Bookworm: Photographs by Rosamond Purcell
4 September—16 December 2007
In her 1977 essay On Photography, Susan Sontag 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.” The abstraction of objects as we know them is what draws us to Rosamond Purcell’s photographs.
What is so striking about Bookworm, Purcell’s latest publication, is that we recognize what we are seeing and at the same time we do not recognize it at all. Yale English professor John Crowley writes: “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.” “How they got that way” is precisely what makes them so intriguing to the viewer.
Literary critic Sven Birkerts remarked about Purcell’s images: ”At first I was drawn by way of light, color, and sharply textured shapes into what seemed to be some kind of excavation site.” Many of the photographs in Bookworm represent books and “book-like things,” as she calls them, in various states of decomposition and recomposition. They are ruins, but not of the kind excavated by archaeologists. Instead, these ruins were created by the industrious excavations of insects and rodents, shipworms, termites, and mice. Her photograph, Foucault’s Pendulum, is one of those images that haunted Birkert after seeing them for the first time: “When I say that the work haunted me, I mean that it stuck in my mind for days as a charged retinal after-image.”
Serving as curator to the objects and materials that she photographs, Purcell manipulates these images in a different way than in her previous work. “My process of working with words and pictures,” she writes, “is like assembling a masticated language; a rebus-language made of letters and images. I took a cue from the mouse (or mice) that had consumed half of [the book] Flying Hostesses of the Air and assembled a structure of syllables and straw. I built new forms from fragments.… My job is to rip, soak, break, align, realign, burnish, and glue.” The end result is an extraordinary compilation of images that each draw on the “symbolic potency” of lettered pages and, in so doing, add to it.