Book Review: Archiving Eden by Dornith Doherty

Since 2008, Dornith Doherty worked in collaboration with renowned biologists at the most comprehensive international seed banks in the…

Seedling Cabinet I,II,III © Dornith Doherty

Since 2008, Dornith Doherty worked in collaboration with renowned biologists at the most comprehensive international seed banks in the world. Serving as a global botanical backup system, these privately and publicly funded institutions assure the opportunity for the reintroduction of species should a catastrophic event or civil strife affect a key ecosystem somewhere in the world.

Spurred by the impending completion of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, Archiving Eden explores the role of seed banks and their preservation efforts in the face of climate change, the extinction of natural species, and decreased agricultural diversity. Serving as a global botanical backup system, these privately and publicly funded institutions assure the opportunity for the reintroduction of species should a catastrophic event or civil strife affect a key ecosystem somewhere in the world.

I was immediately drawn to the beautiful, calm, blue images on the cover and the nostalgic pull of cyanotype printing evoked by it. Doherty features many images within Archiving Eden of various seeds, roots, starts, and plantlets in hues of blue, green, gold, amber — as well as full color images of the vaults she visited over the years for this project. Use of the color delft/indigo blue evokes references not only to the process of cryogenic preservation, central to the methodology of saving seeds, but also to the intersection of East and West, trade, cultural exchange, and migration. This tension between stillness and change reflects her focus on the elusive goal of stopping time in relation to living materials, which at some moment, we may all want to do.

Doherty is a researcher as well as a photographer. She spent years traveling and researching the vaults visited for this project. Her sensitive images are counterbalanced by detailed descriptions with location information for the samples on display. Interspersed within the book are personally written segments which give the reader insight into what Doherty thinks and feels about the project as well. In her poetic entry, ‘Stow’ she writes,

Stepping into a seed vault takes my breath away.
Bitterly cold and filled with the sound of forced air
rushing through the shelves, I am surrounded by
seeds resting in a state of suspended animation,
preserved for a distant and unknowable future.

Other entries are more journal-like in nature, yet still reinforce the personal investment Doherty makes for the work. Amid the themes of hope and uncertainty is optimism and respect for the history of how and why seed vaults exist. Whether it is the story of Nikolay Vavilov who, during the siege of Leningrad, holed up in a secret vault with a group of Russian botanists who ultimately starved to death rather than eat the collection of seeds they were guarding for a post-apocalyptic world, or the seemingly-quaint specimens from the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center which made their way into the Millennium Seed Bank Collection — the urgency and immediacy of the concept for re-birth or nurturing the Earth’s ‘botanical backup system’ is palpable.

Images of seeds arranged in circular patterns or mandala-like repetitive folds evoke the idea of reproduction, insemination, and (dare I say) spiritual vibe to the origins of life and the crux of the universe itself. Ultimately Doherty’s visual documentation gives way to the spiritual and reflective nature her work captures. In a philosophical way, her images afford us the chance to look both forward and backward in time. It takes collecting and storing thousands of seeds by thousands of people over hundreds of years, in order to ensure the chance of success in the future for those seeds to germinate and restore/replenish a potentially exhausted future ecosystem. We are creators contemplating creation. Doherty’s work shows us a path that leads to hope that we’ve given meaningful consideration to the continuation of humanity.

Svalbard Seed Vault Exterior © Dornith Doherty
Seed Vault, Kuban Experimental Station Russia © Dornith Doherty
Seed Head II © Dornith Doherty
Corn © Dornith Doherty
Black Wattle © Dornith Doherty
More Than This © Dornith Doherty
Acacia Long pods © Dornith Doherty
Columbian Exchange III © Dornith Doherty
Kangaroo Grass © Dornith Doherty
Banksias © Dornith Doherty

Archiving Eden by Dornith Doherty
Essay by Elizabeth Avedon
Published by Schilt Publishing
24 x 29 cm
Half-cloth hardcover
180 pages with 95 photos in full color

About Dornith Doherty: She is a 2012 Guggenheim Foundation Fellow, and an American artist working primarily with photography, video, and scientific imaging. Among her chief concerns is to actively visualize the philosophical, cultural, and ecological questions that are often left invisible when considering human entanglement in our rapidly changing environment. Doherty was born in Houston, Texas and received a B.A. cum laude from Rice University and a MFA in Photography from Yale University. She currently resides in Southlake and is Distinguished Research Professor at the University of North Texas, where she has been on the faculty since 1996.

Originally published at F-Stop Magazine.