Birds have never looked so utterly strange, gorgeous and non-human as they do in Tim Flack’s “Birds”. Set against completely black or white backgrounds, they are photographed with a starkness that renders them beautiful but also uncanny.
Flack says the simple backgrounds help to heighten our sense of empathy but you may think that they create, instead, a powerful impression of avian alterity.
The photographs are sequenced according to the most likely evolution of birds, beginning with an exquisitely preserved fossil of a feathered dinosaur that confirms palaeontologists’ grouping of birds with reptiles like Tyrannosauros rex and Velociraptor.
This leads in to ratites, birds with a flat breastplate and no keel and thus unable to fly, survivors of the asteroid event that brought the extinction of all non-avian dinosaurs.
The dinosaurian connection may help account for the alien quality that comes across so strongly from seeing; close up, minute details of birds’ plumage, colours, postures, eyes, beaks and bills.
The otherness of birds was effaced to some extent in the work of nineteenth-century bird illustrators, such as Audubon and John Gould, who often had to work using only skins and taxidermy specimens. Modern camera and photographic techniques, like the eye-tracking technology that Flack can make use of, have changed in a very literal sense the way we see birds.
A YouTube video shows Flack at work in the studio where the live birds are photographed and it introduces the lighting systems and camera settings employed.
Photography like Flack’s allows us to see birds as creatures from a strange and startling non-human world. But, alongside their difference from us, there is something about the way they gaze out at the world that is eerily familiar to our creaturely existence.
Flack highlights birds’ eyes in ways that bring home a truth common to our species and theirs: behind and beneath eyes are intricate and complex connections with brain processes that seek to cognitively organize and cope with a world being observed.
Some of the most extravagant colours displayed by birds are to be seen in those that camouflage or advertise themselves in aesthetically extreme ways.
Iridescent hues are created by light scattering off optical nanostructures in feathers and skin and the resulting colour patterns are bewitching: “Spots, dots, stripes, edgings, spangles, swirls, and chevrons are all deployed with style and grace” as the book’s section on Galliformes (landfowl) expresses it.
Tim Flack’s “Birds” will entrance. His compelling images capture just the briefest of moments – from cameras with shutter speeds of 10,000th of a second – from the engaged worlds of creatures that are getting on with lives just as busily as we do.
They live in extraordinarily different ways and Flack illuminates their spectacular diversity in ways that have not been seen before.
Sadly, too, he records birds that are fast disappearing due to deforestation and climate change; factors beyond their control, due solely to our behaviour.
Tim Flack’s “Birds” is published by Abrams.
(Images supplied by the publisher and authorised for publication.)