Arts & Culture

‘Egg & Nest’

2 min read

Natural perfection, ornithological ingenuity on display in exhibition

World-renowned photographer Rosamond Purcell’s photographs of exquisitely elegant eggs and remarkable nests are on view at the Harvard Museum of Natural History’s new exhibit, “Egg & Nest,” on display through March 15.

The Somerville, Mass.-based Purcell has worked in museum collections in the United States, Europe, and Russia in search of the visual wonder that comes from contemplating venerable natural history specimens. With the help of the curatorial staff, she explored the vast ornithological holdings of the Western Foundation of Vertebrate Zoology in California in order to capture the skills of the nest-builders and the surprisingly diverse beauty of their eggs. The resulting photographs present an artist’s view of natural history, and appear in her acclaimed recent book, “Egg & Nest,” published by Harvard University Press in 2008.

“Visually, nothing could be more different than an egg and a nest,” reads Purcell’s artist statement for the exhibition. “The first is always perfect, no matter what the outer variations in shape; an egg is endless, irreducible. A nest, on the other hand, is an artifact assembled by beak and claw, often messy, but always adapted to the needs of the next generation of birds.”

With the eye of an artist, Purcell captures the round perfection of an owl’s eggs and the brilliant gloss and range of color of tinamou eggs. In contrast, nest images demonstrate the ingenuity of the birds that build them. In Purcell’s photographs visitors can admire the nest of the great-tailed grackle, in which ribbons, twigs, lace, and audio tape serve as bedding for future chicks. Other memorable images include the nests of Anna’s hummingbirds, conveniently perched on the wire of a glass insulator; and the nest of Bell’s vireo, interwoven with a historic newspaper clipping from the early 20th century.