'Swift as a Shadow' a glimpse at the past
August 11, 1999
for CNN Interactive
(CNN) -- How do you breathe new life into a bag of bones? Or bring beauty to a stuffed bird lying in a box?
If you're Rosamond Purcell, you do it with light and texture and an eye for composition. These are the essential elements in her new book, "Swift as a Shadow: Extinct and Endangered Animals."
What started as an invitation to photograph an unparalleled collection of specimens locked away in a European museum has itself become a thing of beauty. Until recently, the National Natural History Museum in Leiden, the Netherlands, had none of its 11-million-strong collection on public display.
The museum serves as a repository for specimens from all over the planet. Contained within its closets, drawers and boxes are samples of species as exotic as the Pig-footed bandicoot and as seemingly familiar as Burchell's zebra. The specimens at the museum are, in many cases, the last and only examples left to us of these once thriving species.
Perhaps the greatest challenge faced by Purcell was how to bring life to something dead, stuffed and essentially artificial. Her approach was dictated by her goal, which, she says, was to "get people to focus on the creature.'"
Her methods may be as unique as her subjects. "I use backgrounds and natural light found right in the museum," she says. Occasionally, she adds some cloth, bark or paper for texture, but more often than not the image contains only the objects and the minimal light available within the immediate vicinity of the actual specimen.
In some cases that meant juxtaposing the extinct creature with the harbinger of its doom. The Guam flycatcher, one of nine island bird species wiped off the face of the earth by the invading brown tree snake, is posed before a jar filled with specimens of the snake. "I do arrange everything," Purcell says, "and I wanted to show what it was that made this bird vanish." The snakes are believed to have arrived as stowaways on military ships or planes returning from World War II in the Pacific, and in a twist of fate may now be approaching endangered status as well.
Coupled with the images are brief passages, written by the curators of the museum in Leiden, which provide insight into the lives and deaths of these creatures. The Falkland dog, for example, was so tame that in 1690 the captain of a ship visiting the islands took one as his ship's pet. The animal became so frightened by the firing of the ship's cannon that it leaped overboard and drowned. A booming market in dog fur in the mid-1800s, combined with increased human habitation and farming in the Falklands, spelled the end of this gentle creature by 1876.
These stories, and the afterword by Ross MacPhee, lend context to the images and take the reader on a virtual journey through a lost world, reminding us that our world was and is a beautiful and fragile place.
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