What’s it like to be a bird?

Dominic Ziegler in More Intelligent Life:

There is a problem in getting up close to birds in order to celebrate them. Warm-blooded, they support striking levels of energy and movement. They are social, active and dynamic – most of them fly, though there are significant species of flightless birds. Birds rarely stand still, especially near humans. That’s why the pioneering illustrators of the 19th century sought dead specimens to bring into the studio to paint. John James Audubon’s 1838 engraving of a shocking-pink, double-bent flamingo is one of America’s best-known images, but his career was as much about slaughtering birds – and encouraging a network of associates to do the same – as it was about illustrating them. (He was also a slave owner; some environmental groups are now dropping his name.)

In contrast to the Victorians’ skins and taxidermy specimens – often much-travelled, moth-eaten and peppered with lead shot – a new book by Tim Flach shows birds full of life and vigour. In “Birds”, he could not draw them closer. Flach’s photographs represent a kind of end-station or apotheosis of humans’ age-old and passionate quest to capture and possess the beauty of birds. Hyperreal and drenched in colour, the studio portraits of his avian subjects put him in a long and inspired tradition of artist-ornithologists. Photography, says Flach, may allow the viewer a deeper experience of birds than observing them from a distance, in motion. The image, he writes, “invites us to examine and contemplate the bending of a feather caught in flight, the minute details of the vanes and barbules of plumage, the frozen moments of torpedo-like diving penguins, the painterly reflections of flamingos wading.” Few figurative depictions of birds have done anything quite like this.

More here.