Fraying, tattered, cracked, flattened, swollen, dried, scrawny, collapsed, shredded, peeling, torn, warped, weathered, faded, bristling, moldy, clenched, tangled, punctured, battered, bashed-in, scooped-out, withered, engorged, trampled, toppled, crushed, bald, listing, leaning, twisting, hanging, buried, wedged, impaled, straggling, stretched, disjointed, disembowelled, skinned, docked, gnawed, entrenched.

—Rosamond Purcell, Owls Head

A difficulty with writing about the photographs of Rosamond Purcell is that she is such an exact and vivid writer about them herself. It sometimes seems that all a critic would need to do to sufficiently examine her work is to quote her own account of it. Here is her description of the subject of one of her images, an open, termite-chewed book:

The pages looked like a stack of thin sandwiches after children had dug into the soft parts—eaten the butter, the meat and most of the bread—but left untouched, as despised, the delicate crusts. Printed in French in eighteenth-century type, the lumps of uneaten matter stood high like islands on a relief map. Piles of sandy-orange termite leavings were packed into the crevices throughout.

The word for written descriptions, in prose or verse, of works of art is ekphrasis (the poet John Hollander has written an entire volume on the possibilities it presents to writer and reader). Purcell’s description is of a subject before it becomes a work of art; and yet it is also a description of the work that results—she describes the objects and things that she has chosen to photograph in light, as it were, of the photograph that she will make, or has made. It wouldn’t do simply to string together a selection of these ekphrases of hers, though the temptation is strong:

I have gathered up books in all phases of decay . . . I find a poetry book unfurled to the rain. It has a clotted look, like wet wool, as words, letters and syllables swell. Some words are now elongated, some lines swung round ninety degrees. Verses slide away under the rain dragged by the weight of paper into gullies and pulp dikes. The book slumps to the touch, malleable as clay, its lines broken in half into crooked Js and Ls, mushed Ms, Ts, and independent commas. Liberated letters gather like the limbs of insects at the base of the churned-up embankments, and as the book dries, real insects—silverfish, sow bugs, and very tiny ants—will join them. The poems metamorphose into concrete poems, the original strophes transformed into the cryptic warp and drift of paper and ink.

But in the end, no matter how vivid and circumstantial and charged with perceptive metaphor her descriptions are, the works that result—particularly seen in the flesh, full-sized and first-generation—are always a surprise.

Susan Sontag, in her 1977 essay “On Photography,” insisted that “what a photograph is of is always of primary importance. . . . We don’t know how to react to a photograph . . . until we know what piece of the world it is.” This frank avowal was challenging to the photographers of that time, who were often troubled by photography’s ambiguous status as art. They were alert to modes of working that could move the first question out of the what realm and into the realm of what Henry James called “free selection,” the realm of art and the artist’s choice. Henry Holmes Smith, with whom I studied photography in the 1960s, chose to work entirely in abstraction, making negatives without a camera, pouring various substances (Karo syrup was one) over glass plates and enlarging them.

Smith once gave his class two questions to answer: “What does a photograph look like?” and “What should a photograph look like?” These aren’t the first questions that would be asked today, but they encapsulate the anxiety that photographers (and critics) then were feeling. I recently rediscovered my own long-ago answers, which Smith published in a journal of the period called Memo. “A photograph,” I wrote, “should look like a tension between a reality and the fact of the recording of that reality.” I didn’t examine what might be meant by “reality,” but I claimed that while several painters set before the same subject produce different paintings—in fact, different objects—several photographers set before the same subject produce different photographs—but not different objects. “Minor White [an important name in the photography of that time] wonders to what extent he owns the images he makes,” I wrote. “He doesn’t own them at all. What he owns is the tension between his claim on them and their inviolable otherness.”

We are asked to examine Purcell’s recording with the same wonder, salted with revulsion, that she has brought to her examination of the object.

Since then, that anxiety in photography (or in photographers) has slackened or evaporated, along with a lot of other earnest questions about intention and attention in art. In Cindy Sherman’s photographs there is no ambiguity between recorded object and recording, though the ambiguity of the artist’s project remains. In my student essay I claimed that retouched studio portraits are what photographs should not look like, because in them all harmonic tension between the thing recorded and the fact of recording had dissolved. Yet the recent hearts-and-flowers studio portraits of Pierre et Gilles, of glossy pink-faced sailors in phony settings and valentine framing, record nothing, and assert blandly that recording is not the point. Rosamond Purcell’s photographs—all still lifes—are of things, and they are usually things we recognize, whether we have encountered them before or not; but our recognition is undermined because we don’t know how they got that way. We are asked to examine her recording with the same wonder, salted with revulsion, that she has brought to her examination of the object. The tension in them, sometimes strong enough to cause a palpable sensation on the viewer’s skin, results from a transcendence intimately and inseparably bound up in thingness.

Rosamond Purcell has collected her photographic work in a number of volumes in which the impulse for or context of the pictures is given generous space. For a book with the magician and sleight-of-hand master Ricky Jay (Dice: Deception, Fate, and Rotten Luck) she made an astonishing suite of photographs of celluloid dice; celluloid is a notoriously unstable substance, unlike the plastics that it foreshadowed and resembles, and it corrodes, foams, and suppurates wonderfully. Rotten luck indeed.

With Stephen Jay Gould she has turned to the old natural history museums and collections, where the skins, bones, carapaces, shells, and preserved bodies remain, the corpus of the taxonomical and classificatory project of the last 300 years (Finders, Keepers: Eight Collectors). These bottled, boxed, and labeled items retain their places in an order, of course, but as photographed by Purcell they also divorce themselves from their classifications and look outward (those that have eyes, and those that seem to possess them), demanding to be seen as singular, irreducible and unique. Thus the stated topics of her collaborations always seem to be about to evanesce or lose their grip over the contents, at least the pictorial contents. I think this is quite conscious if not quite deliberate.

• • •

Bookworm, a new volume of Purcell’s work that has appeared from the Quantuck Lane Press, collects pictures made over a period of years in some of the modes that Purcell favors. In this book, though, she is her own collaborator, and the context is her reflections on her career and ambitions. I recently studied and read it in conjunction with her narrative Owls Head (2003), in which the pictures are mostly footnotes in humble black-and-white. Some of these appear large and in color in Bookworm—many, but not all, are of ruined books; the title is a complex of referents. The two books are companion pieces, the later sometimes quoting from the earlier.

Those who have long known Purcell’s studies of natural history museums and other highly organized realms of preservation can now follow, in these volumes, her more recent search for photographic subjects in a fabulous kingdom of semi-organized dissolution: an eleven-acre junkyard in Owls Head, Maine. Her book of that name recounts her coming to discover it, her explorations of it, her conversations or attempts at same with the owner, William Buckminster, and the reflections he and his world have engendered. This description suggests a chatty memoir or travelog or Most Remarkable Person anecdotal tale, but if it is any of those things it is so by a kind of intense indirection. Far more of it is about the things she finds, her longing to have them, her delicate negotiations with Buckminster (who seems reluctant to part with them, and to suspect Purcell’s motives in acquiring them, as possibly tending to his or his establishment’s dishonor) and her obsessive building of a “collection” in which every item is unique.

Buckminster seen through the prism of his stuff evolves into a rich and almost novelistic figure. For all his random piles of this and that, he seems weirdly precise and exacting, cutting his cord of wood before breakfast and beveling each log to fit in the pile: “They point in one direction like dozens of the same breed of dog facing the wind.” He is conscious of his long lineage in this part of the world; he mourns his dead wife, with whom he was close—his reclusion seems to have intensified with her death. But he is also a tournament pool player well known throughout that part of the world. Purcell’s cautious affection for him is displayed in the strange day they spend going to see a show of her work, and to her studio to see what she’s done with her purchases. He is amazed, in fact—according to Purcell—but what he says first is, “The garden club ought to see this”: his longtime nemesis, always after him to clean up his eyesore in Owls Head.

To the things Purcell has rescued, or at any rate taken, from Buckminster’s literally bottomless store (the bottom layers are retreating into the earth on which they lie) are added things that her friends bring her, things that they guess will be what she wants: “rocks, roots, ashes from volcanic eruptions, small skeletons of rodents, mammals, birds and fish, prehistoric axes from Australia, a carved goat skull from East Timor, a hunk of bread from a World War One prison in France.”

Purcell’s ways of making sense—and eventually pictures—of her collections vary almost as much as the things themselves, systems of classification resembling those in Borges’s imagined Chinese encyclopedia. Some of her items take on meaning by juxtaposition. A mummified cat and a pitted one of concrete go together with pitted volcanic stones, because such stones falling from the sky were once called “lynx stones,” and their sulfuric odor was like cat piss. Or do the stones and the concrete cat go together with the piece of wormholed bread from France as “Things that have holes”?

An overarching category (if Purcell’s extreme nominalism can permit such a thing) is the category of the sublimely diminished, things that, as she says, are bereft of their original potential yet still familiar. “I have chipped these things from the matrix of the almighty thingness of our all-American world, and, as I did not stop to mourn their demise, why not revel now in their inevitable disintegration?”

Disintegration might be said to be Purcell’s persistent concern, if the word is understood in its full sense: not only rotting, rusting, corrupted, turning-to-dirt, fading, losing qualities, but the loss of that integrated meaning that a thing or things once had—use, for instance, or function; place in a hierarchy, name, meaning, logos. She likes things that are tagged and numbered, but only, it seems, if the tag or number has so lost its defining or delimiting power that it actually emphasizes the subject’s loss of place in a sequence or list, its devolution to uniqueness. Stephen Jay Gould was a lover of oddities and the apparently inconsequential and unrelated, because sufficient wit and thought and imagination could track the hints that they were not unrelated but in fact linked in a dense net of relation. In Finders, Keepers he relates the scientific odyssey of Eugen Dubois, discoverer of Homo erectus (1892), collector of primate and other brain casts, to show that what Dubois was passionately wrong about holds a general truth about the multifarious world. Purcell is as intrigued by the fact that Dubois kept his brain casts—small suggestive white shapes—in cigar boxes. When photographed open, the bright chromo of the Victorian cigar-box label comments, or doesn’t, or might, on the strange shapes within, like petrified puffs.

Disintegration might be said to be Purcell’s persistent concern, if the word is understood in its full sense: not only rotting, rusting, corrupted, turning-to-dirt, fading, losing qualities, but the loss of that integrated meaning that a thing or things once had

Purcell has constructed what she calls “insect boxes” in imitation of the scientific collectors’ boxes she has photographed. She considers the contents to be like rebuses; they reflect as though in a dream her long and intense engagement with the “finical” classification systems practiced in museums. To me they resemble the neatly numbered and over-explicit Audubon-like animal paintings of Walton Ford, in which exactness masks and at the same time intensifies an underlying chaos and even horror. Purcell once was refused by a curator when she wanted to photograph one of his many splendid toads preserved in jars. “Not my Booby!” he cried—because the one she’d chosen was his type specimen, the original specimen that defines a distinct biological species. What if the photographic process somehow harmed it, blanched its pigmentations? The idea of photographing something that was only important as bearing the defining characteristics of a type for its own sake was to him meaningless and even alarming. On the other hand, Michael Sappol, commenting in his book Dream Anatomy on Purcell’s photographs of anatomical specimens, notes that such specimens were “originally designed to exemplify the particulars of human anatomy and pathology, and also to amaze.” In Purcell’s photographs of preserved babies in fluid, eyes closed as in sleep or serenely open, the exemplification is gone, and amazement—even a kind of sacred awe—is what remains.

• • •

I call Purcell a nominalist in the philosophical sense, or even the scholastic sense. Medieval nominalists were opposed to realists, who thought that organizing categories, types, concepts, had a real, not merely a notional, existence; the treeness that all trees share was as real a thing as any individual tree. The nominalists said that such categories were mere names, not realities, a human mental construct, a handy tool; every existent thing was unique in itself, and not just an emanation of some overarching logos.

As an instinctive nominalist, Purcell not only recognizes but delights in the transformation of the standard, or the example, into the unique instance, especially when a thing that was actually manufactured as one of a kind in the mass-production sense passes through stages of resemblance to other things, even as its own thingness evaporates. From Owls Head:

Each machine-made thing starts out as a replica of its own kind. As self-similar objects disintegrate, clones turn into fraternal twins, into kinships, into singular incarnations. The process of disintegration that reduces complex machinery to its fundamental crumbs is the inverse of the process of embryological development—from a gleaming brand-name toaster, say, to its wire skeleton to shadows of rust.

Or the celluloid dice—“warped, crumbling, and sometimes smelly”—where chemical decomposition delightfully altered products that were supposed to be entirely standardized and fungible into something uselessly particular. Or the ruined and barely recognizable typewriter she names Underwoodensis corrupta, “a close invertebrate cousin to an echinoid . . . It . . .  comes from the place where metaphors are made.”

Purcell’s nominalism draws her to metaphors, even to whimsical equivalences. “If the eye orbit of a fossil horse looks like a volcanic depression, doesn’t this mean appearance has delivered two realities for the price of one?” Metaphor is a long-standing strategy of photographers facing the Sontag insistence that what a photograph is of is the first question. Edward Weston’s pepper resembling a nude body (or nude body resembling a pepper), his cabbage leaf that might be Marie Antoinette’s train, shift our attention away from the thing the photograph is of to what it might be of. Photographers use isolation, removal of scale, telephoto effects, to disorient us, so that we can’t tell whether what we look at is big (volcanic depression) or small (fossil bone). Nor are all such affecting resemblances the choice of the photographer: “When I train the camera on a stone, the bark of a tree, a roll of burned tinfoil,” Purcell says, “I think I know what will appear on film but sometimes shapes emerge I had not anticipated.” Minor White called these metaphoric interpenetrations, arising from the matrix of the seen world, “gifts of the camera”; he would not value similar metaphors constructed by arrangement or deliberation. Those nudes, common in the Photography Annuals of my youth, that amalgamated female torsos and sand dunes or waterfalls to make statements about the eternal feminine, show that photo metaphors can be as cheesy as those in any bad poem, unredeemed by the facticity of the stuff that was photographed to make them.

The whole conception of metaphor in photography, whether created, discovered, worked up, accidental-on-purpose, or truly a gift of the camera, is something of a misdirection.

Rosamond Purcell in her most constructed works (several of them are shown in Bookworm) employs bits of this and that as a collagist does, to create scenes and topoi that didn’t exist before, thereby setting up a tension in the work that could be called metaphoric. This is of course a longstanding art procedure. Baroque artists liked to take multicolored shells or thin sheets of alabaster and with paint or other means enhance the cloudscapes or faces or whatever that they saw in the natural swirls and irregularities. Her procedure of placing certain ambiguous objects in relation to each other to suggest some third thing resembles Leonardo’s advice to painters to find faces in old stone walls or landscapes in a rumpled cloth left out in the weather to stain. The photographer Vik Muniz, in a stratagem that might at first seem to resemble Purcell’s, photographs a huge space that is filled with industrial junk, the junk arranged in such a way that, shot from high above, it creates the lights and shadows of Goya’s Saturn Devouring One of His Children.

But it seems to me that the whole conception of metaphor in photography, whether created, discovered, worked up, accidental-on-purpose, or truly a gift of the camera, is something of a misdirection. It’s an attempt to restore to the thing the photograph is of the abstracted quality that a subject in a painting has. Purcell more exactly identifies the power and appeal of her core work, even as she places it the realm of metaphor. She writes in Owls Head that her appeal to metaphor was rarely effective in getting the curators of natural history museums to let her combine unlike things in pictures—a shocking solecism to a classifier—but she herself knew that “because many things look like other things, the archive from a single museum, even the contents of a single drawer, may expand when photographed to reveal an infinite number of things.”

This is not metaphor but metonymy, which is, I think, more exactly what we mean when we experience the suggestive power of certain photographs, or of things photographed in certain ways. Metonymy can be defined as the use of a word that signifies a whole, or a quality of a whole, to represent a part or a transient state of something. When we say “Iraq resisted American invasion” we understand “Iraq” to mean the armed forces of Iraq, the soldiers, the officers, the people, or certain people, none of them singularly or even in combination amounting to “Iraq”; it’s more than a shorthand and less than a symbol. But metonymy can also mean the use of the name of a part of something to suggest the whole of it (in this sense also called “synecdoche”). We say “the stage” to mean the whole realm of actors, producers, theaters, plays, performances, audiences, and all else in that realm of life.

The difference, in relation to pictorial work, is that metaphor employs the pictured thing solely as a vehicle for meaning; in metonymy it is present as itself, only pointing us toward what it also stands for. To say “my love is like a red, red rose” gives us no rose, only my love; but to say “I’ll be with you in apple-blossom time” gives us apple blossoms, from which we derive the spring. Purcell’s pictures are of things undeniably; those things point to wholes or to categories that are beyond themselves, or to which they might belong: “Things that have holes” or “Things that look like letters but are not letters” (insect legs scattered over a corrupted text or musical score) or “Intimations that all is vanity” or “Subtrahends of forgotten systems” or all of those. We cannot determine fully what the indicated categories might be, but their existence, and the infinite number of unique things they might contain, inform our gazing at the irreducible quiddity of the few or single things she has shown.

So there is a tension arising in Purcell’s metonymies, resulting from her sturdy nominalism: she will not let these burned, wormholed, damp-ruined books, these moldered feathers and seed-pods, foxes’ skins, locks rusted to inscrutability, simply stand for in the sense of “substitute for,” or “be put to the use of indicating.” They are too singular; in fact their singularity and resistance to use, even by us as viewers, is exactly their draw and their appeal, to her and to us: they proffer possibilities of meaning without definition or circumscription. In this they are like those things in dreams that we shy from or are drawn to and when we wake can’t understand why (and aren’t many of them ruined or corrupted or seething with creepy life or out of place or in process from state to state?). The wise intensity of her gaze on these things that she has first discovered, then gathered, then posed, and her skill in transmitting that gaze through the medium of photography is in a way the shaman’s skill of investing power in a shell, a tooth, a bone mallet, and a drumhead of skin, at the same time as he draws his power from it.

I recently re-saw (why is there no visual equivalent of the word “reread”?) the 1988 film Alice, by Jan Svankmajer, the great Czech stop-motion animator. His version of Alice in Wonderland is so full of connections to the work and spirit of Purcell as to seem nearly a collaboration. Svankmajer’s Alice, a dark fearless girl, becomes a chipped antique doll when she drinks the inky potion that makes her small; the White Rabbit is a decaying stuffed specimen who tears himself from the box he is kept in, pulling out the nail that pins his foot, and thereafter leaks stuffing loathsomely. Alice falls through a world of things bottled in dark fluid that may be animal parts but also include buttons, keys, and other things; she makes her way through piles of soiled junk, drinks from stained, cracked porcelain. Things transmute, as she observes or takes hold of them, from animate to inanimate and back (a scene of ancient socks that become wriggly snakes or caterpillars who bore sawdusty holes in a wooden floor, then crawl in and out of them). In all of this Alice is unafraid; more, she is curious (“curiouser and curiouser”) and attracted to the things offered, even the bugs that pour from opened cans and the rotted fabrics and papers—avid for strangeness, selective and judgmental, but willing, always, to go farther. Rosamond Purcell is an Alice in a wonderland she has herself sought out.