Sunday, March 16, 2014

David Sibley on Using Photography in Bird Guides

Christopher Leahy conducted a conversation with David Allen Sibley, author and illustrator of the well-renown bird guides to North America, on stage at the Brattle Theater in Cambridge Friday night, March 14th. The occasion was the publication of the 2nd edition of The Sibley Guide to Birds.

Sibley is particularly noted for his fine illustrations, all of which are paintings that begin as field sketches. When asked whether he found photography useful in the field as a means of capturing an image for later use in the studio, he confessed that it was not very helpful. He recalled that, when digital cameras became widely available, he'd purchased one with a good zoom lens and took it with him for that very reason, to record images to which he could later refer. The problem, he confided, was that he spent too much time concentrating on the camera - framing the shot, getting the light correct - and ended up not really seeing the bird. So he abandoned the camera.

Instead, he relies on sketching the bird. Often, he'll sketch parts of the bird - the beak, the tail, the feet - in order to record the detailed particularities of whatever he's observing. The sketching, he says, is a form of "interviewing" the bird, getting at those things that distinguish it from other kinds.

Asked about the actual use of photographs in bird guides, he suggested that they weren't as valuable as one might suppose. The problem is that a photograph captures a bird in a particular pose and in a specific setting (trees, marsh, seaside dunes, cliff, etc.) and this very likely contrasts with the circumstances under which a birdwatcher sees the bird. It can unduly influence you and provide context that might run counter to your experience. That is why his illustrations are all fairly uniform (the birds all face in the same direction, for example) and why he leaves out all depictions of habitat.

I could relate to his experience with the camera. Just last week while on a long bike ride I came upon a flock of turkeys on one side of the road. There may have been thirty or more and as I approached, they began crossing the road in front of me. Instead of focusing my full observational attention on them and really seeing them, I fumbled around with the small camera I carry with me trying to take their picture. I got a picture but not a very good one, and in the doing I sacrificed the chance of experiencing them on a deeper level.

Hawk and Habitat
photo by lescaret

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