The first thing Rosamond Purcell photographed at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology back in the 1980s was a pangolin, or scaly anteater, with “armor-like overlapping limpet shells and rapier claws.” The animal caught her eye because of its resemblance to a pinecone, so she placed a pinecone in the frame.
A seed was planted, and Purcell has since shot hundreds of photos at the MCZ alone — thousands more in her wide-ranging career. Purcell is speaking Thursday at 6 p.m. at the Harvard Museum of Natural History about the MCZ’s role in her evolution as an artist
Most of Purcell’s first photographs in the mid-70s were portraits of friends. Looking for a challenge, she wondered what would happen if she took photos of subjects she disliked or feared. Enter the MCZ. “I thought if I focused my lens on something that really gives me the creeps, I’d be getting somewhere.”
Her eye for the surreal poetry of decay and startling visual analogies has earned her acclaim. Her work has been displayed in science and art museums all over the world and recently she was the subject of a documentary, “An Art That Nature Makes.” She has written or illustrated some 20 books, three of which grew out of her 17-year collaboration with the late Harvard evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould.
“He gave a scientific legitimacy to things I was looking at as evocative images,” Purcell said, noting Gould often described their collaboration as “backwards.” Usually a scientist commissions an artist — “draw this or take a photo of that” — but Gould wrote text explaining the scientific principles underlying Purcell’s photographs.
What follows is a small sample of Purcell’s photographs, many captured at the MCZ. Most are taken from her first book with Gould, “Illuminations: A Bestiary.” With one exception, the quotes that describe them are Purcell’s.