The Flatland of Photography

Photographs and comment by Rosamond Wolff Purcell The densely striped Javan tiger, Panthera tigris sondaica, was common on that island...

Return to main article:

Photographs and comment by Rosamond Wolff Purcell

The densely striped Javan tiger, Panthera tigris sondaica, was common on that island in the early nineteenth century, but was hunted to extinction, perhaps by the 1980s.
The densely striped Javan tiger, Panthera tigris sondaica, was common on that island in the early nineteenth century, but was hunted to extinction, perhaps by the 1980s.
Photograph by Rosamond Wolff Purcell
Death is just the beginning in the museum, the sine qua non in the metamorphosis of the animals. Layers of organic matter have been stripped away, leaving all flesh and blood either in the field, at the door, in the freezer, or in formalin, alcohol, and other pickling fluids. The MCZ is a repository for largely antique carnage. Corpses are long gone. Pounded into chemical submission, the organic remains have been forever compromised.Above all other places in this museum, I prefer the hide room, where the public must never go or they'll really get the wrong idea. This windowless storeroom is the fulcrum, in many ways, of the mammal department. The room is like a dry-cleaner's, equipped with rods, hooks, racks, and hangers. I walk down aisles of vertically hanging pelts and am brushed and batted by the swinging hides. The smell is dense, of hair follicles and napthalene. My eyes water and my throat constricts. From each hook hangs a desiccated pelt--of a zebra perhaps, or four zebras, a quagga, a giraffe, three more giraffes, four walruses, five tigers, two grizzly bears--one reaching floor to ceiling--splayed snarling on the wall. Many of the hangers hold multiple hooks: 4 bobcats, 30 hares, 17 coyotes, 4 gorillas, and 11 squirrel monkeys, many hung by a string through the nose. In the small-primate aisle each hook, like a branch on a family tree, holds a different species or subspecies. A dozen Saimiri oerstedii, squirrel monkeys, swinging from one hook, were all collected, according to their tags, on the same day by the same hunter in the 1920s. Here is a generation of young adults from, as the biologists say, a single site-specific population. I stand in a room where the nineteenth-century enthusiastic "tally ho" for exotica blends imperceptibly into the twentieth-century obsession for securing complete series of study skins.
The flattened face of a mountain zebra, Equus zebra.
The flattened face of a mountain zebra, Equus zebra.
Photograph by Rosamond Wolff Purcell
Outside the hide room are four large halls of storage and a room devoted to primate skins and bones and to the bones of large sea mammals. One of the halls contains the skeletal remains from many herd animals: wildebeest, buffalo, antelope, and deer, some with bullet holes visible below their horns. Animals from the open plains fit inside dim rooms in disarticulated pieces, wall to wall. I make no shamanistic claims. I do not believe a photograph will release an animal from its tomb. The room is quiet. I hear no secret shifting of furry paws in the corners; there are no itching bones. But as I contemplate the wall of buffalo skulls on a winter day, I hear an animal screaming in the pipes. It sounds like a marmot or a weasel trapped without redemption between the walls. Before I realize that the sound comes from the force of steam ebbing and rising in antique heating ducts, I think I've heard a creature from beyond the grave, signifying the history of danger in a collective cross-sectioned voice of all the mammals represented here.

I realize yet again how far the medium of still photography falls short of experience--how very far. No picture from this northlit room will ever capture the essence of the air, the thick clotted smells of dust, of hides, and grease-leaching bones. Whatever has been reduced by the scientist, is reduced in sensation one step further by the photograph.

The flatland of photography guarantees that the skulls--a dozen buffalo skulls from the flatlands of western America and a long-horned bull from Transylvania--will be translated out of their natural state, yet I know that details in the skulls may emerge on film as landscapes. I am often lost in landscape. I place the bones on the floor and inadvertently inhale their tainted fragrance--ah museum!

You might also like

John Manning Appointed Interim Provost

Harvard Law School dean moves to central administration

Facebook’s Failures

Author and tech journalist Jeff Horwitz speaks at Harvard.

Kevin Young Named 2024 Harvard Arts Medalist

Museum director and poet to be honored April 24

Most popular

Convocation 2017: What Should an Education Be at Such a Moment?

Speakers reflect on the goals of a liberal arts university. 

Nicco Mele

The director of the Shorenstein Center on how the Internet came to mean so much to him. 

Found in Translation

Maureen Freely ’74, longtime translator of Orhan Pamuk, shares the nuances of bringing a text from one language to another.

More to explore

Photograph of Winthrop Bell 1910

Winthrop Bell

Brief life of a philosopher and spy: 1884-1965

Illustration of people talking to each other with colorful thought bubbles above their heads

Talking about Talking

Fostering healthy disagreement

Vacationing with a Purpose

New England “summer camps” for adults