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...