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Interview & Portfolio: Dornith Doherty on Archiving Eden

photo-eye Gallery Interview & Portfolio: Dornith Doherty on Archiving Eden photo-eye gallery is pleased to announce a new portfolio titled Archiving Eden by Photographer’s Showcase artist Dornith Doherty. In this project, Maas images the consequence of time and atmosphere on photographic film – presenting the evidence of an object, image, and moment reduced to an abstract color field. photo-eye Gallery's Anne Kelly talks to Doherty about her work.

Prairie IV — Dornith Doherty

photo-eye Gallery is pleased to announce the addition of Dornith Doherty’s Archiving Eden, to the Photographer's Showcase. In Archiving Eden, Doherty photographs in seed banks across the globe, exploring everything from small private institutions to some of the world's largest and most comprehensive vaults. In this project Doherty blends science, conservation, and artistry by collaborating with biologists and governments to investigate complex issues while creating poetic imagery, including both straight documentation of vaults and institutions as well as digital collages utilizing onsite x-ray technology. The Photographer's Showcase portfolio focuses on Doherty's delicate and detailed digital collages, photographs that echo fine lucida pencil drawings or early cyanotypes, aiding in the formal blend between history, preservation, and photography. —Anne Kelly

Kangaroo Grass, 2014 — Dornith Doherty

Anne Kelly:     What inspired your ambitious project Archiving Eden?

Dornith Doherty:     The stewardship of natural resources and the challenging complexity of human interaction with our world are of utmost importance to me. Prior to Archiving Eden, my focus was on the cultural aspects of contemporary managed landscapes in national parks, historic gardens, and nature preserves (Temporal Screens and Altered Terrain); and later, the politically and environmentally contested landscape of the Rio Grande river valley (Burnt Water/Agua Quemada). When I read John Seabrook’s article about the opening of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in the New Yorker magazine, (Annals of Agriculture, Sowing for the Apocalypse), I was immediately impressed by the simultaneously pessimistic and optimistic aspects of a global seed vault built to save the word’s botanical life from catastrophic events.

Dornith Doherty at Svalbard Global Seed Vault
AK:     You have photographed in seed banks all over the world from private to government run. Where did you start and how did you gain access?

DD:     I started by photographing the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin, Texas. You can’t imagine how moving it was to see individual volunteers cleaning, counting, and packaging tiny seeds by hand in order to send them to two of the most important seed banks in the world — the National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation in Fort Collins, Colorado, and the Millennium Seed Bank in England. When confronted by large problems such as climate change and extinction of species we face today, sometimes it seems that individual effort can’t make a difference. While photographing the seed banks, it became apparent that by saving these seeds, individuals and institutions were helping to ensure the survival of entire plant species. It was a profoundly moving experience. Early in the project, I had the very good fortune to work with Dr. Dave Ellis, a research scientist at the United States National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation, and now head of the International Potato Center in Peru. His support and collaboration made it possible to expand Archiving Eden to include seed banks in England, Norway, Russia, the Netherlands, Italy, Australia, Brazil, and the Svalbard Global Seed Vault.

Australia, 2014 — Dornith Doherty

AK:     You started by making “traditional” photographs inside of the seed banks and eventually began capturing images using onsite x-ray equipment at the facilities. Please talk about this transition. 

DD:     The dual nature of Archiving Eden emerged very early in the project. At the second bank I photographed, (the National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation in Fort Collins, Colorado), I asked permission to use their research x-ray equipment in order to make digital x-rays of seeds and research plants from their collection. Upon return to my studio in Texas I used the images as the basis for a suite of collages, which allowed me to address, in a more openly poetic way, my wonder in encountering a massive vault filled with an archive of life. The photographs and the x-ray collages are linked; they are captured at the same time and place, and express two sides of the quest to preserve life.

Seed Head II, 2010 — Dornith Doherty
AK:     What are your thought on the intersection of science and art in Archiving Eden?

The innovative discursive space created by artistic and scientific collaboration enhances the creative process for me. When I was working at the NCGRP, I focused on the collections of diverse seeds saved for agrobiodiversity, and tissue samples of cloned plants used for global agriculture. The cross-disciplinary dialogue with Dave Ellis, who was Plant Physiologist and Lead Curator of the Plant Genetic Resources Preservation Program at the time, created an opportunity to expand the project in surprising and unanticipated directions, thereby creating a nuanced view of this important and timely subject. His research into the genetic diversity of corn became a basis for several collages.

AK:     Your images document a very important story, but are also graphic and visually pleasing. How do you balance aesthetics and intent in your photographs?

DD:     Thank you! One of the aspects I love about photography is the element of surprise that may arise out of recognizing a confluence of visual phenomena that, when captured, resolves into a visually compelling and meaningful image. By capturing images in the field and then taking them back to the studio to complete them, contemplation time is introduced into the process, which helps me to edit and create work that reflects my concerns. At the moment, in contemporary photography and art criticism, there is a trend in which beauty is somehow suspect. In my work, at first glance, viewers may not recognize the layers of meaning because of that train of thought and may dismiss my work. However, it is my hope that beauty may make viewers pause and consider what I’m trying to say about extinction and survival, wild and agricultural biodiversity, recycling of genetic information, empirical knowledge, and scientific intervention such as suspended animation in living materials.

Waning I, 2014 — Dornith Doherty
Dornith Doherty at work in the Netherlands

AK:     Please share a story about something unexpected that you discovered in the process of making this work.

DD:     Hahaha! This whole project has been an encounter with the unexpected. Who would think you could make a project out of seed banks? Before 2008, I did not know what a seed bank was. As I’ve worked at the various institutions around the world, each bank has stories of close calls and species surviving against the odds. In this era of climate change and extinction, those unexpected successes give me hope. One of my favorite stories is a small plant I saw at the Millennium Seed Bank in England. This plant was sprouted from seeds collected by a sea captain during the early 1800s, and the plant was previously thought to be extinct. So, a sea captain from 200 years ago saved a species.

View the complete Archiving Eden portfolio

For more information or to purchase a print, please contact Anne Kelly 505-988-5150 x121 or

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