‘Romantic decline’ Errol Morris calls it at film’s beginning—a kinder word for one of fine art photographers’ favorite subjects, ‘decadence.’ But, as the man who wrote Shakespeare’s plays says, “A piece of rotting wood is a piece of rotting wood.”
After viewing Molly Bernstein’s documentary—An Art that Nature Makes—which introduces the photography of Rosamond Purcell, it is abundantly clear that this artist is the master’s master on the subject of photographing decadence. Purcell will cover virtually any object or material from nature or human endeavor, and does so in a unique style—a style that deserves Morris’s preferred vernacular.
Bernstein’s film is the richest, most densely packed documentary about an artist I’ve seen to date. Purcell is the picture of a life-long, dedicated artist who goes to extreme lengths in support of her art—she travels the world, does physical work in obtaining her photographs, and collaborates with a variety of authorities and experts when covering specific categories of objects. Purcell has written or co-written nine books which you can find here.
By film’s end, the attentive viewer will understand and appreciate the beauty of a glass-encased, desiccated animal; an old, water-damaged book; or worm-holed piece of wood. These three examples do no justice, however, to the breadth and depth of the materials Purcell covers, nor to the thought she gives to the creation and meaning of her work.
Bernstein’s documentary deserves at least two viewings.