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A man walks the street but just a fragment of his shadow lingers behind. Buildings and sidewalks are distorted and warped. A bridge is so fragmented it appears on the verge of collapse. Cars are ironed so thin they nearly resemble pedestrians. And there’s always a sense of vertiginous, dizzying speed.
In “The Drive-By Project: Deconstructing and Reconstructing the Urban Landscape,” now on view at Brickbottom Gallery in Somerville, Rosamond and Dennis Purcell present photographs that are a true reflection of our times. They are urgent, fractured and surreally disorienting. Much more than conventional photography, the photos deftly mirror our splintered, high-speed world.
“It’s a strange hybrid of movies and stills,” reflects Dennis. “Somehow, we have introduced the element of time into still photographs.”
These images were captured by an iPhone set in panorama mode, taken from the confines of a moving car, a technique that also seems aptly befitting of our times, as car-bound and cell phone-shackled as we are. In each shot, strange things have happened to perspective. Shadows appear without a source. Some objects elongate while others simply disappear. There is all the confusion of a fun house mirror, the unsettling twists of an M.C. Escher drawing and all the fast-paced propulsion of an Italian futurist painting.
The off-kilter, accelerated street scenes were photographed between 2014 and 2018 in such diverse locales as Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Indiana and Boston. They reflect Rosamond’s formal interests — she is a renowned still life photographer of the natural world with several acclaimed books under her belt — as well as the technical interests of Dennis, who has spent a career in the world of software, engineering, optics and camera design.
In “The Drive-By Project,” the husband-wife team have created a perfect amalgamation of their strengths and interests to create something fresh and unexpected. There was no manipulation of the photos to create these images, other than the standard “dark room” techniques to fix problems of lighting that might detract from an already existing image. Nothing was photoshopped in, although sometimes, distracting details were photoshopped out.
“As you would think of a dark room technique, those are applied, without adding anything that isn’t there,” says Rosamond.
The Purcells first used the camera in this way during a 2014 trip to London.
“It was a complete accident,” says Dennis. “We were being driven around London by a Dutch friend of ours at a tremendously high speed. When you’re sitting in the front seat and the driver is on the left side, you’re very ill at ease because there’s no steering wheel in in front of you. You don’t know what to do. So, in order to do something, I held up my iPhone outside the window and started a panorama. Later when we looked, we discovered it had made a complete hash of that block. Things were in the wrong place and distorted.”
There was one striking photo, Rosamond recalls, of a man with a baby and baby carriage.
“The man and baby were at one end of the block, and the baby carriage at the other,” she says. “Pieces of information that were supposed to be together had been pulled apart and presented in different shots.”
“It was amusing,” Dennis says, but it “wasn’t anything in particular you would want to show.”
Still, it was interesting enough that when the Purcells visited Los Angeles a short time later, they remembered their London experiment and decided to repeat it. This time, Rosamond did the shooting while Dennis drove.
“It just started working so well,” says Dennis. “There was so much there that fit. That fragmented feel is exactly what started me. We were absolutely thinking of earthquakes.”
“And also the instability of the land,” adds Rosamond. In LA, “they have these fragile little screens against rocks and earth, and you have this feeling that the whole thing is going to tumble down. There was a feeling of instability that really matched the actual taking of the pictures. We felt we were in sync with geology.”
Hanging out the car window in Los Angeles to scan streetscapes, then taking the camera home later to review the pictures, the Purcells found a lot of junk.
“Ninety nine percent of it is not worth looking at,” says Rosamond.
But they also found a few surprising jewels of color, composition and content, thanks in part to the camera making its own decisions about what to shoot and what to leave out.
“It can’t be emphasized too much that the yield is extremely low,” says Dennis. “You’re fishing for that one prize. You find the one that somehow works, that makes sense. Sometimes it’s perfect, you couldn’t have done it any better if you tried.”
It turns out there was enough of the good stuff to fill a book. In 2015, they published “Dislocation on the Pacific Highway” — a collection of photos taken as they sped along California’s freeways.
The photos are quite striking, so it’s easy to forget that the critical element of the whole thing was the editing, and what was left on the “cutting room” floor.
“When you get back home and unload your phone and look at the 500 pictures that you’ve got, if you find some things, then you’re lucky,” says Dennis. “That’s where it’s fun. That’s where it’s also a collaboration. It doesn’t so much matter who pushed the button. As you look through, you discuss the work. And there we agree pretty well on what we like. We both feel very strongly about composition and light and we don’t have any problems deciding which ones are good. They pop right out at you.”
Except, says Rosamond, that she prefers pictures with people while Dennis prefers photos of cars.
These iPhone photos represent something of a departure for Rosamond, who has built her career on ethereal, strange and unsettling still lifes that explore the mysteries of decomposition and metamorphosis. A lot of her work has been about collecting and classifying itself. In 2003, she recreated a collection of bones, taxidermy and scientific instruments found in the “wonder cabinet” of 17th century Danish physician Olaus Worm for the Natural History Museum in Denmark. In 2016, Rosamond was the subject of a documentary “An Art that Nature Makes: The Work of Photographer Rosamond Purcell” directed by Molly Bernstein. (The Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston will screen the film on Sunday, Feb. 4.)
She has collaborated with paleontologist and science historian Stephen Jay Gould, magician Ricky Jay and Shakespeare scholar Michael Witmore. Her numerous books include "Egg & Nest," "Illuminations: A Bestiary, Special Cases: Natural Anomalies and Historical Monsters" and "Owls Head: On the Nature of Lost Things." This last volume was a meditation on Purcell’s 20 year photographic “excavation” of a Maine junk yard. Also more in keeping with her classical interests is an exhibit of collages of aerial photos combined with objects taken by World War II pilots currently on view at the Portland Museum of Art in Maine. The exhibit, part of the museum’s biennial, is entitled, “With No Parachute to Save Them.” (Rosamond will deliver a talk at the museum on March 1.)
Although the 60 or so photos in this exhibit were the result of a happy accident, the true basis for this work happened years earlier, in 2008, when Rosamond was given the task of photographing bird eggs for the Western Foundation of Vertebrate Zoology in Camarillo, California. One type of egg, laid by the arctic Murre bird, is adorned with an intricate pattern that allows each seabird to distinguish her egg from others. Brainstorming about how the entire circumference of the egg might be photographed, Rosamond settled on shooting the egg while Dennis carefully rotated each egg by hand. At home, Dennis assembled the various shots into one contiguous panoramic view, which was both difficult and time-consuming. That experience formed the germ of the idea for what happened with the iPhone years later.
“I am a still photographer,” says Rosamond. “I very quietly photograph at home in nice corners of my home in the late afternoon, and that is sort of what I do. But this is a project that was irresistible. I really liked the pictures and was pretty amazed at what we came up with, given what was physically going on.”
On the other hand, the iPhone photos seem more in keeping with Dennis’ interests. Although he is now retired, he continues his work in the field of optics. He is currently working on software to help those who are colorblind. Somehow, holding an iPhone up to the world to see it reflected in a new and different way, seems right for an unrepentant techie.
“Art is a process,” says Dennis. “The camera is part of the collaboration. The phone contributed to this. This is a man-machine collaboration.”
Rosamond and Dennis Purcell's "Drive-By Project: Deconstructing and Reconstructing the Urban Landscape" is at the Brickbottom Gallery in Somerville from Jan. 25 to Feb. 24. The opening reception is on Sunday, Jan. 28 from 3-5 p.m. The Institute of Contemporary Art is screening "An Art that Nature Makes: The Work of Photographer Rosamond Purcell" on Sunday, Feb. 4 at 1 p.m.
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