Interview: Rosamond Purcell

An interview with the author/photographer Rosamond Purcell for in August 1999. Unfortunately a lot of the interview was cut and the editor focused on the description of the book to support the photo gallery – their choice, not mine, but that’s what editors are supposed to do, make choices. This interview was in the top ten on (for page views) for several days, largely due to the photo gallery. I’d say the editor made the right choice.

NOTE: The link to the photo gallery no longer functions, but the book is still available on

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“Swift as a Shadow: Extinct and Endangered Animals.”

‘Swift as a Shadow’

A Glimpse at the Past

(CNN) — How do you breathe new life into a bag of bones? Or bring beauty to a stuffed bird lying in a box?

If you’re Rosamond Purcell, you do it with light and texture and an eye for composition. These are the essential elements in her new book, “Swift as a Shadow: Extinct and Endangered Animals.” 

What started as an invitation to photograph an unparalleled collection of specimens locked away in a European museum has itself become a thing of beauty. Until recently, the National Natural History Museum in Leiden, the Netherlands, had none of its 11-million-strong collection on public display. 

The museum serves as a repository for specimens from all over the planet. Contained within its closets, drawers and boxes are samples of species as exotic as the Pig-footed bandicoot and as seemingly familiar as Burchell’s zebra. The specimens at the museum are, in many cases, the last and only examples left to us of these once thriving species.

Perhaps the greatest challenge faced by Purcell was how to bring life to something dead, stuffed and essentially artificial. Her approach was dictated by her goal, which, she says, was to “get people to focus on the creature.'”

Her methods may be as unique as her subjects. “I use backgrounds and natural light found right in the museum,” she says. Occasionally, she adds some cloth, bark or paper for texture, but more often than not the image contains only the objects and the minimal light available within the immediate vicinity of the actual specimen. 

In some cases that meant juxtaposing the extinct creature with the harbinger of its doom. The Guam flycatcher, one of nine island bird species wiped off the face of the earth by the invading brown tree snake, is posed before a jar filled with specimens of the snake. “I do arrange everything,” Purcell says, “and I wanted to show what it was that made this bird vanish.” The snakes are believed to have arrived as stowaways on military ships or planes returning from World War II in the Pacific, and in a twist of fate may now be approaching endangered status as well.

Coupled with the images are brief passages, written by the curators of the museum in Leiden, which provide insight into the lives and deaths of these creatures. The Falkland dog, for example, was so tame that in 1690 the captain of a ship visiting the islands took one as his ship’s pet. The animal became so frightened by the firing of the ship’s cannon that it leaped overboard and drowned. A booming market in dog fur in the mid-1800s, combined with increased human habitation and farming in the Falklands, spelled the end of this gentle creature by 1876.

These stories, and the afterword by Ross MacPhee, lend context to the images and take the reader on a virtual journey through a lost world, reminding us that our world was and is a beautiful and fragile place.

Review: Walker Evans: Signs

A book review I wrote for in 1998. I was fortunate to have attended an exhibit of his work at the High Museum in Atlanta prior to writing the review. The place was packed and you could hardly see the photographs. It helped me appreciate the book and the quality of the printing.

‘Walker Evans: Signs’

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Photographer Exposes the Layers of Truth

‘Walker Evans: Signs’

‘With an essay by Andrei Codrescu’

(CNN) — Not long ago the High Museum in Atlanta hosted an exhibit of photographs by Walker Evans. As a collector of archival photographs, I was excited to have an opportunity to see such a large collection in one place. But I went on the last day of the exhibit and had to fight the crowd for even a brief glimpse of Evans’ work.

Now the J. Paul Getty Museum — holder of over 1,300 works by Evans — has published ‘Walker Evans: Signs’, featuring 50 photographs created primarily in the 1930s. It is a wonderful sample of Evans’ work — and far easier to peruse than a traveling exhibit.

Evans grew up surrounded by popular culture and imagery, his father worked in advertising, and his photography reflects this upbringing.

The images in ‘Signs’ are built around Evans’ fascination with things that, on their surface, seem almost mundane. And to the casual observer, these photographs might not have much to offer. For those with eyes to see, however, these works reveal America at a time when the people were only just beginning to become self-aware. What on the surface appears nothing more than advertising becomes, with Evans’ careful composition, nothing less than social commentary.

As Andrei Codrescu points out in his near-poetic essay; “The ‘masses,’ that ideology-laden, bottom-heavy notion of the thirties, underwent a thorough examination by Evans’ camera.” Evans had a knack for spotting the details in a scene that revealed more than a casual glance could ever catch. And it is the details that reveal the subtle truths about a moment in time.

From the streets of Cuba to the crowds of Times Square, Evans captures the essence of time and place, exposing the layers of truth hidden beneath the veneer of popular imagery. Take time to see what at first glance is not obvious, and the experience will be different every time you open the cover.

Review: W. Eugene Smith, Photographs, 1934-1975

A book review I wrote for in 1999. One of the best photo-books I’ve ever seen, but it’s a lot more than that.

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‘W. Eugene Smith, Photographs, 1934-1975’

Unforgettable book combines art, artifact

(CNN) — “My station in life is to capture the action of life; the life of the world, its humor, its tragedy. In other words, life as it is. A true picture, unposed and real.”

These words, written by photographer Eugene Smith in a letter to his mother in 1936, represent both the high ideals of a young photographer, and the paradox that would threaten to undo him.

Smith, called by one essayist ‘The Arrogant Martyr,’ is perhaps one of the greatest photojournalist America has ever produced. In the years before his death in 1978, Smith chronicled 50 years of life and everything in it. 

From death to Bob Dylan, from the hell that was the war in the Pacific to the human tragedy of environmental disaster, and from the desperation of poverty to the style and beauty of celebrity, Smith’s camera eye captured the human experience one moment at a time. 

These moments have been gathered together into a new compendium, “W. Eugene Smith, Photographs, 1934-1975”. This new volume, published with the cooperation of Smith’s son and the Center for Creative Photography, in Tucson, Arizona, (where his work is archived) represents nothing less than a chronicle of America, and much of the world, in the middle years of this century.

As a war correspondent and pacifist, Smith chronicled the immense tragedy and human cost of the campaign in the South Pacific. He dared to photograph what the censors would never allow to be published during the war — images of the dead, in particular civilian casualties. 

This experience would mark the start of a long battle for editorial control over his work that Smith would not begin to win until his second stint with Life magazine — a battle which would ultimately change the very nature and process of photojournalism.

Smith traveled the world to find his subjects, all the while focused on his goal of capturing “the action of life.” This collection, published by Abrams, retrieves long-forgotten and never-published images from the obscurity of the past, blending images from his Life magazine photo essays with the shocking realities of a war with which many Americans were only partly familiar.

And yet the book is more than a mere collection of images. It is filled with essays detailing his life, his influences, his work, and his endless search for the truth. It is a combination of art and artifacts, well rendered and completely unforgettable. The essays will inform you, and the images will stay with you long after the pages are turned and the cover is closed.

This volume will be cherished not only by those with a passion for photography, but by anyone with a love of history and a need for truth — a truth that carries an emotional impact that transcends the time and space between the viewer and the viewed.