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When a wayward tufted titmouse slammed against photographer Leah Sobsey’s window, the bird’s tiny corpse suddenly recalled all the natural specimens that had captivated her as a child at Chicago’s Field Museum. “My first instinct is to hold it; my second is to photograph it,” she writes in her introduction to Collections: Birds Bones and Butterflies, released yesterday by Daylight Books. “It triggers memories of the Field Museum, and so I begin my quest to photograph and somehow memorialize specimens.”
That quest began with accessing the around 10,000 bird skins kept at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, which she arranged for vivid scans that capture the iridescent feathers of indigo buntings and the stuffing-filled eye sockets of cardinals. This work led to an exploration of the specimens kept by the National Park Service. The collections of the National Parks in the United States are rarely on view to the public, and although plenty of photographers have grappled with documenting the scale of the Grand Canyon, Sobsey trained her lens on some of its holdings of bones, nests, plants, and other scraps of nature during a 2008 residency.
Since her residency space in a century-old home didn’t have a darkroom, she found herself crawling into a stiflingly hot attic to create cyanotypes from her photographs, a 19th-century technique inspired by the natural history work of Anna Atkins, who visualized algae (Atkins’s work was previously covered on Hyperallergic). In this way, Sobsey’s Collections is similar to Jim Naughten’s recent project examining natural history collections in stereoscopic images, using 19th-century processing to reveal little-seen scientific specimens.
Collections joins Sobsey’s Grand Canyon cyanotypes with North Carolina bird scans, along with scans of specimens from places like Everglades National Park in Florida, which has its share of alligator and turtle bones, and Acadia National Park in Maine, where the Carroll Homestead is littered with old shoes and other human artifacts.
“My current focus on national parks is a way of preserving these fragile specimens that represent American history,” Sobsey writes. “This comes at a time when climate change and funding allocations threaten indigenous species and artifacts with extinction.”
Each section is punctuated by a photograph of a murmuration of starlings in a tree, contrasting the lively, blurred birds with these static, dead things. The book’s variety of techniques and subjects can at first feel a bit disorganized, yet each image conveys some of the desire for memorialization — initially inspired by the poor bird who flew into the window — in its quiet framing.