writer Stephen Jay Gould and Ricky Jay.

In “An Art That Nature Makes,” the timeless themes of disintegration and metamorphosis find new and unexpected expression.

Purcell’s numerous books include “Book Nest, “Illuminations,” “A Glorious Enterprise: The Museum of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia,”and “Owls Head: On the Nature of Lost Things.” Her work has been exhibited at many major museums throughout the United States and Europe, and is in the permanent collections of the Museum of Fine Arts (Boston), the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the National Academy of Science, and the Victoria and Albert in London.

An Art That Nature Makes: The Work of Rosamond Purcell” is being screened Aug. 10-16 at Film Forum in New York City (additional screenings are listed here). Molly Bernstein, director/editor; Alan Edelstein, producer; Philip Dolin, executive producer; presented by Bond360 and Particle Productions.

In conjunction with the release of “An Art That Nature Makes,” there will be an exhibit of Purcell’s work at Penumbra Foundation, 36 East 30th Street, New York City, Aug. 10 through Aug. 23; opening reception Aug. 9, 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.

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