For photographer Rosamond Purcell and Folger Director Michael Witmore, their book Landscapes of the Passing Strange (2010) and the exhibition Very Like a Whale are two parts of the same wide-ranging project, an ambitious combination of contemporary photography, Shakespeare's highly visual language, and the powerful world of the Renaissance imagination. As the curators explain, the book and exhibition were conceived together.
"The idea of doing an exhibition and the book came at the same time; one didn't grow out of the other," Witmore says. "It turned out to work well to do the book first. It became an expanding circle, expanding out from the pictures and text in the book, to all sorts of associations with materials in the Folger collection and elsewhere." The fact that the book was done first, Purcell adds, "is really lucky. The pictures became a steadying force in my mind, as we were working to draw out themes and topics" for the exhibition.
When Witmore first suggested a photographic Shakespeare project, "I was very hesitant," says Purcell. "I didn't want something too literal. I wanted something that was more of a glancing blow, more oblique or suggestive. Then I saw a mercury glass jar in the window of an antique store. It had a double reflective surface—the inner surface, which was like a corroded mirror, and the outer surface, which was often rippled glass. On its side, the reflections were even more askew, warped, and mysterious." She sent photographs of landscapes reflected on the jar's surfaces to Witmore, who was then a visiting scholar at the Folger.
He opened her first e-mail in the Folger Reading Room. "Once I saw Rosamond's mercury glass experiments," says Witmore, he knew "this was the right opportunity." In the following weeks, she took more and more photographs. As she e-mailed him new images, Witmore quickly replied with the lines from Shakespeare they evoked. "It was like a call and response," says Purcell.
"My reaction to these images is immediately emotional, a set of overtones and feelings," says Witmore. "I look at it and I think, I've had that feeling before." The photograph "Awake Your Faith," for example, suggests the scene in The Winter's Tale in which a statue comes to life. "That is probably my favorite moment in the plays," says Witmore. "A very hopeful moment, a triumph of hope over experience—buoyancy, life, and longing. I have the same feelings on the stage and in the image for that moment."
In the exhibition, Purcell's photographs are complemented by display cases on related themes, filled with diverse early modern books, prints, and manuscripts, natural and found objects, and more. "The exhibition cases are like small collections," Witmore says. "I hope that the people who visit the exhibition think aloud about how the things came together and take away a deeper appreciation for just how visually rich Shakespeare's language is. He's good not only with images, but with connections between images. He's always looking at one thing and seeing another."
For her part, Purcell hopes that visitors will take a close look. "We've chosen everything in the cases to be great for the eye as well as the mind. There are so many compelling illustrations in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century books on travel, on early modern science, on magic. And I have enormous fondness for many of the objects, too—the narwhal tusk, which is amazing, the amphora covered with tubeworm cases, the hematite shaped like a bird's wing. Then, too, things are not always as they seem. Don't stand a mile away, come right on in and look," she says. "Just looking is a reward."