Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Interview with Todd Forsgren, Photographer

A few months back I posted on the particularities of bird photography.  It seems to me a pretty utilitarian genre - concerned as it is with clarity and scientific definitiveness, but lacking that mysterious ingredient is necessary to be called "art."

The only bird photographer I know of who I would consider a great artist is Todd Forsgren.  In his most famous series, Forsgren photographs tropical birds temporarily tangled in mist nets.  The images are striking, and the viewer can't help but calculate his empathy for the birds with the value of scientific data gained from their confinement.  Perhaps most interesting to birders is the conceptual link between Forsgren's mist net images and the artwork of James J. Audubon, whose globally-influential paintings were built upon the sacrifice of thousands birds unfortunate enough to meet the business end of his shotgun. 

Todd was kind enough to let me talk with him over email about his idea on bird photography as art, how his series of photographs came about, and their reception.

More of Todd Forsgren's images can be seen at his website and via Heiner Contemporary.

Birdist: Which started first for you: birding or photography?

Forsgren: I was definitely a birder long before I was a photographer.  I started birding early, maybe 4th or 5th grade.  I was a total bird nerd in high school, heading out on VENT bird camps in Arizona and competing in birdathons for the ABA's Tropicbirds youth birding team.  When I first went off to college, I thought it would be to become an ornithologist, and I do have a degree in biology.  It wasn't until my junior or senior year at school that I started taking cameras seriously.  Within a few years after school, I decided that's what I wanted to do with my life: make pictures.  Photographing birds was just a matter of time.

Birdist: So you didn't start with photographing birds right away?  What kinds of photography did you start with, and which photographers do you admire?

Forsgren: No, the first subject I photographed was landscapes; fairly romantic black-and-white medium format shots.  That developed into a series of photographs on urban and community based gardens.  Typical wildlife photos of birds requires lots of expensive, long, phallic lenses.  Just after college, as a struggling photographer who was living out of a backpack, I didn't have the financial resources or space to deal with such things.  I knew I wanted to photograph birds, it just took me a while to figure out how I wanted to photograph birds.  Gosh, the list of photographers I admire is long.  That said, my so-called 'ornithological photographs' are a reaction to contemporary wildlife photography and a response to ideas I had about species and categorization.  But in terms of artists they're in homage to, I'd say they owe more to John James Audubon, Roger Tory Peterson, Sol Lewitt, and Joseph Albers than they do to any photographers.  But, if you like, I could rattle off a list of photographers who are twisting the boundaries of nature and documentary photography in ways that I find pretty interesting...

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

R.I.P. Jeff Wilson, Tennessee's Ol' Coot

Sad news out of west Tennessee today that Jeff Wilson, the Ol' Coot of Tennessee birding, has passed.  I only lived in north Mississippi for a year, and only birded with Jeff a handful of times, but that was all I needed to recognize that he was one of the best birders I've ever known.

First and foremost, Jeff had a master eye.  Where others scanned Tunica county goose flocks for hours and couldn't pick out a thing, he'd find the Thayer's and a second-cycle California Gull.  Where Zac and I would sit blinking into the heat shimmer at an Ensley Bottoms mudflat, Jeff would roll up in his pick-up truck and pick out the Baird's Sandpiper in an instant.  "You can tell because he walks like a tank," he'd say. 

He could do it because, like all master birders, he was ready for any bird at any time.  You're not going to find a California gull on a frozen field in west Mississippi unless you're prepared to find one there, and Jeff was.  He was relentless - giddy - in his love and dedication to birding.  Not for the social "fame" of birding (though he could rattle off his various state firsts at the slightest provocation), but for the challenge of identification and the excitement and curiosity of exploration. 

My favorite Jeff Wilson moment was at a Big Sit I organized at north Mississippi's Sardis Lake in the fall of 2010.  I was new to the area and wasn't sure if anyone would show up, but Gene Knight (that other titan of Mid-South birding) said he would let Jeff know.  Well, both Gene and Jeff showed up and just birded the HECK out of that count circle.  They were finding birds that Jason and I never would have found (we ended up at 76 species, a top 10 total nationwide, though I just checked and it doesn't show up on the Bird Watcher's Digest site).  But more importantly, they were having fun.  When I left in the late afternoon, bleary and blinkering from a pre-dawn start, Jeff and Gene were still going strong, sitting among the low trees sharing stories and slapping knees between blasts of screech-owl tapes. 

Mid-South birding will very much miss Jeff Wilson.  I bet he's already got a few first Heaven records under his belt. 

Here's a link to his photo page, and here's a link to an information page about Ensley Bottoms, southwest of Memphis, an incredible birding site and Jeff's favorite stomping grounds.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Birds at Large: Uncanny X-Men

Coming to comic book stores near you on Feb 13th: Uncanny X-Men #1 Deadpool 53 State Bird Variant
“Ornithology is one of America’s greatest past times,” mentioned Senior Editor Nick Lowe. “With Inauguration day and Spring just around the corner – we could think of no better way than to celebrate our history with a beaked representative from every state including Puerto Rico and then some!” - comicbookresources.com
What a great tie-in of my life-controlling hobby and geeky-love for comics! The problem is most birders will be quick to notice the outliers in this otherwise beautifully illustrated cover. Lets break it down:

click on the image to view larger
  • King Vulture - first glaring error... they do look cool though
  • Common Grackle - wrong, not any state's bird
  • Brown Pelican - Louisiana (1)
  • Hermit Thrush - Vermont (2)
  • Northern Mockingbird - Arkansas (3), Florida (4), Mississippi (5), Tennessee (6), Texas (7)
  • Emu - nope
  • Baltimore Oriole - Maryland (8)
  • California Gull - Utah (9)
  • Red-capped Manakin - negative, but at least another cool bird
  • Hermit Warbler - no
  • American Robin - Michigan (10), Wisconsin (11)
  • Brown Thrasher - Georgia (12) see also Northern Bobwhite
  • Knobbed Hornbill - endemic to Indonesia
  • Magnolia Warbler - noo
  • Purple Finch - New Hampshire (13) & New Mexico?
  • Mountain Bluebird - Idaho (14) & Nevada (15)
  • Greater Roadrunner - New Mexico (16)
  • Scissor-tailed Flycatcher - Oklahoma (17)
  • Savannah Sparrow - probably suppose to be a Yellowhammer but I'm not remaking the graphic...
  • Wild Turkey - state game bird of: Alabama, Massachusetts, and South Carolina
  • Ring-necked Pheasant - South Dakota (18)
  • American Goldfinch - Iowa (19), New Jersey (20), Washington (21)
  • Ruby-throated Hummingbird - nope
  • Wood Duck - Mississippi's 'state waterfowl'
  • Chuck-will’s-widow - nice family representation but doesn't belong to a state
  • Willow Ptarmigan - Alaska (22)
  • Guam Rail - Guam (23)
  • Greater Flamingo - included because they are recognizable?
  • Western Meadowlark - Kansas (24), Montana (25), Nebraska (26), North Dakota (27), Oregon (28), Wyoming (29)
  • Northern Cardinal - Illinois (30), Indiana (31), Kentucky (32), North Carolina (33), Ohio (34), Virginia (35), West Virginia (36)
  • Cactus Wren - Arizona (37)
  • Bridled Titmouse - not a state bird but an interesting pick
  • Stellar’s Jay - nada
  • Northern Flicker - Alabama (38)
  • Lark Bunting - Colorado (39)
  • Rainbow Lorikeet - turn it into a Mariana Fruit-dove and we could count it as a territory...
  • Wood Thrush - D.C. (40)
  • Puerto Rican Spindalis - Puerto Rico (41)
  • Carolina Wren - South Carolina (42)
  • Northern Rough-winged Swallow - nope
  • Bananaquit - U.S. Virgin Islands (43)
  • Common Kingfisher - couldn't have made it a Belted?
  • Black-capped Chickadee - Maine (44) & Massachusetts (45)
  • Barn Owl - not a state bird
  • Eastern Bluebird - Missouri (46), New York (47)
  • White-breasted Nuthatch - nope
  • N éné - Hawaii (48)
  • Northern Bobwhite - game bird of Tennessee and Georgia
  • Rhode Island Red Chicken - where? (49)
  • Blue Hen Chicken - Delaware (50)
  • Ruffed Grouse - Pennsylvania (51)
  • Common Loon - Minnesota (52)
  • California Quail - California (53)
I am very impressed by this list, mostly because there are a number of birds here that are not 'state birds'. Personally, I could do without the hornbill or flamingo but it was cool to see some species that are otherwise unknown or under appreciated [to the non-birding community] prominently featured.

Would you believe that the illustrator, Stuart Immonen, is actually a birder? In an interview about the cover with comicsalliance.com he covers everything from differentiating thrushes to using eBird.org. The interview is also loaded with Immonen's photos and even some Charlie Harper-esque artwork of birds and can be found at: http://www.comicsalliance.com/2013/02/07/stuart-immonen-deadpool-birds-uncanny-x-men-variant-cover/

I'll be reserving myself a copy...

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Baltimore Ravens

Hey guys, in case you were wondering, here's a map of Common Raven sightings near Baltimore.  I've heard there are some superb owls in the area too.

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