Pole-Dancing: On Rosamond Purcell’s Recent Series of Photographs
When I was a child, the fairytale that impressed me the most, left me with an inexpressible sense of sadness, while also giving me an inexplicable feeling of happiness, was Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Steadfast Tin Soldier.” The little story confirmed my suspicion that all things had lives of their own, carried on when we weren’t looking (perhaps at night), that they had hearts too, and that they felt pain, and loss, and love the way we do. I was especially worried about damaged things, toys that were missing parts, stuffed animals that had lost an ear or an eye or a leg, like Andersen’s tin soldier, who thinks he has found his perfect mate in small paper ballerina skilled at, you guessed it, balancing on one leg. Even as an adult, I have found myself lying awake in bed at night, preoccupied with a stone or stick I had left behind on a snow-covered field, how it remains there as the weather changes, as rain turns into snow turns into sunshine—how that stick survives, experiences, registers those changes even as I am no longer there to observe it.
When I first encountered Rosamond Purcell’s work, I felt a happy sense of recognition. Entering Purcell’s studio is like finding oneself in the world accessible to most of us only in our dreams. Here the loops of a rusty chain mingle with the roots of an overgrown ficus tree, rows of duck decoy heads, their eyes trained on you as you approach them, march up and down a steeply inclined board, while your foot hits a broken mallet, hurriedly fixed by someone who must have been blithely unaware of the fact that a mallet, held together by pieces of wire, is good precisely for nothing at all. In a glass case sleeps a mummified cat, reduced to that essential catness that speaks to us also from these pictures of calcified pets surprised by the eruption of Vesuvius at Pompeii. In Purcell’s world, the differences between the organic and the inorganic world vanish. Piles of objects become “mountains” and vice versa. Contextless, liberated from the need to be useful, the things gathered here share their secrets. In Purcell’s studio, as in Andersen’s fairy tale, our sadness gets company: the discarded shoe finds the perfect piece of metal from which it may dangle, the dead bird’s head the box in which it may rest, just as the tin soldier’s tin heart, in Andersen’ story, gets to rest with the paper ballerina’s spangle, even as both soldier and ballerina, hurled into the fire by an unkind boy or the wind, have burned to ash.
Purcell’s recent photographs of street poles in Cambridge seem to extend the concerns of her studio into the streets of Cambridge. As in her previous work, Purcell’s camera directs us to what is already there, discovers for us the stories that the surfaces of things will tell us if we only learn to look at them. Purcell’s poles may be made of wood or of metal; they may be intact or, more likely, rusty and dirty, weighed down by the multiple, cracked layers of past efforts, with different colors bleeding into each other like the patterns of a demotic rainbow, with residue of glue, gum, and pieces of paper stuck to them, nailed to them, tacked to them. Sometimes, her poles begin to look like trees, dead matter springing to some sort of life again, the mottled play of black and white and fragments of other matter mingling on metal the way snow-white, silver, grey and black will do on the papery bark of a birch tree. Geometrically speaking, poles are hollow cylinders, infinite curvilinear surfaces: an attractive idea perhaps to an artist who covered an entire wall of her studio with crusty pieces of metal superimposed on each other, into a rickety, sublime mural of multicolored, shiny rust, craggy like the wall of a mountain.
In her pole photographs, Purcell makes these endless, rolled-up surfaces dance. I am fascinated by the pieces of texts that have become part of their skins. Purcell has long been interested with the point at which texts become illegible, fade back into obscurity (think of her portraits of burned books). Here, in Purcell’s photographs of poles, they are reminders of our familiar world where language matters most and an invitation to think beyond that world: to think about meaning in a different, more capacious way. Our ancestors danced around poles; Purcell is inviting us to dance with them.
Od Review asked Rosamond Purcell a few questions about her newest photographs. In response she sent us this lovely essay, along with a gallery of her favorite poles.
Walking by, and Walking with, Poles
There are many wooden and iron poles in and around my hometown of Cambridge, Massachusetts, originally erected for phone lines and for the trolleys—both the trackless and on-track trolleys that were built in the 1930s. Old tracks are embedded under these streets. The poles remain as part of the unremarkable scenery. The poles themselves are made either of iron, stainless steel or wood: fir or pine trees, grown on plantations in US south or Pacific northwest — grown without limbs—so that they be used for poles without alteration. I read somewhere that the southern yellow pine is the most widely used species in the US.
Poles were part of a Cambridge childhood in the 1940s and 50s. In those days, linemen climbed up on metal steps screwed into the poles. Woodpeckers pecked holes in the pine and perhaps smaller birds made their nests. I am not going to tell the whole story here, but I had a friend who stuck her finger in the hole of a telephone pole and kept on walking . . .
Noticing how many poles exist is not difficult, but as they are (especially the ones made of stainless steel) inherently dull, focusing on them takes a conscious effort. The first poles I photographed were barely there, as random, inadvertent elements. The figure captured in such an image (taken in California) was standing behind a wall and a pristine thin pole until the camera moved to capture his/her face and body in the shadows.
Many poles in and around Cambridge are propped up with metal and wires and wooden wedges, and therefore, along with whatever else is used to buttress this not so lovely urban landscape, become part of a study in precariousness. Except for such precariousness, the poles are of no intrinsic interest. Yet they may, of course, serve as surfaces to write on, as places to tag, to carve, to post notices or personal ads. Poles have complicated surfaces—wood attracting staples and nails over generations of such notices, iron covered with paint and stickers, and heart-breaking notes about lost pets. Charles Dickens, writing about an old warehouse in his fabulous story “Bill-Sticking,” memorably evoked such a surface, a wall encrusted with decomposing notices of all kinds, “one adhesive heap of rottenness and poster.”
I do not go looking for subjects so much as react to possible compositions. In the beginning I was attracted to a disinterred manhole cover propped up against a wall. Since the infrastructure of our neighborhoods is continually disrupted, this cover was, I thought, an unexpected and ancient object, visible briefly, destined to buried again.
Some poles I have noticed and have returned to, as there was no place to pause in order to record them the first time around. A pole can be found and lost, emerge in my consciousness and stick. The poles, then, select themselves—and they do so naturally. In my town, they are full of dents and marks, cryptic texts which often are not texts at all. Self-conscious art, most tags and most fresh paint, does not work for my purposes, mingled as the surface must be with effects of weather, age, the intrusion of the matrix-metal or wormholes. Metal staples, the standard for affixing bulletins to the wooden poles, remain in ranks, long after the notices have vanished. In their vanishing lies charm—a picture ad for a modern apartment is reduced to the image of a living room under heavy metal clips embedded in crevices of pine. Optical effects lending inadvertent greatness to any of my poles are apt to be, if not a matter of opinion, ephemeral, certainly small. A few inches across becomes a landscape. I am scanning surfaces for optical chances, illusions, scenes, data, and maps, all of which emerge at random, but occasionally, to my surprise, at a brisk rate, as if picking, somewhat furtively, someone else’s olives or grapes. Greed is the engine, and natural light the clincher.
Sometimes, on a good day, on foot in urban sprawl, too many options present themselves and I suffer overload. I do not seek out slogans or political messages but will not eschew the apparition of a white-hooded figure in a dented crack or of a Chinese city in abraded taped green paint. These specters are, as all mirages must be, subject to interpretation. A fugitive glimpse need not be hard-won; it all happens, of course, as life does too, en passant.
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