For many people, hunting for treasures in the dusty back rooms of museums is a daydream. For Rosamond Purcell, it's a lifestyle.
The Boston-based photographer has made a career of diving into natural-history collections and surfacing with unforgettable images. Often macabre or eerily beautiful, her photographs also serve as a sort of personal manifesto.
"I don't need subjects that are conventionally beautiful," she says. "With, say, a parrot, there's not much for me to figure out. Something that is obviously beautiful gets all the credit, and then I don't have to do much work."
She prefers the challenge of finding subjects with less obvious appeal. "For example, skulls are fabulous," she says. "And bones have such a variety of shapes to suit specialized purposes. What I really like about a femur, for example, is the way it twists."
But this is not always pleasant work.
"In older collections," Purcell says, "there's a lot of PDB [paradichlorobenzine] used to preserve the skins of animals. It has a very strong mothball smell, and it's very poisonous. Formaldehyde isn't such a great smell either. And whale bones that have been leeching oil over the years have a nasty scent too. 'Fetid' is the operative word."
Yet Purcell gamely braves such things to get what she's after.
"I just like the way certain things look," she says, "and I like looking at them. One of the great things about photography is that I don't have to own anything after I photograph it. I feel that I've been allowed to really look at it."
But the photos are not just for her.
"If I don't take a picture of these things," she says, "I have this feeling that they're going to [disappear] back down the hole. I have to put out a line [with my camera] and get it. It is discovery. I say to myself, 'People have to see this.'"
Many have. She's produced more than a dozen books, three of them with the late paleontologist and evolutionary theorist Stephen Jay Gould. ("Working with Stephen for 17 years smartened me up," she quips. "You couldn't be around him long without learning something.")
Several of Purcell's photographs are featured in the January issue of National Geographic magazine. Also, watch this video for a view into Purcell's photography.
Purcell says these fierce freshwater fish (in the photo above) were likely caught and prepared by the young William James, before he was a philosopher and psychologist, on a collecting expedition to Brazil with the famous naturalist Louis Agassiz. She shot them in natural light, as she does all her subjects.
"I want to see things as they are," says Purcell. "And natural light is full of variety. It falls on organic material in a generous way. It allows more of it to be seen. It's the proper way to look at things."
Sometimes it does more than just illuminate. "I found the jar containing this specimen in a basement," says Purcell. "The only window down there had bars on it—which reflected off the glass and were echoed by the scales still visible on the fish."
These specimens are from the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
This online gallery offers seven more of Purcell's photographs.