Capturing the Essence of a Bird

Over the past few weeks I have been watching on TV one of my ‘art heroes’:

‘Painting Birds with Jim and Nancy Moir’

Jim Moir (aka Vic Reeves) seems to me to have that very specialness (is that a word?) of capturing the quality of a bird that, in my opinion, many bird artists fail to do. Watching him painting is almost hypnotic in the sense that each brush stroke, choice of palette and his undoubted passion captures what I can only describe as the je ne sais quoi of the animal. These are not photographic-style images. Rather they are creations that come from a lifetime of watching and appreciating what each bird is…executed with a skill that has been honed since he first put a mark on paper as a child.

I’m fortunate to own a couple of his water colours (very limited edition prints) and I am constantly finding something new each day in these glorious works of bird art. It took a while to understand what it was that I found so absorbing and then I understood! Jim Moir captures the ‘essence’ of the bird. But what does this mean? I think that at its most basic it is:

 The individual, real, or ultimate nature of a thing especially as opposed to its existence. The properties or attributes by means of which something can be identified as being what it is. The most significant element, quality, or aspect of a thing or animal.

So how is all this relevant to our wildlife photography?

The first thing that strikes me is that when we photograph wildlife there has to be a reason for doing so. It might be almost narcissistic in as much that we do so for our own pleasure – it makes us feel good about what we do and consequently makes us feel better about ourselves in general and we hope elevates us somewhat in the hierarchy of our peers. And let’s be honest… unless we do this ‘thing’ for research or similar purposes to better our understanding, it is purely self-indulgent.

But lets not go too far down this rabbit hole.

I want to suggest that when we are serious about our photography we become creators of images. Not ‘snappers’ of things. We don’t take pictures…we create something original. Or at least we try to. For me it’s always been about trying to capture that glimpse into an animals behaviour that few people ever see: that fleeting moment frozen it time. But…

This is where Mr Moir fits into the picture (excuse the unintended pun). How do we, as photographers, create something that is the animal? Or rather, how do we create an image that captures the essence of it? I think the first thing we have to decide is: what is the essence of the thing we are trying to photograph? This is not just a simple observation. Rather it is a collection of observations from which we take a number of ‘things’ or ‘elements’ that the animal possesses and try to create, through the medium of photography, the very essence of that which is being photographed. This is incredibly difficult because if we ask ourselves the question (for example) what makes a Robin a Robin(?), we end up with a series of answers that go beyond just the physical bird itself: it brings us joy with it’s inquisitiveness, it is a bit of a bully; it’s very territorial: its song, like the Blackbird, give us pleasure, it’s the gardener’s friend…the list goes on and on. So how, if this is the essence of the Robin, do we create an image that encapsulates all this?

Or does it work the other way round? Do we see a photograph of a bird and our knowledge of it and it’s behaviours bring to mind all these things that we see in the image?

The question is…how do we photograph the very essence of a bird? Or rather, how do we create an image of a bird that encapsulates its very essence?

Over to you

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