Leah Sobsey Photographs the Collections of America's National Park Museums in New Book

  • BROOKLYN, New York
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  • March 29, 2016

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Passerina cyanea, Indigo bunting, North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, 2007
Leah Sobsey

Leah Sobsey works at the intersection of nineteenth century photographic processes and twenty-first century digital technology. Inspired by Anna Atkins, the 19th-century botanist and photographer, Sobsey photographs bird skins, bleached bones, tattered shoes, and fragile butterflies that she unearths from the dark drawers of national park museum collections.
Plucked from their original context, she illuminates them with sun and light, giving them new definition. The subject matter of each series she creates is dictated by her discoveries, bridging past to present, honoring both the specimens she works with and the medium of photography. These stunning series are published together in book form for the first time in Collections (Daylight Books, July 2016).
Sobsey first encountered a natural history museum collection as a child when her uncle opened the floor to ceiling drawers that contained what seemed to be thousands of birds---vertical, in endless rows. She found it "beautiful and jarring." This visit to the Chicago Field Museum left an indelible imprint.

Anthocharis midea, Falcate Orangetip, North Carolina State University Insect Museum, 2012
Leah Sobsey

She writes: "In the years since, childhood recollections intermingle with my adult understanding and interpretation of that moment. Someone had taken the time to find, catalogue, name, tag, and carefully layout these magnificent creatures, now silent, in pristine rows, sealed up in drawers like little coffins."

Over two and a half decades after her propitious visit to the Field Museum, Sobsey was sitting in her kitchen and heard a thud against the window. She looked outside and saw a beautiful, lifeless tufted titmouse on her deck. Her first instinct was to hold it; her second was to photograph it. This triggered her memories of the "beautiful and jarring experience," and thus began her quest to photograph and memorialize specimens.Sobsey started her work at the National Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, where she was granted permission to handle and photograph some of the 10,000 bird skins in its collection. In May 2008 she was awarded a residency at the Grand Canyon where she had open access to their vast and diverse collection of birds, flora, fauna and artifacts. She was without a darkroom in her lodging so she crawled through the living room window onto the rooftop where the intense desert sun beat down. There, she exposed transparencies of her photographs to create cyanotypes.

Xandra Eden writes: "... Sobsey reveals a desire to reintroduce the specimens into the natural landscape, and give presence to whatever life they have left."     

Acadia National Park, Carroll family homestead artifacts, 2012

John Fitzpatrick, Director of the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, writes: "Leah Sobsey's eclectic selection of artful images from museum collections provides a wonderfully dissonant intersection of how the once alive, the once fabricated, the once useful, the once worn, can catch our eye and hold our attention ...  [her collection] teaches us that no two individual are the same. They provide us opportunities to scrutinize the range of shape and color and internal structure of nature from the ordinary to the remarkable."

Collections is particularly timely during this centennial year of national parks service, and as museum collections are in a current state of crisis due to diminishing funding and support. Sobsey's focus on the parks is a way of preserving these fragile specimens that represent American history. This body of work sheds light on the importance and significance of the collections and their impact on science, history, the humanities and the hundreds of thousands of visitors who leave their footprints on our national parks. 

Leah Sobsey is an artist and educator. Her combined art and anthropology background shaped her love of stories and gave her the tools to artfully map and investigate her own history and now others. She received an MFA from the San Francisco Art Institute and a BA in Anthropology and Sociology from Guilford College. She has exhibited nationally in galleries, museums and public spaces, and her work is held in private and public collections across the country. She has taught at the San Francisco Art Institute and the Maine Photographic Workshops, and currently teaches at the Center for Documentary studies at Duke University and is a Visiting Assistant Professor at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. Sobsey is the co-founder of the Visual History Collaborative and one of the core artists in Bull City Summer, a collaborative documentary project that explores the Durham Bulls AAA baseball team. Bull City Summer, the book, published by Daylight Books, was released in 2014 and is one of their top sellers. Visit the artist's website here

Xandra Eden is Executive Director & Chief Curator of DiverseWorks in Houston. She was previously Curator of Exhibitions for the Weatherspoon Art Museum in Greensboro, NC. Since 2003, she has organized over 60 exhibitions of work by national and international contemporary artists. Recent major exhibitions include Zones of Contention: After the Green Line (2015); Nancy Rubins: Drawing, Sculpture, Studies (2014); and Diana Al-Hadid (2013). Eden held positions at the The Power Plant, Toronto, Canada, the Pollock-Krasner Foundation, New York, and Women & Their Work Gallery, Austin. She received her BFA from SUNY Purchase and MA from CCS at Bard College.

Dr. John Fitzpatrick is a native of St. Paul, Minnesota, graduated magna cum laude from Harvard University in 1974, and received his Ph.D. from Princeton University in 1978. Since 1995 he has been Director of the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology and professor in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Cornell University. Previously (1988-1995), he was Executive Director of Archbold Biological Station, a private ecological research foundation in central Florida. From 1978 to 1989 he was Curator of Birds and Chairman of the Department of Zoology at Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History. He is a Fellow of the American Ornithologists' Union, served as its President (2000-2002), and in 1985 received its highest research honor (Brewster Award) for his co-authored book Florida Scrub-Jay: Ecology and Demography of a Cooperative Breeding Bird.

Daylight is a non-profit organization dedicated to publishing art and photography books. By exploring the documentary mode along with the more conceptual concerns of fine art, Daylight's uniquely collectible publications work to revitalize the relationship between art, photography, and the world-at-large. For more information, visit daylight books.org.

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