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Stunning Chronophotographs Capture the Patterns of Birds in Flight

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Xavi Bou, “Ornitographie #10, Phoenicopterus roseus, Greater flamingo, Ebro delta, Catalonia” (2016) (all photos courtesy the artist)

The dark, smudgy streaks on Xavi Bou’s photographs suggest the jerky ink tracks created by a malfunctioning printer, but they actually record the various patterns birds trace while flying in flocks. For the past five years, the Barcelona-based photographer has captured different bird species soaring around the Catalonia region to form his ongoing Ornitographies series, using a particular method he has honed to compress multiple seconds into a single frame. Based on chronophotography — the process used by Étienne-Jules Marey and Eadweard Muybridge for their famous motion studies — it involves digitally stitching together multiple photographs Bou made during each of his carefully timed trips. The series of dizzying swirls is intended for us to consider “our perception of time through the birds’ flight,” as Bou told Hyperallergic. “I wished to know what the shape of their flight in the sky would look like if our perception of time was different.”

Bou has long cultivated an interest in birds: during his childhood, his grandfather taught him about different species while they trekked along the Llobregat Delta, one of the region’s most important wetland zones that is home to a rich variety of birds. While he first started photographing common birds around Barcelona, he eventually began exploring wetlands and swamps, selecting particular months of the year to catch the best moments of bird migrations over scenic areas. He picked June, for instance, to document a group of Alpine swifts tracing loops over trees near the Llobregat Delta. With so much time studying birds under his wing, he may now recognize individual species based on how they fly.

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Xavi Bou, “Ornitographie #19, Apus melba, alpine swift, Llobregat Delta, Catalonia”
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Xavi Bou, “Ornitographie #17, Himantopus himantopus, Black-winged stilt, Ebro delta, Catalonia” (2016)

Ornitographies, though, emerged more from Bou’s curiosity in revealing nature’s hidden, astounding visual aesthetics that exist around us rather than an interest in the science behind bird movements. The title of the series stems from the Greek words for “bird” and “writing” — respectively, ornïs and graphia; the patterns do look like brushstrokes in the sky, offering a surprising and mystifying, new view of a habit we may frequently witness. A line of black-winged stilts resembles a dark fern that twists around itself to create the illusion of a propelling motion; common starlings appear as a string of DNA floating against pink clouds (or Rainbow Sponge-squiggles); great cormorants taking off from the water form a giddying, ominous scene, their black bodies sweeping across the frame like the train of a Victorian mourning dress. All of this is set against gorgeous skies that resemble the picturesque ones of Neoclassical paintings, turning the quotidian paths of avians into breathtaking sights; a fleeting moment into one for prolonged appreciation.

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Xavi Bou, “Ornitographie #12, Phoenicopterus roseus, Greater flamingo, Ebro delta, Catalonia” (2016)
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Xavi Bou, “Ornitographie #4, Sturnus vulgaris, Common starling, Utxesa swamp, Catalonia”
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Xavi Bou, “Ornitographie #06, Ciconia ciconia, white stork, swamp of Empordà, Catalonia”
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Xavi Bou, “Ornitographie #02, Phalacrocorax carbo, Great cormorant, Ivars swamp, Catalonia”
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Xavi Bou, “Ornitographie #01, Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax , Red-billed chough, Utxesa swamp, Catalonia”
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Xavi Bou, “Ornitographie #13, Phoenicopterus roseus, Greater flamingo, Ebro delta, Catalonia”
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Xavi Bou, “Ornitographie #16, Larus audouinii, Audouin’s gull, Ebro delta, Catalonia”
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Xavi Bou, “Ornitographie #09, Egretta garzetta, Little egret, Ebro delta, Catalonia”
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Xavi Bou, “Ornitographie #18, Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax , Red-billed chough, Utxesa swamp, Catalonia”
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