An Eye for Anomaly

A photographer finds her subjects among things that are "not quite right"

SkeletonThe skeleton of a hydrocephalic
child, its skull pushed
open and outward by fluid

MANY people plant flower bulbs in the fall. Rosamond Purcell once planted a copy of Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison. The efflorescence, harvested the following spring, sits in a glass case in her Somerville, Massachusetts, studio. The pages are yellowed and browned, as though burned; some of the paper was eaten away by worms, and more of it was simply bleached by moisture and acids in the soil. Sentence fragments appear through holes or between whiteouts: "Unlike any novel," "choke myself," and, alone in the center of one page, "Negro."

Purcell is an internationally renowned photographer of natural-history specimens. The rotted book, along with the other objects she has amassed in her studio, reflects her fascination with "things that are transitional -- between natural and artificial," as she puts it, and with decomposition's way of forming strange and symbolic juxtapositions. The head of what was probably a child's rubber hobbyhorse, rescued from her favorite Maine junkyard, seems to be shedding a paint-chip tear. A piece of cement lobster-trap ballast bears the remnants of Sunday comics that were only partly successful in protecting it from barnacles: "I can feel a tremendous pressure building up in my brain!" Dagwood cries.
Dilapidated books -- those halfway back to whence they came -- are Purcell's favorite possessions. She has several full bookcases that look like they were painted there by Edvard Munch; the books have serpentine pastel spines, from which most of the titles have long been effaced. Here and there around the studio are small exhibits consisting of two or three books welded together by the elements, bleached out of recognition, and twisted and dried into what looks and feels like driftwood. Books are also the foundations of some of Purcell's "constructions" -- objects strategically arranged in small wooden cases, in the tradition of the artist Joseph Cornell. Whereas Cornell's constructions were romantic, though, often incorporating photos of movie stars or other pop icons, Purcell's tend to be concerned with the natural world. In one, for instance, glass and a bit of cloth create a bird's-eye view of crashing into a window.

Then there are the stacks of paper that Purcell sent to a biology-professor friend, who treated his laboratory termites to a feeding orgy before returning the stacks. "Look at the islands they formed in the paper," she says, as if admiring the work of a favorite artist. "I like the way they just left the edges, like kids who won't eat the crusts of their sandwiches."

Purcell, fifty-five and the mother of two grown sons, looks like the last person who would collect rodent remains (she has a rat skeleton from India and a mouse skeleton from Central Park) and termite leftovers, or produce the photographs for which she is best known. Collected in two books (her third and fourth) with text by the evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould, the photos feature specimens from museums of natural history around the world. Many are, simply, beautiful: Central American quetzal feathers arranged in a rainbow collage, ibis eggs covered in swirls of museum dust, a whale's jawbone that reminded Gould of the view of Arizona from an airplane. But others -- for example, parts of human babies preserved in jars -- will make some viewers recoil. These reflect Purcell's inclination toward the unusual, the disturbing, the incomplete. "When given a choice between six straight objects and a crooked one," she says, "or between six complete ones and one that's missing something, I will definitely want the one that's not quite right."

This predilection has been the driving force behind the collection in her studio: a congregation of survivors from a century of mass production and disposal. Shelves covering one wall of her studio hold a graveyard of dolls' heads and houses; birds' nests; figurine refugees from athletic trophies, toy armies, and wedding cakes; and so on. One corner sports a sort of plate-armor wallpaper made of painted and rusted scrap metal. Purcell occasionally uses the metal as background for a photo, but the real reason for collecting it is its "lovely patina and color and suggestibility," she says. "It's just extremely restful and compelling."

Purcell calls her mania for collecting "a semitragic inherited problem that kicks in in our late twenties." Her father, the eminent Harvard historian Robert Lee Wolff, numbered among his accomplishments an assemblage of English Victorian literature worthy of a five-volume catalogue. Her grandparents collected olive-oil soap and Chinese porcelain. Her own acquisitive urge germinated in 1979, around the time she discovered an old economics book, written in French, in Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology. Its insides had been largely eaten away by worms. "That was the first object," she says, "that I really wanted to own." She placed butterflies among the paper shards, which bore fragments of text; the pages, with their middles eaten away, looked like a stack of picture frames around a surrealist painting. After photographing the book she gave it back, but she soon began accumulating specimens of that ilk -- "objects that are no longer useful, but that still have the signature of what they were," as she puts it.

Two years later, while teaching at the Maine Photographic Workshop, in Rockport, Purcell discovered the junkyard that became her Mycenae. Several times a year she makes the four-hour trek north to prospect for inspiration. "I don't know if it's the junkyard of junkyards," she says, "but it's mine -- the only one I've haunted. It's like my own museum and art-supply store in one."

Purcell's interest in damaged goods, however, extends to a realm not represented in any junkyard. In the afterword to her first book with Gould, Illuminations (1986), she hinted at "an immense mythical world . . . of anomalies and monsters, both of which hovered at the brink, but not in the midst, of this volume." The fulfillment

of this flirtation came earlier this year, with the publication of Special Cases: Natural Anomalies and Historical Monsters, a literary and photographic meditation on human abnormalities both real and imagined. The text -- Purcell's first book-length published writing -- is reminiscent of Leslie Fiedler's Freaks (1978), but it trades the critic and social commentator's voice for that of the artist. For the photographs Purcell traveled from Harvard's collection to the Nationaal Natuurhistorische Museum in Leiden, the Netherlands, to St. Petersburg's Museum of Zoology, and elsewhere, turning "the victims and victors of anomalous conditions" -- giants and dwarfs, conjoined twins and people with half a body, albinos and piebalds -- into art. The cover photograph is a perfect example of Purcell's talent. In it the skeleton of a hydrocephalic child is not repellent; rather, it appears as animated as a Disney character, the skull inflating into the foreground, opening on top like a tulip in bloom.

PURCELL has never enjoyed horror shows or felt at ease among the monstrous. Like many of us, she was disturbed as a child by the sight of the maimed or the disabled. "I've always been one of those people who aren't very cool around deformities," she told me during a recent visit to her studio. "I was nervous around things that were not quite as expected -- they were a source of worry." For example, she was afraid to ride her tricycle because the boy next door, who would always come out to ride with her, was missing fingers on one hand.

Jump to comments
Presented by
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

CrossFit Versus Yoga: Choose a Side

How a workout becomes a social identity

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus


CrossFit Versus Yoga: Choose a Side

How a workout becomes a social identity


Is Technology Making Us Better Storytellers?

The minds behind House of Cards and The Moth weigh in.


A Short Film That Skewers Hollywood

A studio executive concocts an animated blockbuster. Who cares about the story?


In Online Dating, Everyone's a Little Bit Racist

The co-founder of OKCupid shares findings from his analysis of millions of users' data.


What Is a Sandwich?

We're overthinking sandwiches, so you don't have to.


Let's Talk About Not Smoking

Why does smoking maintain its allure? James Hamblin seeks the wisdom of a cool person.


More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In