In Molly Bernstein’s documentary “An Art That Nature Makes: The Work of Rosamond Purcell,” a portrait of human curiosity emerges. Finding beauty in the abject object, Rosamond Purcell’s photography captures natural oddities and deteriorating found materials with an artful eye. The film showcases the unique, interdisciplinary energy of the photographer’s decades-long career and transforms it into a cohesive narrative of perseverance, dedication and care.
Through a delicate interweaving of interviews with scholars and luminaries, such as filmmaker Errol Morris; archival footage of Owls Head, Me., once a 13-acre repository of “junk” that is now bare; and Purcell’s own photography, the documentary reaches beyond the purely biographical.
“I have to say it’s a huge relief to me to know this film is and is not about me,” Purcell told REEL 13. “It’s the subject matter. It’s about ideas. It’s about having ideas.”
In this way, the film, much like Purcell’s photographs, is an act of preservation.
“Rosamond and Dennis [Purcell’s husband] had so much archival material, aside from all the photographs,” Bernstein said. Included in the archival material was footage of Owls Head, which became a binding thread of the film. “We thought, ‘Wow, there is actual footage of this place that is now gone that was so significant to her work.’”
The footage, which shows Purcell sifting through scraps and climbing on piles of debris, acts as a foil to excursions into collections, where gloved scholars carefully handle the specimens for Purcell. Subtly portrayed in the film, the tension between the photographer and the scholars comes to light in a pointed conversation about the artistic significance (or lack thereof, as Paul Callomon argues: “There is no such thing as looking at something scientifically, and then looking at it aesthetically”) of wood drilled through by mollusks.
“I learned pretty quickly that I better develop some sort of vocabulary and some sort of strategy,” explained Purcell about approaching collections. “I wasn’t just coming in and saying, ‘Got another one?’ I knew what I was talking about.”
Beyond gaining access to collections, Purcell’s ability to speak and collaborate with experts outside of her field, such as Stephen Jay Gould (who Purcell described as a “real historian of past scientists and attitudes, as well as a paleontologist, a geologist, biologist”), creates a bridge between scientific thought and aesthetic interest.
“One of the things I love in the film is when Rosamond talks about ‘hybrid vigor’ — about how much she loves working with people who do things different from what she does instead of collaborating with other artists,” Bernstein said. “I think that’s one of the fundamental ideas behind all of the work, this bringing together of art and science.”
By recasting the scientific or discarded object as worthy of artistic elevation, Purcell exposes its potential to bear new symbolic interpretation, to carry the weight of its experiences into new shades of meaning.
“Most material things and animals have had a lot of experience,” Purcell said. “And something that is just pristine, doesn’t have any incident, hasn’t been through a lot, doesn’t have much to record.”
In this way, Purcell fills the present with the past in a way that urges the viewer to take note of what they may not be looking at, to notice how objects shift and morph to emote their history.
As for Purcell, she too is shifting. Ending on a shot of an emptied and snow-covered Owls Head, the film suggests a blank canvas, a new beginning.
“Every day you’re sort of like a pilgrim,” said Purcell about continuing her work. “Every day, you get up, and you put on your boots, and you go forward.”
—By Brittany Stigler