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These photographs depict birds that have been caught in mist nets as part of scientific surveys and ornithological research. During this moment, the birds inhabit a fascinating conceptual space between our framework of ‘the bird in the bush and the bird in the hand.’ The captured creatures are embarrassed, fearful, angry, and vulnerable. I photograph these birds just before the ornithologist removes them from the nets to be weighed and measured—before the bird becomes ‘known’ by these concise numbers—this is a fragile moment. The bird is then released, to disappear back into the woods, and into data these scientists have gathered.
My decision to photograph birds in this way developed from my longstanding interest in birdwatching colliding with my studies of biology and art history. The first pieces of artwork I loved were two books full of bird paintings: John James Audubon’s Birds of America and Roger Tory Peterson’s Field Guide to the Birds of Eastern and Central North America. Alongside personal observation, these books were my primary aids in getting to know the birds…
To create his paintings, John James Audubon (1785-1851) shot birds and contorted their bodies into dramatic poses by wiring and pinning them onto boards. The quirky and oftentimes unnatural postures were not immediately popular with the scientific community. Audubon was on a romantic quest, with the goal of painting (and shooting) all the birds in America. Indeed, it was the scope of his quest as well as his skills with the paintbrush that have made Audubon such a famed ornithological painter. Today many bird-watchers share a similar goal to Audubon: to record every species in the country on their personal ‘life lists.’ My photographs are a reflection on this need to personally see, observe, and capture diversity.
My photographs are also a reflection on our desire to name, classify, and quantify diversity. It was Roger Tory Peterson (1908-1996) pioneered the idea of a field guide. His guides highlight observable marks, pointed out by carefully placed arrows, which allow for the identification of birds at a distance. Peterson painted thousands of systematic illustrations of birds in static poses, which he based on photographs, bird skins, and field observations. Field guides have allowed hobbyists, artists, and scientists to identify birds with binoculars instead of a shotgun.
Ornithologists now use mist nets to gather data that cannot be obtained with the help of binoculars, microphones, or telephoto lenses. These nearly invisible nets are set up like fences and function as huge spider webs, catching unsuspecting birds. The researcher carefully extracts the bird from the net. Each bird is then measured, aged, sexed, and banded with an individually numbered anklet. Then the bird is released, back into the wild. I hope that my images are a reflection of the struggle to gain this intimate data and the different ways that this information can be used to create abstract understanding of these species. As the data gathered by scientists grows, it can offer profound insights. When depicted by these complicated numbers, the individual birds become abstracted and we can consider ideas about populations and species. This intimate knowledge is a powerful tool that is used to make decisions about conservation and answer other ecological questions.
On a personal level, I’ve noticed a perceptual abstraction that has occurred as I’ve become more familiar with how to name, define, and classify birds. Experienced birdwatchers can often name what species flew past based on the blink of an eye. They can name the bird while only barely seeing it. These photographs are my attempt to consider the systems we use to measure and define the world around us while also remaining open to new insights, approaches, observations, and surprises.