New York

Rosamond Wolff Purcell

Neikrug Gallery

I went to Rosamond W. Purcell’s show expecting a Polaroid photographer. I found work which at first was barely recognizable as Polaroid photography. Purcell uses Polaroid black and white film, usually 4 x 5, and enlarges the negative. (Color, she says, seems to her “a whole different discipline.”) Her case seemed interesting because it showed a series of elaborations on the original Polaroid processes with which she began her photographic career.

Purcell learned photography with Polaroid materials—a fairly unusual case in itself—but now she seems to have become attracted to the large areas of sensitive shadow and texture evident in the prints shown here, taken from her book A Matter of Time. These pictures of dark, ghostly things quickly captured are far from the miniatures and details of snapshot-size prints included in the show. Clearly she is uneasy with the small format of the Polaroid snap. She groups several small-sized prints together in the same frame, as if they were too small to stand on their own on the walls. This technique seems a mistake: the connections between the images are strained and far less interesting than the content of individual photos. Her latest work involves double printing: a young man lying under a tree is printed over a field of grass—and it indicates how far she has come from the simplicity that she originally prized in Polaroid work. That simplicity, she has written, depends on the concentration of variables, the quicker and more immediate conclusion of what she calls “the photographic act.”

A look at her “pure” work shows an interest in something more: in a kind of economy and strength of composition, plus a willingness to enjoy detail in the manner that a snapshot presents it. A view of Spanish buildings abutting the sky, with doorway and tiled roof edge and the gap between two structures racing down the image like a lightning bolt, possesses a surface as firmly composed as a Ben Nicholson painting. Another image admires a curve in the back of an old car, surrounded by fir limbs. Clouds are reflected in the rear windshield.

While the more recent work distances itself from the strengths of earlier pictures and from the simplicity of Polaroid processes, it also seems more experimental than the earlier images. There is a curious variety and inconsistency among Purcell’s photographs, and I suspect that the style she is still searching for, amid this variety, will turn out to be a very strong one.

Phil Patton