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.

What, then, is Purcell doing photographing pit vipers with prey in their mouths, babies' disembodied arms in jars, and syphilitics' tongues? The answer leads back to a spring day in 1979, when she showed up at the Museum of Comparative Zoology to photograph dead animals.

That story in turn begins some ten years earlier, when Purcell's husband-to-be, Dennis Purcell (the son of Harvard's Nobel laureate astrophysicist Edward Purcell, a former assistant to Ansel Adams, a photographer and artist in his own right, and also a computer engineer), gave her a Polaroid camera. The twenty-seven-year-old Rosamond Wolff had been teaching French and writing fiction, but almost immediately she found her artistic medium in photography, a discipline she had never given much respect. "I thought that photographers were shortsighted and didn't have an understanding of how complicated the world was," she says. "I didn't think that taking pictures would be very gratifying, but it turned out that for twenty years it was all I wanted to do."

Purcell began by taking photos of friends and relatives, as anyone might, but she quickly reached a level of expertise. Her black-and-white Polaroids, which she wrapped in diapers for protection and showed to the prominent photographer Minor White, were startlingly good. Light captures a woman and a birdbath in a fragmented mirror, carves unexpected shapes out of silverware, scissors, and human bodies, reflects off windows to superimpose incongruous images. In 1973 White exhibited her photos at MIT, where he taught photography, and then Purcell took them to the publisher David Godine, a friend of hers, who brought out her first book, A Matter of Time, in 1975.

By 1979, tired of "shoving models around," she was in need of new inspiration. Having grown up in Harvard's environs, she was well aware of the Museum of Comparative Zoology, and she decided to confront her fear of its contents. "I went to the museum because I didn't like museums," she says. "I was afraid, and I don't like being afraid of things. I had an aversion to the things in those collections -- I still do. But when I actually looked at the animals in the museum, they had qualities I didn't expect to find, abstract and aesthetic qualities that had nothing to do with my apprehension. And my instincts about what to photograph were all that mattered; it didn't matter whether I liked what I photographed."

Denizens of the museum, including the partly digested economics volume, appeared in her second book, Half-Life (1980), and were later featured in her two collaborations with Gould and in their regular column in The Sciences magazine. Emboldened by her victory over the museum's shadowy figures, Purcell turned to a source of even greater anxiety: ill-formed human beings (the study of which is called teratology). In 1992, when Purcell was eight weeks into her tenure as a visiting artist at the Getty Institute, in Santa Monica, California, a director there noticed that she was spending all her time searching for teratological specimens in the photographic library. He invited her to give a talk about them, and then, in 1993, after Purcell had traveled to Europe to photograph monsters real (in museums) and imagined (on church walls), he suggested that she curate an exhibit on the topic. "Special Cases" the exhibit led in turn to Special Cases the book.

Beginning with the first-century Roman museum of Pompey the Great, which boasted "the statue of a woman who had given birth to an elephant, a boy with the head of a dog, and a still-born child from a male homosexual," Special Cases traces our fascination with and dread of human abnormality. It turns from spectacles of dubious authenticity to actual human beings, probing "the inescapable relationship between a dreamed-up monster and its painfully viable counterpart." Anomalous children, Purcell explains in the book,

have been buried unbaptized at birth; baptized and then buried, thrown into the sea, or allowed to live if they "had all human parts," no matter how many or few. They've been shown for profit to gawking crowds or hidden from public view; when grown, they've been used as scapegoats in the marketplace, tortured to console the torturer, honored at court as rare and singular phenomena, and employed, paradoxically, as counselors to powerful emperors. . . . For sheer strangeness, public reaction may exceed the biological realities themselves.

Purcell is certainly not the first to examine the place of anomalous conditions in the human psyche. Giants populate the Bible and Greek literature; Gulliver's Travels explores the experiences of both gigantism and dwarfism; and many twentieth-century writers, including Vladimir Nabokov and John Barth, have used conjoined twins (commonly called "Siamese twins" after the most celebrated pair, the nineteenth-century Chang and Eng) as fictional characters. In Freaks, Leslie Fiedler recalled his nervous excitement at the spiel of the sideshow "talker."

I feel my spine tingle and my heart leap as I relive the wonder of seeing for the first time my own most private nightmares on public display out there.

It is our fear of these private nightmares, Purcell writes, that causes us to demonize the abnormal. As she has in the past with such items as the 2,000-year-old feet of a Danish "bog person" and the mouth and nose (and I mean only the mouth and nose) of a long-dead Spaniard, in her new book she confronts and transforms the duality of self and monstrous other. Through her lens the skeletons of Bolognese conjoined twins, with a rare vestigial third leg, appear as though in an intimate dance. The skeleton of a nineteenth-century seven-foot, six-inch giant has an elegance that its owner probably never enjoyed in life.

With this subject matter Purcell seems to have tapped into the zeitgeist. A popular Broadway show last season was Side Show, a musical based on the life of the Hilton sisters -- conjoined twins who captured some fleeting fame in the 1920s and 1930s. A bearded lady, Jennifer Miller, who embraces her condition and performs not as a freak but as a feminist educator and entertainer, was profiled last fall in The New York Times. A hundred years ago performers from the Barnum and Bailey Circus, led by their own Bearded Lady, Miss Annie Jones, held a meeting in London to call for a less "opprobrious" classification than "freaks." The euphemism they agreed on, "prodigies," seems about a century ahead of its time. Only now are the human anomalous receiving the respect that other persecuted groups have found in recent decades.

"A FRIEND just gave me the most wonderful thing," Purcell said to me toward the end of our visit. "He said he'd been thinking of me all week, ever since he found a mummified cat under his barn. I have it right back here. But you probably don't want to see it." Then, with glee, she added, "Oh, you do?"

She went to the refrigerator in the studio's small kitchen and opened the freezer. "It's in here with two pigeons and a squirrel." I thought of the sandwich she had been eating when I arrived. Had it come out of that fridge? She brought out a package swaddled in bubble wrap (the diaper days are over), and we knelt on either side of it on the floor. The cat was a big one, but his carcass weighed only a pound or so. His skin, like desiccated leather, formed hard, tight wrinkles on his belly; his ears were like petrified petals. His empty eye sockets were expressionless, but the cat's posture was one of repose. "I think he died peacefully, don't you?" Purcell asked.

The cat will no doubt someday find his way into Cibachrome, perhaps nestled up to a rodent-ravaged history book or outlined against a rusted hunk of fifty-year-old Maine metal. Like the hydrocephalic child and the Bolognese twins, this creature will live another life, more enduring than its natural one and in peace, at last, forever.

Purcell wrapped the cat up again and returned him to the freezer. "Would you like a cookie?" she asked. "But first we'd better wash our hands. This is definitely a studio where you wash your hands."

Marshall Jon Fisher is a co-author, with David E. Fisher, of
(1996). Their book about the search for extraterrestrial life will be published this fall.

Photographs by Rosamond Purcell

The Atlantic Monthly; April 1998; An Eye for Anomaly; Volume 281, No. 4; pages 37 - 40.