For most people, “local history” means names and events dating back at best a century or two. But for Art Murphy, a fine art photographer who lives on a winding, wooded road in the town of Catskill, local history dates back nearly 400 million years.
At that time, in that place, the ground beneath Murphy’s feet was a vast Devonian inland sea, teeming with now-extinct marine life: trilobites, crinoids, brachiopods and scores of other animals whose only record of having fed, bred and died is the myriad imprints that they left in shale and sandstone. This enormous ark of fossils is the foundation that Murphy’s cabin sits upon, and he can barely take a stroll without tripping over the ghostly remains of a rostroconch or a wraithlike fragment of fenestella.
It took Murphy a while to become aware of the treasure-trove that permeates his property. Then one day, about six years ago, he picked up a small rock and saw a little brachiopod, “the size of my thumbnail,” and was instantly fascinated. When a neighbor told him that the area was rife with fossil rocks, “I was like a kid in a candy store,” Murphy remembers. “I can take you back on that hill right now, and I guarantee we’ll find ten fossils.”
For Murphy, who was mostly engaged in urban landscape projects at the time, the idea of creating photographs from his finds took three years to germinate. The first results were featured in “GEOgraphy,” a group show at the Catskill Gallery of the Greene County Council on the Arts, in the winter of 2010. Since then, his photographs of fossils – his prints of imprints, you might say – have attracted the attention of artists and scientists alike.
“Art has pioneered a whole new category of photography,” says geologist Bob Titus. “People have been shooting photos of fossils for 150 years, but only the most important specimens have been selected, and then only to illustrate their anatomical features. Such photos are strictly for illustration in scientific journals. Art is entirely different; he is not a scientist but an artist. He can take the most thoroughly mundane fossils and capture their hidden aesthetics, tweaking their colors and shading to turn them into things of beauty. His is a wondrous achievement.”
Murphy came to photography after a checkered career that saw him study painting at a small school in Colorado and astronautical engineering at the US Air Force Academy, and drive a locomotive “running 10,000 tons of coal trains up and down the Great Divide.” Moving to New York, he did photographic work with an ad agency and as a freelancer; he assisted Robert Frank in some of the great Swiss photographer’s first forays into the realm of digital printing.
As an artist, he describes his modus operandi thusly: “For me, there’s no longer that Cartier-Bresson ‘decisive moment.’ My photography is a process that begins before I even take the picture. I find the fossils, I break them apart, and then I work with images that are fairly flat to start with and build them up, making them more dramatic, more romantic, giving the image its due.”
Romance and drama are certainly as evident in these photos as the signatures of once-swimming things. In the photographs comprising Devonian Dreams, the publication that accompanied his eponymous solo show at the Museum of the Earth in Ithaca (2011-12), Murphy combines the sensibilities of both a theatrical set designer and a “contemporary Luminist” (as Fawn Potash, visual arts director of the Greene County Council on the Arts, has called him). Shot mostly in extreme close-ups, they play with our sense of scale: A conical coral fragment could be a golden pagoda perched on a mountain; a brachiopod mold is darkly erotic, appearing more fleshly than petrified.
The works in Murphy’s “Devonian Drawer” series, his most recent, are haunting and poetic; if Joseph Cornell had been a palaeontologist, he might have crafted similar tableaux. “I found this metal drawer; it was the rust that drew me to it,” Murphy says. “I like the textural aspect, and the rust showing the age of it.” Using the same drawer as a frame for each assemblage, he has created a striking series of juxtaposed objects – a trio of brachiopods floating above a tin cup found in an old burn pit; a fossil-bearing rock exposed by the flood that followed Irene, beneath a root system ripped apart by the same storm – each object and arrangement possessing a singular, silent beauty and gravitas.
One thing that makes so many of the “Devonian Drawer” juxtapositions so poignant is the way they pair ephemeral objects with more enduring ones, as in the image that features a flaking honeycomb and a fragment of ancient coral. “It’s a dialogue between short time and long time,” Murphy says.
Another dialogue is the one between Murphy and the artists who were combing the Catskills before him. A friend recently pointed out that the fossil-hunting photographer was not much different from the artists of the 19th-century Hudson River School: Whereas Thomas Cole, Asher Durand and the others painted the woods and brooks and mountains, Murphy creates images of what underpins that same terrain, the inner, deep-time landscape of the Catskills.
Like the fossils themselves, these works of Art Murphy have staying power, and his engagement with the making of them is not just a fleeting romance. “Once you start a project, it either plays itself out – in which case you’re in Purgatory for a while – or it really captures your interest to a degree that it supersedes your other interests,” he says. “For me, photographing fossils is the perfect project: It continues to open doors, it continues to tell me where to go, it’s an ever-expanding dialogue.”
Murphy’s fossil photographs were exhibited recently at the Art Barn on Isle La Motte, Lake Champlain, home to the world’s oldest Ordovician coral reef, and in the Geology and Palaeontology Division of the Museum of Natural History in Florence, Italy. For the latter show, Murphy photographed specimens from the Museum’s permanent collection, and “One of the really cool things is that some of the pieces might have come from [the collection of] Leonardo himself,” he says, barely able to contain his excitement.
Both Murphy’s fossil and urban images and his observations about them may be seen at https://artandfossils.wordpress.com.