Photography at the Boston Athenaeum

(Originally published in The Boston Phoenix, March, 1991)

“Photographs are perhaps the most mysterious of all the objects that make up, and thicken, the environment we recognize as modern.”

Susan Sontag, On Photography

“History writing is ever tied to the fragment. The known facts are often scattered broadcast, like stars across the firmament. It should not be assumed that they form a coherent body in the historical night.”
Siegfried Giedion, Mechanization Takes Command.

The photographers in this small group show at The Boston Athenaeum all use the camera to explore different systems of knowledge: scientific, historical, aesthetic, mystical. That’s approprriate, because the Athenaeum — a Library with gracious high-ceilinged rooms adorned with columns and all kinds of Graeco-Roman architectural details, and filled with books and pictures — was built by 19th century Bostonians as a modern temple to Athena, Goddess of Wisdom.

Rosamond Wolff Purcell took pictures in natural history museums and anatomical collections in Leiden, Leniningrad, Cambridge, England and Cambridge, Massachusetts.  Some of these photographs will appear in Finders Keepers, a study of collectors of natural history specimens, which will be published next Fall, with a text by scientist and writer Stephen Jay Gould.

In Leningrad, in the Kunstkammer Cabinet of Curiosities of Peter the Great, Purcell photographed the head of a 17th century girl, perfectly preserved in a glass jar by an apothecary named Ruysch, with cinnabar, wax, and dye. Purcell says,

“I had never seen the face of someone who lived in the 17th century except in a painting. Until now.”

Olivia Parker uses the camera like a magician, reaching out to ancient spirit worlds with state-of-the-art photographic techniques. She creates strange mystical arrangments of objects, light, and shadows that exist only in the photograph and in the imagination.

In Parker’s Sea Bowl, glistening black seals thrash and swim in a circle of bright turquoise water, around a central spiralling shell. Forever moving and forever still, this contemporary image is as luminous and hypnotic as a mandala or a stained glass window, celebrating the mystery of life on earth.

by Rebecca Nemser for

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