Leah Sobsey works at the intersection of nineteenth-century photographic processes and twenty-first century digital technology. Photographing everything from bird skins to tattered shoes, Leah has unearthed precious details from the dark drawers of national park museum collections across the United States.

Through an interview with Karen Sheard, from British magazine Amateur Photographer Leah explains her inspiration and process that all started. At The North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, where she was granted permission to photograph some of the 10,000 bird skins in its collection.

Cardinalis cardinalis, Northern cardinal, North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, 2007
Cardinalis cardinalis, Northern cardinal, North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, 2007
Merops viridis, Blue-throated bee-eater, North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, 2007
Merops viridis, Blue-throated bee-eater, North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, 2007

Karen Sheard: The subjects that you photograph are specimens from national park museum collections in America, what made you want to focus on this type of photography in particular?

Leah Sobsey: It was a series of moments over my lifetime that brought me to this project. I can remember when I was about eight years old, I watched my uncle (who was then the curator of birds at The field Museum in Chicago), open the wooden drawers of the collection—floor-to-ceiling drawers, in my childhood memory. And there were birds. Thousands and thousands of birds—vertical, in endless rows. Bird specimens from across the world. It was beautiful and it was jarring. And it left an indelible imprint.

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

LS: Fast-forward over two and a half decades: A tufted titmouse crashed into my kitchen window. My first instinct was to hold it; my second was to photograph it. It triggered memories from the Field Museum, launching me into the work of Collections.

KS: Your book Collections features specimens from the Grand Canyon National Park. How did you gain access to these collections?

Bombycilla cedrorum, Cedar waxwing, North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, 2007
Bombycilla cedrorum, Cedar waxwing, North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, 2007

LS: The United States has over 50 artist-in-residence programs at different national parks across the country. In May 2008 I was awarded a residency at the Grand Canyon. Residency lodging was in the 100-year-old Verkamp family home that looks out directly over the canyon. I knew I didn’t have anything to add to the canyon landscape photography, so I set out to work in the museum collection where they generously granted me full access.

KS: Can you tell us more about the collections, such as from what areas the specimens were found, by whom, and how old they are?

LS: I was first drawn to the herbarium collection that is over 100 years old. Inspired by Anna Atkins, the nineteenth-century botanist and photographer, I decided to create cyanotypes from my photographs.

Grand Canyon National Park, Plant specimens, toned cyanotype, 2010
Grand Canyon National Park, Plant specimens, toned cyanotype, 2010

LS: The process: The apartment had no darkroom, so I crawled through the living room window onto the rooftop, where, under the light and heat of the desert sun, I exposed digital negatives on hand-coated watercolor paper in contact frames. Plucked from their context and illuminated by sun and light, the specimens are brought to life once again. The subject matter of each series is dictated by my discoveries, bridging past to present, honoring both the specimens I work with and the medium of photography.

Grand Canyon National Park, Plant specimens, toned cyanotype, 2010
Grand Canyon National Park, Plant specimens, toned cyanotype, 2010
Grand Canyon National Park, Plant specimens, toned cyanotype, 2010
Grand Canyon National Park, Plant specimens, toned cyanotype, 2010
Grand Canyon National Park, Plant specimens, toned cyanotype, 2010
Grand Canyon National Park, Plant specimens, toned cyanotype, 2010
Grand Canyon National Park, Plant specimens, toned cyanotype, 2010
Grand Canyon National Park, Plant specimens, toned cyanotype, 2010
“Illuminated by sun and light, the specimens are brought to life once again.”
Making of The Grand Canyon National Park, Plant specimens, toned cyanotypes, 2010
Making of The Grand Canyon National Park, Plant specimens, toned cyanotypes, 2010

LS: I don’t always consider myself a documentary photographer because traditionally, context would be provided. Instead, I have stripped the photographs of their context, illuminating them on a stark black background, memorializing them, and creating an ambiguous narrative.

It’s looking at them as hauntingly beautiful objects. It’s looking at them as part of the cycle of life and death, and our place in it. However, the documentarian in me feels compelled to include the scientific name as the title of each specimen and as a way to honor their history.

KS: What were your aims for the project? What were you hoping to capture or convey?

LS: Standing at the edge of the canyon, overwhelmed by the magnitude of the landscape, it’s easy to miss the details. The museum collections allowed me to hold, rearrange, photograph and memorialize the objects that are part of American history – from mid-nineteenth century tattered shoes in Acadia National Park, and flora and fauna in the Grand Canyon, to an alligator skull more recently found in the Florida Everglades.

Papilo glaucus, Eastern Tiger Swallowtail, North Carolina State University Insect Museum, 2012
Papilo glaucus, Eastern Tiger Swallowtail, North Carolina State University Insect Museum, 2012
Gonepteryx rhamni, Common Brimstone, North Carolina State Insect Museum, 2012
Gonepteryx rhamni, Common Brimstone, North Carolina State Insect Museum, 2012
Actias luna, Luna Moth, North Carolina State Insect Museum, 2012
Actias luna, Luna Moth, North Carolina State Insect Museum, 2012
“Overwhelmed by the magnitude of the landscape, it’s easy to miss the details.”

LS: This project is particularly timely during this centennial year of the National Park Service, and as museum collections are presently in a state of crisis due to diminishing funding and support. My current focus on national parks is a way of preserving these fragile specimens that represent American history. This comes at a time when climate change and funding allocations threaten indigenous species and artifacts with extinction.

KS: Do you have any plans for future projects?

LS: I have a number of exhibitions that I’m currently working on, and projects that I’m dreaming up. I will be exhibiting work from Collections at 21C Museum in Durham, North Carolina and Rayko Photo Center in San Francisco, California. Then, I’d love to dig into the archives at the Natural History Museum in London.

Leah Sobsey

Leah Sobsey is an artist and educator. Her art and anthropology background and her love of stories have become tools to artfully map and investigate her own history, and now that of others. Sobsey works primarily in nineteenth-century photographic processes combined with digital technology. She has exhibited nationally in galleries, museums, and public spaces, and her work is held in private and public collections across the country. Sobsey’s images have appeared in the New Yorker, the Paris Review Daily, Slate.com and many other publications.

Karen Sheard

Karen Sheard studied photography in 1994 at Dewsbury Art College and obtained a degree in Writing from Middlesex University in 2000.

She has managed the Amateur Photographer and What Digital Camera websites for the past 6 years, taking care of everything from the site content and social media channels through to the technical development of the site. She is now manages the photo web team, looking after the day to day running of the site and creating strategies for the long term success of the online brand.