Rosamond Purcell is a photographer of some renown. Her artwork is in the permanent collections of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the National Academy of Sciences. For decades, she collaborated with evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould, creating images that explored “the murky boundary between art and science . . . and the universal need to collect and classify.” (The quote is from the wonderful documentary An Art That Nature Makes: The Work of Photographer Rosamond Purcell.) The author Jonathan Safran Foer has asked, “What kind of genius is Rosamond Purcell? Is she an artist? A scholar? A documentarian? A living cabinet of wonders? Her originality defies category.”
She’s exactly the type of person I would love to ask questions of for hours, but on a sunny June afternoon, she’s the one peppering me with queries. “What was his favorite insect? Do you have any of his original writings?”
She’s asking about the late Duncan McDonald, who taught biology at Middlebury from 1967 to 1985, and whose extensive collection of preserved insects is the property of the College’s Biology Department. Five years ago, we brought Rosamond to campus to photograph Middlebury’s ornithological collection, and she’s here on a return assignment to catalog insects. Her curiosity about the collector satisfied, she turns her focus to the specimens themselves.
She and her “assistant”—her husband, Dennis—have arranged several drawers filled with insects on the ottomans in BiHall’s Tormondsen Great Hall; Rosamond prefers to use natural light and says that “this is the time of day when things start to look good to me.” She lifts her camera and starts to take pictures.
“I’m very interested in making images of things right in front of you; all you’re doing is photographing them, but in photographing them, they are changed from what you’re actually looking at.”
“The kind of photography I go for is one where I’m evoking something rather than studying something.”
The object of her attention is a gorgeous luna moth. “So beautiful. I wish everybody could have this pleasure, looking through this lens.”