ANDOVER — Photography is as astoundingly, even avidly, varied as the world it records. That world can be as intimate and interior and utterly other as scientific specimens and what the photographer Rosamond Purcell calls “ruined objects.” It can be as outsized and exterior and inherently human as momentous events and mighty personages. Two shows currently at the Addison Gallery of American Art demonstrate how far apart those polarities can be and — far more important — how richly and vividly a camera can capture each.
“Rosamond Purcell: Nature Stands Aside” and “Harry Benson: Four Stories” run through Dec. 31 and Jan. 29, respectively. Benson, who turns 93 in December, is an eminent photojournalist: a visual reporter. There are several images in “Four Stories” you would very likely recognize. Purcell, 80, is a visual reporter, too, but the stories she tells are in no way journalistic. They’re more in the way of being fables or parables or even fairy tales. Think of her job description as photo-conjuror. There are many photojournalists, though few can begin to match Benson’s track record. Photo-conjuring claims a workforce of one.
“Nature Stands Alone,” Purcell’s first career retrospective, takes up the entire second floor of the Addison. It includes more than 150 works, predominantly photographs, but also collages, assemblages, installations, and objets trouvés. (When Purcell trouvés an objet, she really trouvés it.) The Addison’s Gordon Wilkins curated.
Expect to be overwhelmed, not just by quantity (quality, too) but also variety and, for lack of a better word, theatricality. Purcell’s profound, even exacting, respect for her subject matter doesn’t keep her from honoring it with bravura treatment. It’s hard to think of a photographer with a body of work less given to what she calls “the curse of the predictable in what was then a pre-Photoshop world.” Few things are as unpredictable as enchantment, and enchantment is what her work frequently has to offer.
There are photographs of a sewing machine, wax fruit, ravaged dice (they belonged to the magician Ricky Jay), eggs, nests, skulls, an old Ford, many, many scientific specimens. Titles are at once self-explanatory and … so far beyond that as to seem translated from some extraterrestrial idiom: “Lower Jaw of a Horse in the Branch of an Oak Tree, Collection of Ole Worm,” “Bookcase Containing Few Legible Volumes, Owls Head, Maine,” “Eye Made of Glass, Antler Bone, and Metal, Collection of Peter the Great, Kunstkamera, St. Petersburg,” “Termite-Eaten Book, Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard University.”
Here’s Purcell’s description of that last one. “The pages looked like a stack of thin sandwiches after children had dug into the soft parts — eaten the butter, the meat, and most of the bread — but left untouched, as despised, the delicate crusts.” “As despised”! Can you tell what a flavorful and vibrant prose she writes?
The earliest works in the show are black-and-white Polaroids from the late ‘60s. Already evident was an awareness, as she puts it, that “There are multiple aspects to everything.” Starting in the ‘80s the work became truly distinctive and what we would now consider characteristic. The images got bigger, sometimes much bigger, and Purcell demonstrated a rare command of color. She also began her celebrated collaboration with the Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould. “I took up the camera,” she writes, “and went out hunting” among the specimens in the university’s Museum of Comparative Zoology. “He would then extract a story or principle from the evidence.”
What’s so striking about these photographs in particular, though it’s true of so much of Purcell’s work, is the balance they maintain between a realist specificity (this creature, that anatomy, those characteristics) and a magical-realist strangeness. Another word for strangeness in this context might be mystery. “Absence of information is just as much a characteristic of the material world as a surfeit is,” she writes, “so why not pay homage to it too?” The photographs make plain the rhetorical nature of the question.
Not everything in the show works. At the suggestion of the director of the Folger Shakespeare Library, Purcell set out to make photographs evoking the plays. She photographed landscapes through old pharmacy bottles. The results are pleasingly decorative and painterly. “The Field of Cloth of Gold,” for example, is inspired by “Henry VIII.” But they lack the simple (which is to say complex) specificity that makes Purcell’s work so memorable. More to the point, they have about as much to do with Shakespeare — each of the 14 photographs is accompanied by a quotation from one of the plays — as that lower jaw of a horse in the branch of an oak tree does.
Part of what makes Purcell’s work so thrilling is the extensiveness of her engagement with the natural world: animal, mineral, vegetable, you name it. Almost as extensive are the artistic and intellectual affinities to be found throughout her work: with Joseph Cornell, the Surrealists generally, the great taxonomist Linnaeus (on acid), Robert Rauschenberg (the penchant for appropriation and appreciation that there’s nothing whatsoever junky about junk), Dutch still lifes, the tradition of memento mori, Karl Blossfeldt (the intensity of scrutiny applied to natural specimens), medieval illumination, John James Audubon (in terms of a single glorious image, of a great egret), Borges (the collision between classification and prestidigitation), and Marianne Moore. The most famous seven words in Moore’s poetry are “imaginary gardens with real toads in them.” The two words preceding those seven are “for inspection.” Purcell is as much inspector as conjuror. Her gardens are no less real than her toads, and she has the photographs to prove it.
“Stories,” for a journalist, refers to what makes up a narrative, its subject matter, as well as the narrative itself. The “Four Stories” Harry Benson documented with his camera were big ones. They remain so.
The first is the erection of the Berlin Wall. Hearing in London that something was going on over there, Benson jumped on a plane and arrived just as the Soviets were physically dividing that politically divided city. A utility pole in the foreground of a photograph of Soviet tanks underscores the dividedness, as political dislocation finds a startling visual correlative.
Three years and a few months later, Benson accompanied the Beatles on their first tour of the United States. There are photos from that tour, as well as before and after. Some are famous: the Fab Four mugging with Cassius Clay, as Muhammad Ali still was; appearing on “The Ed Sullivan Show”; having a pillow fight. Others, less well known, are no less appealing: getting ready to perform at Suffolk Downs (maybe you, or your parents, or your grandparents, were there); John, alone in a hotel room. Who’d have guessed that he smoked Larks?
In June 1966, Benson covered the March Against Fear, with protesters walking the 220 miles from Memphis to Jackson, Miss., in response to the shooting of civil-rights activist James Meredith. Benson did more than cover it; he was tear-gassed along with the marchers. Three of those marchers were John Lewis, Martin Luther King Jr., and Ralph Abernathy. In an indelible image, Benson captured them as they strode forward, singing “We Shall Overcome.”
The fourth story is Robert F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign. Benson photographed him making his victory speech, after winning the 1968 California primary. Moments later, Benson photographed him as he lay dying. The photographs in “Four Stories” are accompanied by Benson’s comments and recollections. He recalls thinking as he took that grimly famous image, “This is for history.”
The curators of “Four Stories” are the Addison’s Allison Kemmerer and Tessa Hite. In a nice touch, a portrait of Paul McCartney faces one of Berlin Mayor Willy Brandt. Both portraits are large, as are all the photographs in the show. Most are 24 inches by 30 inches. The scale is appropriate. Before they’re about anything else, these images are about information, information that was new then. Thanks to Benson’s artistry, it still feels new now.
ROSAMOND PURCELL: NATURE STANDS ASIDE
HARRY BENSON: FOUR STORIES
At Addison Gallery of American Art, through Dec. 31 (Purcell) and Jan. 29 (Benson), 180 Main St., Andover. 978-749-4000, addison.andover.edu
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.