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Birds, Out of Context (Paul Bellew)

December 1, 2009

Anyone need a coffee table book? Do you like… birds?

The other day I stumbled on a website promoting the book Birds by Andrew Zuckerman. It’s a book of photography full of more than two hundred pictures of birds. To view some of the photos, go to the website and click on the “Photographs” link. From here you can navigate a list of species and see various pictures of birds and even listen to some of their calls. Some of these birds are even rare. Wow!

If you’ve clicked the link and checked out some of the photos perhaps you’ve noticed the complete lack of an ecosystem in all of these pictures… All the bird photographs are shot against a pure, unbroken, white background. No trees. No ground. No sky.

The introduction to the book (which you can read, if you click on “Book” and then “Book Images”) defends this lack of context pretty vociferously. Massimo Vignelli (the dude who wrote the introduction, mentioned here because his name is freaking rad!), posits Zuckerman’s photos against John James Audobon’s drawings of birds from the 19th century. Massimo explains that Audubon “places the birds in their own habitats with . . . meticulous consideration. The narrative intention of the drawings is clearly stated; there are no doubts about the author’s goal. He chooses to show the bird in its own environment, and for him, the story is complete . . . Andrew Zuckerman approaches birds with a contemporary, minimalist attitude: no more narrative context, no more psychological interpretations, no more candid shots in the wilderness. An absolute background made of pure white light acts as the field on which the birds fly or rest. In this incredibly luminous setting, the colors of the birds’ plumage come to life as never before seen by the human eye . . . Zuckerman wants only the silhouette of the birds against the white background of light: an uncompromising notion of space in which any object becomes its own essence.” Thus, the environment is not necessary; in fact, it kind of ruins the animals as art objects.

How I wish I could be removed from my environment and become my own essence! But unfortunately, as the saying goes: “you can take the boy out of the trailer park, but you can’t take the trailer park out of the boy.” Forgive me; I digress…

Take a look at some of the videos in the website as well. Click “Films” and then click “Aviary.” It seems that most, if not all, of these photos were taken at the National Aviary. So, another reason Zuckerman doesn’t photograph the birds in their natural environment is because he photographed the birds in a zoo. That is, they’re not in their natural habitat. Personally, I find my wildlife photography much easier when I’m not in the wild too. Doesn’t everybody? Although, I find the self-serving attack on John James Audubon a little irritating on this level though.

But this constructedness of setting is interesting in terms of a discussion we had today about the film Manufactured Landscapes and the photography of Edward Burtynsky. Burtynsky’s photos, we decided, were at least ethically concerned but at most politically motivating. But Burtynsky’s photos had a context. Does this make Zuckerman’s pointed effacement of context or environment unethical? Or are they politically un-environmentalist in the way they completely strip the natural environment of any value?

I don’t know. Maybe we should just leave Biophilia on our coffee tables…

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Mary G permalink
    December 1, 2009 8:30 am

    Check out Zuckerman’s book _Creature_ via his site, too. Same deal, but with a different array of animals. It’s like uber-modern sterile nature (art) photography and it’s really quite disarmingly beautiful in a way completely different from Burtynsky’s disarmingly beautiful (manufactured) landscapes. The issues you bring up regarding the isolation of the bird from its natural habitat as being potentially unethical are provocative. Could the other side of the argument be that Zuckerman makes a statement about how we not only perceive, access, or view but also define nature, environment, and wilderness in new ways in our current moment? I don’t know. But this juxtaposition of Burtynsky and Zuckerman also highlights, for me, the issues of scale that we were talking about this afternoon.

  2. miracjohnson permalink
    December 4, 2009 5:54 pm

    After reading your post I came across a story on NPR’s website in The Picture Show feature (http://www.npr.org/blogs/pictureshow/2009/12/schoeller.html) about photographer Martin Schoeller’s portraits. He seems to take a similar approach to Zuckerman in that he chooses to photograph his (human) subjects in front of a blank screen, in an attempt to de-contextualize the sitter. The article presents this technique, and the fact that Schoeller would (but it is unclear if he indeed has or will) publish his pictures of celebrities and private individuals side by side as egalitarian. However, I wonder at the possibility of this equality if there is no attempt to contextualize, say, the picture of Holo, a Hadza woman in Tanzania when placed next to one of Brittany Spears (the hypothetical egalitarian scenario the author suggests), who is already deeply contextualize as an American celebrity. Perhaps the issues about context here are not precisely the same as that of Zuckerman and his birds, however, I think it raises similar questions about why it would be considered beneficial to decontextualize a subject, whether it’s even possible, and ultimately, if in the attempt to decontextualize, we are simply allowing our own conception of the context to be projected onto the subject, rather than “seeing the essence” of the subject that decontextualization supposedly allows.

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