"An Art That Nature Makes: The Work of Rosamond Purcell" is the portrait of an artist who is not interested in portraits. Early in her career as a photographer, Ms. Purcell remarks, she stopped taking pictures of people. In the years since — she's 74 now — she has established herself as a visual poet of the inanimate, a still-life painter with a camera.
Not that such descriptions do justice to the extraordinary images sampled in Molly Bernstein's illuminating documentary. As its title and subtitle promise, this film is not principally biographical, though there is some information about Ms. Purcell's childhood and her marriage. Mostly, though, Ms. Bernstein invites us to see the world through the lens of her subject, to explore the sources and methods that yield such striking and marvelous photographs.
Photography turns out to be just one aspect of a creative process that has its roots in the urge to collect and classify objects of all kinds. We accompany Ms. Purcell on several visits to a scrapyard in Owls Head, Me., a 13-acre warren of detritus that is really a work of environmental art in its own right. There she scaven ges for wooden duck heads, old bottles and water-damaged books, purchasing them from the owner, William Buckminster, whose devotion to things establishes him as one of Ms. Purcell's kindred souls.
Others include the filmmaker Errol Morris, who is interviewed, and the Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, who collaborated with Ms. Purcell on many books, articles and exhibitions. She is as drawn to systematically organized natural history collections as she is to the anarchy of Mr. Buckminster's junkyard, and especially fascinated by the anomalies and serendipitous patterns that can be found in large accumulations of stuff.
Death and decay figure prominently in her photographs. The phrase "still life" ("dead nature" in French) carries a connotation of mortality, and the objects she chooses exist in various states of preservation or decomposition. There are creatures fished out of formaldehyde, volumes flecked with rot, birds that have been hollowed out and s tuffed, household tools battered beyond recognition. The effect of seeing all this is certainly haunting, but too beautiful to be morbid.
Like film, still photography is a form haunted by its late arrival in history. There are artists who seek to overcome this limitation by simulating what, for example, the movies of the Victorian era might have looked like.
Ms. Purcell, whose work recalls a time when the visual arts were often closely linked to scientific inquiry and philosophical speculation, uses her camera to accomplish a more radical species of time travel. Before seeing Ms. Bernstein's documentary, I had seen and admired some of Ms. Purcell's art, but never taken the full measure of her accomplishment. Now it's clear to me that she is without question our greatest living 17th-century photographer.
"An Art That Nature Makes: The Work of Rosamond Purcell" is not rated. Running time: 1 hour 15 minutes.Continue reading the main story
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