Toe tags and missing eyes.

A couple of my friends have expressed a sense of surprise that I am not reviving my birds in some way. Despite an initial feeling of disappointment and defensiveness, my response is one of understanding – I’m a compassionate and sensitive person so at first glance it is curious why I would choose to depict birds in such a way.

Logically, to react negatively means that I disagree with the statement. Do I?

Essentially it comes down to this: By refusing to depict these creatures in idealistic “noble bird poses,” (Thanks Sir Lundy!) I reject the romanticized view humanity often has of birds and nature in general. In their death, these birds are more real to me then the birds in my yard with which I interact primarily through photography. My exploration of each specimen facilitates a much deeper understanding of the bird as an individual and as a species.

I believe that this connection evolved from the first moment I was introduced to the ornithology department. I approached the collection seeking to obtain details which my photographs were incapable of capturing and got a great deal more than I bargained for.

I was overwhelmed by the fact that none of the birds had eyes.

In all of my photographs of birds, I try to capture some moment of personality or individuality – more often than not these moments are expressed through a tilt of head or expression in the eyes. If it’s as Cicero (106-43 B.C.) says “The face is a picture of the mind as the eyes are its interpreter” then the lack of eyes should result in a lack of some intangible quality like “soul.” This was true for me, for a time.

Faced with the unexpected physicality of the specimens I became obsessed with the “toe tags” which identified each bird simply by its species name and measurements. Bird feet became the aspect which most conveyed a sense of character because each birds reptilian toes had been preserved in different ways.

The fact that the tag was attached to these toes served as a powerful metaphor for our own human deaths. In this way, I was able to reconnect with these birds as I’d hoped to do through my photography, yet in a more profoundly honest and poignant way.

From feet I moved to feathers, many of which were a little worse for wear, and then to the head and “face” of the bird. It’s as thought I subconsciously had to move from the feet up as a way to prepare myself to actually address the lack of eyes. Once I was mentally prepared to deal with the full body of each bird I became almost hyper-aware of the bird as a once-living creature. This changed my interaction with the birds significantly.

I think it was easier to divorce myself from this comprehension in the beginning because, realistically, it gave me the creeps. From the corner of my eye I would experience that moment of panic that a bird had just moved. I became unnerved by the environment and my tension was visually expressed though graphite and ink.

It’s important to note that until this point I had been working in the room perfumed by an intense mixture of mothballs and formaldehyde for hours at a time. I started getting headaches after a while and when I pushed to far I started vomiting. It’s obvious that the toxins were pervading my body and possible facilitating my delusional paranoia. Regardless, it was clear to me that I could no longer view these birds objectively.

With permission I began to work from my studio. In the comforting environment of my private creative space my relationship with each bird took on entirely new dimensions. I have touched on several of these aspects in previous posts.

In the end I’ve come to the realization that death is the ultimate reality because it’s a natural part of living.

I do feel as thought I bring back a bit of “life” to these birds but the manifestation of this is not apparent in the way humanity typically views life and death. I revive these birds in some ways by making them more “real” in the minds of the viewer.

At least I hope that I do.

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