Photographer Leah Sobsey Discovers Life After Death

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

It all began with a thud against the kitchen window one day. A Tufted Titmouse gave up the ghost on photographer Leah Sobsey’s porch. Her instinct to take pictures was triggered, as were childhood memories of wooden drawers of Chicago Field’s Museum collection filled with thousands of dead birds. The birds had been collected and given the full works as taxidermy experts made them ready for viewing in their new life after death as part of one of the Museum’s many compelling natural history exhibits.

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The human urge to college, to catalogue, to organize and preserve—from where does this compulsion come? Perhaps it is purely empirical, a belief that we can only study what we possess, and that as stewards of the earth, the material realm is at our fingertips. Like many before her, Sobsey was drawn to this, and in May 2008, she was awarded a residency at the Grand Canyon.

Agehana maraho, Broad-tailed Swallowtail, North Carolina State University Insect Museum, 2012

Agehana maraho, Broad-tailed Swallowtail, North Carolina State University Insect Museum, 2012

Collections_Leah Sobsey_COVER copyKnowing her lane she stepped away from the well-trod path of landscape photography, and decided to explore the Grand Canyon Museum Collection. Combining nineteenth century photographic processes with twenty-first century digital technology, Sobsey has created body of work that celebrates intersection between art, life, nature, and the human quest for understanding. The work has just been released in Collections (Daylight), published in conjunction with the Centennial Year of the National Parks Service.

Sobsey’s photographs are quiet portraits of the past, of life made artifact. As she writes, the museum was a hermetic world, filled with “specimens of tiny birds, bleached bones, clipped germs, and fragile butterflies housed in drawers of darkness. I had open access to these collections. Now, all these years later, in solitude, I could finally touch, rearrange, photograph, and memorialize these birds. Plucked from their context and illuminated by sun and light, they are brought back to life once again.”

Grand Canyon National Park, Skull specimen, toned cyanotype, 2010

Grand Canyon National Park, Skull specimen, toned cyanotype, 2010

Invoke the spirit of William Blake, who wrote, “Some are Born to sweet delight, some are Born to Endless Night,” Sobsey reminds us the fortunes of fate extend past life itself, and connect us from one generation to the next. And perhaps this is one of the many reasons we collect: it is not just to leave a legacy but to be a contribution.

The flora and fauna Sobsey photographs reminds us of the fragility of life, of the temporal plane that consciousness exists upon. Once death erases beingness, what remains is the vessel, a feat of biological engineering that is as magnificent as it is mysterious. Sobsey imbues the vessels with a grace and respect that animates them for our pleasure, using old school processes that create an intense sense of veneration.

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

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

As Xandra Eden writes in the book, “Birds, butterflies, indigenous grasses and wildflowers, and shoes…one might think that her selections express a sense of anxiety regarding death and remembrance. The images seem to affirm (to herself, to us) that meaning and emotion remain connected to the lives that these objects represent, and that museums offer us both returns and reminder of the past. Even more, they introduce us to a sense of care ad curiosity about something we might otherwise never have known.”

All photos: ©Leah Sobsey, courtesy of Daylight Books.

Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.