Dornith Doherty

Dornith Doherty

Fellow: Awarded 2012
Field of Study: Photography

Competition: US & Canada

University of North Texas

Photographer Dornith Doherty’s work explores the ever more complex relationship between the natural environment and human agency through photographic projects focusing on landscape stewardship and genetic resource preservation.

Doherty attended Rice University (B.A., cum laude, 1980 with dual majors in Spanish Language and Literature, and French) where she studied with photographer Geoff Winningham. Inspired by the expressive possibilities of photography, she continued her studies at Yale University School of Art (M.F.A., 1988) where she studied with Tod Papageorge, Tom Roma, and Richard Benson, and on her graduation the Yale faculty recognized her abilities with a Ward Cheney Memorial Award.

In 1994–1995, Doherty was the recipient of a William J. Fulbright Fellowship to Mexico.  This residency marked the beginning of a decade-long project in which she created site-specific photographic still lifes that poetically re-envisioned culturally configured landscapes. Working in national parks in Costa Rica, Mexico, and the United States, Doherty’s images recall shadow boxes or natural history museum dioramas, and the reflexive nature of her still lifes became a metaphor for landscape as construction. Collectively, these assemblages suggested a complex narrative of the environment and served to evoke the immediacy of history in the landscape.  With the support of a Japan Foundation Fellowship, she expanded her project to include work in the historic gardens of Kyoto, where she created photographs that explored the multi-century expanse of time manifested in the gardens and the profound philosophical differences in approach to the landscape. She completed her site-specific still life projects by focusing on the cultural aspects of the landscape of the Rio Grande River in 2008.

Spurred by the impending completion of the monumental Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway, Doherty initiated a photographic project in 2008 called Archiving Eden. She was inspired to make photographs by the hopeful yet pessimistic nature of Svalbard: on the one hand volunteers and governments from around the world are collaborating to create the first truly global botanical back-up system but on the other hand, the gravity of climate change and political instability is what has created the need for an ultra-modern, inaccessible “doomsday vault” near the North Pole.

Over the next four years Archiving Eden became a wide-ranging photographic expedition to trace in precise detail the elaborate systems of secure spaces and technological interventions involved in seed banking. Both literally and figuratively, seed banks conserve seeds or clones at the point of perfection and then "stop time" to try to prevent the botanical material from changing further. As Doherty photographed the constant, agonizing quest to sustain the spark of life in tiny plantlets and seeds (many  the size of a grain of sand), she became fascinated not only by the complex issues surrounding the role of science and human agency in relation to gene banking, but also by the poetic questions about life and time on a macro and micro scale.  This fascination with the search to preserve life from the level of individual seeds—and through those efforts, to preserve life on earth—led her to a collaboration with renowned research biologists at two seed banks: the United States Department of Agriculture’s National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation in Colorado, and the Millennium Seed Bank at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew in England. Both facilities have on-site x-ray equipment used for viability research on accessioned seeds. By using this equipment to make x-ray photographs of research seeds, tissue samples, and cloned plants, Doherty created new evocative digital collages from the resulting x-rays, and Archiving Eden became a dual-faceted project. The artwork does not merely depict scientific data: it transfigures and interprets the visual information to create images that animate a range of questions surrounding the global effort to sustain life.

By funding Doherty’s proposal to expand her seed bank project to include the cultures of the Southern Hemisphere and the oldest seed bank in the world, the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation has provided the support necessary to complete Archiving Eden.

Dornith Doherty’s work is shown in exhibitions internationally, including Earth Now, American Photographers and the Environment, New Mexico Museum of Art; Confined, Captive and Keeper in Contemporary Life, the Bluecoat, Liverpool, England; Indiana State Museum; Indianapolis Museum of Art; Atlánticas Colectivas, Tenerife, Spain; the Festival de la Luz Photography Biennial in Buenos Aires, Argentina; FotoFest, Houston; Flora and Fauna, Museum of Fine Arts Houston; and the Tucson Museum of Art, among others.

Her work is in many permanent collections, including the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, the Museum of Fine Arts in Milwaukee, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, the Yale University Library, Goldman-Sachs in New York City, Harrah’s Casino in New Orleans, Sprint Corporation in Kansas City, Federal Reserve Bank in Houston, and the Centro de Fotografía, Isla de Tenerife in Spain. 

In addition to her Guggenheim Fellowship, Doherty has received support not only from the Fulbright Foundation and the Japan Foundation, but also from grants from the United States Department of the Interior, the Indiana Arts Commission, the Indianapolis Arts Council, the Society for Contemporary Photography, the Houston Center for Photography, and the University of North Texas. She is a Professor of Photography at the University of North Texas and her artwork is represented by Holly Johnson Gallery in Dallas, Texas, and McMurtrey Gallery, in Houston, Texas.

Follow this link to Archiving Eden: Dornith Doherty at TEDxMonterey (Published on May 16, 2013)


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