Paula McCartney: Bird Watching

Paula McCartney: Song Sparrow: Courtesy the artist and Klompching Gallery, Brooklyn, NY.Paula McCartney: Song Sparrow: Courtesy the artist and Klompching Gallery, Brooklyn, NY.

By Bill Clarke

Paula McCartney: Bird Watching
Princeton Architectural Press, 2010
Hardcover, 120 pages
Essays by Darius Himes and Karen Irvine
$50 US

Since 2004, the Minneapolis-based photographer Paula McCartney has had birds on her brain. Over the course of several limited edition artist books, she has turned her camera on the natural world, focussing mainly on our avian friends and their environs. In the book Alight (2005), McCartney’s camera captures a flock of birds against the sky as they flap from one set of tree tops to another. In Flock (2006), she provides readers with a double-page spread of silhouettes of a range of birds — a kingfisher, sparrow, blue jay — and follows it with photographs of street signs bearing the names of those birds. Such early books address our distanced relationship to the natural world despite our shared behaviours with most of the other inhabitants on this planet, including the habit of living and moving in ‘flocks’ and preferring to spend time with those who are similar to us. (“Birds of a feather flock together,” as they say).

McCartney’s latest publication is an expanded version of an earlier artist book, also called Bird Watching. Ornithology first gained popularity as a hobby during the Victorian Era. The simpler term ‘bird watching’ was coined in 1901 by the British writer and ornithologist Edmund Selous, who posited the flighty theory that birds communicate through a form of telepathy. McCartney’s book takes as its format the type of old-fashioned journal a bird watcher would use to record their sightings. Although McCartney isn’t an avid bird watcher, she is a hiker, and the idea for the book came from walks through the woods near her home, during which she would spot birds flitting away before she could get her camera ready. McCartney’s handwritten notes of her ‘sightings’ — the type of bird, the location, the date — are accompanied by 40 photographs of the birds captured in their natural settings. Bird watchers dream of taking these types of photographs — perfectly composed, completely in focus, sometimes male and female pairings captured within the same shot. And, the colours of the birds; so vibrant against the foliage! McCartney must have sat for hours, even days, patiently, never letting her camera drop, waiting to capture these rare moments.

Or, did she? Upon closer inspection, one realizes the birds aren’t real. Instead of photographing real birds, McCartney purchased decorative birds at craft stores, and arranged them among the branches of trees and bushes. Once one realizes this, the too-stiff wire legs, plastic beaks and eyes, and dyed feathers become obvious. At first, the series, which was shown at Brooklyn gallery Klompching in the spring, prompts a chuckle, but upon further consideration, it is anything but twee. (Or ,should I say…‘tweet’.) McCartney asks viewers to weigh the pros and cons of the natural versus the artificial. Certainly, the artificial is more convenient: the fake birds are there when we want to see them, they stay put and their colours are always vibrant. As in her other books, McCartney also prompts us to consider our relationship to nature in this series. Indeed, many people, looking at this book, probably won’t recognize most of the birds in it, never having seen a Green-Capped Bunting, an Olive-Capped Flycatcher or a Northern Vireo before. We wonder if there are more plastic Aqua Tanagers sitting on store shelves than real ones on tree branches nowadays, given human encroachment on birds’ habitats. We also begin to question whether the settings are constructed, as well, and whether these birds actually exist in the regions in which McCartney has supposedly photographed them. What starts off as a fairly straightforward idea turns into a guessing game.

In the end, McCartney’s photographs poke holes in our notions around idealized nature. The fictional landscapes she has created would charm even the likes of Edmund Selous.

Bird Watching by Paula McCartney is on view at the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago until Sept. 26, 2010.