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A Reflection of Life Itself From Within the Seed

Photographer Dornith Doherty has been working for more than three years on her series, Archiving Eden, a photographic project using individual seeds as its most basic subject.

Working in collaboration with the national Center for Genetic resources Preservation in Colorado, the Millennium Seed Bank in England, and the Carestream Molecular Imaging in Connecticut, Doherty traveled to the north Pole in 2010 to photograph the Svalbard Global Seed Vault – also known as the Doomsday Vault.

The importance of Doherty’s work is both timely and spiritual. In case of world disaster, seed conservation is of global importance to everyone as we all depend on plants for food, to create oxygen and to purify our air and water. Many of Archiving Eden’s images radiate a spiritual dimension, emanating wordlessly like hieroglyphs from nature, seeming to reflect life itself from within the seed.

ELIZABETH AVEDON: What motivated you to begin your series, Archiving Eden?

DORNITH DOHERTY: When I first read about the opening of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in 2008; I immediately wanted to photograph it. I was inspired by the hopeful/pessimistic nature of the seed banks; on one hand volunteers and governments from around the world were collaborating to create a global botanical back-up system, and on the other hand the gravity of climate change and political instability created the need for an inaccessible ark located near the North Pole. It’s such a vividly heroic vision.

EA: Would you discuss what you were aiming for vs. the final result – including your process in achieving these images?

DD: Initially, I worked with a view camera to photograph the spaces and technology of seed banking. I’m interested in what photographs of the architecture, technology and types of collections reveal about our cultural aspirations and fears. It’s interesting to see how scientific heritage, philosophical perspectives and access to economic resources are made manifest in the photographs.
My project expanded in an important and unanticipated way when I was granted permission to use the on-site x-ray machine at the National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation. A collaboration with a leading research scientist, Dr. Dave Ellis, allowed me to choose clones and seeds to grow for photographic purposes. Each time, the process takes about two to three months from germination.
Using x-ray technology, I am able to peer into the infinitely delicate structures of seeds and plantlets not visible to the human eye. When I look at the seeds, I am looking at the beginning of life. The collages made from the x-rays, which vary from aggregates of monumental numbers of seeds such as 1,400 Ash Tree Seeds to individual plantlets such as Pea are a way for me to address questions and philosophical concerns I have about the role of humans and science in relation to gene banking. The mission of seed banks is to conserve seeds or clones at a certain point of perfection and then stop time or try to prevent the botanical materials from changing further.

EA: What seed bank contains the rarest species?

DD: For the most part, seed banks don’t collect rare plants due to concern about the impact of removing and reducing the number of important seeds from the native habitat. Instead, they collect plant species with robust populations that are typical for their habitat.
There are some really interesting exceptions to this rule. For instance, the head of research at the Millennium Seed Bank in England, Dr. Hugh Pritchard, showed me a very odd look­ing plant in their research greenhouse. A family had found a leather wallet in their home that belonged to a Captain of a ship that traveled to the South Pacific about two hundred years ago. It was filled with unidentified seeds he had collected as part of his natural history collection. The scientists at the Millen­nium Seed Bank were able to germinate some of the seeds and found that the plant is extinct. They are researching it to see if they might be able to save the species.
Speaking of rarity, about a year ago, Egypt’s seed bank collec­tion was destroyed during the rioting and the political instability there. Its collection focused on desert plants, and unfortunately there was not a back-up collection for the species contained in that collection.

EA: Many of your images, for example Seed Head 1 and Seed Head 2, appear to have an “aura” emanating from them. What are your thoughts on these images?

DD: The photographs pose questions about life and time on a micro and macro scale for me. I am struck by the visual connections – some look like astronomical bodies or micro­scopic cells. When I work with x-rays, you are literally gazing into the plantlets and seeds – things you cannot see with an unaided eye. Tiny seeds (many are the size of a grain of sand or smaller) that generate life remain simultaneously deli­cate and powerful. The scale of time that is ingrained in the process of seed banking, which seeks to make these sparks last for two hundred years or more, makes the life cycle very much on my mind while I work. I also contemplate the elusive goal of stopping time in relation to living materials, which at some moment, we would all like to do.

EA: How did you construct the image, Whip It, 2009 – were you influenced by the geometry of snow crystals?

DD: Ha, I like that question, Elizabeth. Do you know those wonderful 19th Century photographs of snowflakes by Wilson Bentley? I love those, especially in light of how he made them. I made Whip It before I went to Svalbard, but I wasn’t really thinking about snowflakes at the time. I was thinking about time cycles and human reproduction. However, now that you ask that question, it makes me think about how a snowflake’s perfection is only perceived for a fraction of a second before it melts. It’s a perfect metaphor for seed banking and photography.

EA: What do you see as the role of an artist and your works of art in society?

DD: That’s a tough question and one I think about a lot. I frequently encounter situations that pose this question while teaching. I can’t speak about the role of artists in general; I can only speak for myself. What I’m interested in is making original work that connects to really important issues like environmental justice in a poetic and Szarkowskian “trusted witness” kind of way. It’s like reading a novel – you have an intimate, one-on-one experience with a work of art, and maybe the work makes you think about things in a way you hadn’t considered before. In regard to my current project, we are at a serious juncture envi­ronmentally, and I hope Archiving Eden will serve as a catalyst for thoughtful action.

Dornith Doherty, born in Houston, Texas, received a BA from Rice University and an MFA in Photography from Yale University. She is currently Professor of Photography at the University of North Texas. She is a recipient of grants from the Fulbright Foundation, the Japan Foundation, the United States Department of the Interior, the Indiana Arts Commission and the Society for Contemporary Photography. Her work is in the collections of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, the Milwaukee Museum of Art and the Minneapolis Institute of Art.

Elizabeth Avedon has received recognition for her curatorial work and publishing projects, including the exhibitions and books: Avedon: 1949-1979 for the Metropolitan Museum of Art; Avedon: In the American West for the Amon Carter Museum, the Corcoran Gallery and the Art Institute of Chicago; Tibet and Zanskar for the Menil Collection; and worked with the Estate of Diane Arbus. She is a regular contributor to La Lettre de la Photographie, as well as a curatorial consultant and designer. elizabethavedon.blogspot.com