'An Art That Nature Makes: The Work of Rosamond Purcell': Film Review

Courtesy of Dennis Purcell/BOND/360
An excellent cinematic presentation of Purcell's mesmerizing photographs.
8/10/2016

Molly Bernstein's documentary chronicles the career of the famed photographer who specializes in images of natural objects.

"I'm stuck with containment, and yet I'm always trying to pick the lock," comments the subject of Molly Bernstein's documentary about the famed photographer Rosamond Purcell. Analyzing Purcell's work with the same conceptual rigor that the photographer applies to her shots of natural objects, An Art That Nature Makes: The Work of Rosamond Purcell is an excellent cinematic primer that should particularly appeal to art and photography buffs. The film is currently receiving its theatrical premiere at NYC's Film Forum.

Bernstein previously made a cinematic portrait of sleight-of-hand magician Ricky Jay, who is seen effusively commenting in this film about his affinity for Purcell's photographs. He even provides the subject for a series of them, namely his collection of "decaying dice" that he proudly shows off.

Decay is an integral element of Purcell's work; the photographer has a fascination with found objects, many of them in various states of what she describes as "a romantic decline." The subjects of these gruesome but somehow beautiful photographs include the skeleton of a hydrocephalic child, its skull ballooned to massive proportions; a fruit bat preserved in formaldehyde, its lifeless eyes staring backwards over its shoulder with a vaguely come-hither look; and the fossilized teeth of a mastodon, shot against a cotton background and resembling, as Purcell puts it, "a mountain range in a storm." Books in varying states of decay are another specialty, and then there's the photograph of a box of human molars, collected for some unknown reason by the Russian czar Peter the Great.

Among Purcell's fans who sing her praises in the film is documentary filmmaker Errol Morris, who sees her as a kindred spirit and marvels at her ability to reveal a "hidden history of the world." She was also highly regarded by the late paleontologist and science writer Stephen Jay Gould, with whom she collaborated on three books.

Sketchy with biographical information, An Art That Nature Makes is sometimes frustrating in its lack of context and wandering focus. But the filmmaker serves her subject well with her excellent presentation of many examples of Purcell's work from throughout her long career. The ultimate effect is like walking through a well-curated museum exhibition while listening to expert commentary on headphones.

Production: Particle Productions

Distributor: BOND/360

Director/editor: Molly Bernstein

Producer: Alan Edelstein

Executive producer: Philip Dolin

Directors of photography: Philip Dolin, Mead Hunt, Dennis Purcell

Composer: John Kusiak

Not rated, 75 minutes

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