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John James Audubon’s (1785-1851) goal was to document all the birds of America. During this process, he identified and described about twenty-five species that were new to science. Aside from this scientific achievement, however, what set Audubon apart from many contemporaries was his style. To create his paintings, Audubon shot birds and contorted their bodies into dramatic poses by wiring and pinning them onto boards. The quirky postures were not immediately popular with the scientific community, where less flamboyant poses were in vogue, but this innovative style has earned him fame as an artist.
It was Roger Tory Peterson (1908-1996) who pioneered the idea of the field guide. His guides highlight observable marks, pointed out by carefully placed arrows, which allow for the identification of birds at a distance. Peterson painted thousands of systematic illustrations of birds in static poses that he based on photographs, bird skins, and field observations. His field guides can fit into a pocket and have allowed hobbyists, artists, and scientists to identify birds with binoculars instead of a shotgun.
Ornithologists now normally use mist nets instead of shotguns for data that cannot be obtained with the help of binoculars, microphones, or telephoto lenses. These nearly invisible nets are set up like fences and function as huge spider webs, catching unsuspecting birds. The researcher then carefully extracts the bird from the net. Data are gathered from each bird, which differ depending on the questions that the scientists are asking. Birds are normally measured, aged, sexed, and banded with an individually numbered anklet. Sometimes they’re fitted with radio transmitters or have blood drawn. Then the bird is released, back into the wild.
John James Audubon’s Monograph, Birds of America, and Roger Tory Peterson’s Field Guide to the Birds of Eastern and Central North America were the first pieces of artwork I loved. I spent days studying and trying to emulate Peterson and Audubon as a bird-watching teenager. With these artists still on my mind, I set about on this project. I have chosen to photograph birds while they are caught in mist nets. Here, I find that the birds inhabit a fascinating space between our framework of the wild and unknown versus the measured and named. During this moment the captured creature can seem embarrassed or fearful or angry. It is a fragile moment before they disappear back into the woods, and into data.