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Audubon’s ‘Birds of America,’ Updated for Our Polluted World

Artist John LaMacchia seamlessly integrates human trash into detailed bird portraits that mimic Audubon’s watercolors.

John LaMacchia, “Red Knot” (2016), from the series Birds of America

John James Audubon’s Birds of America series captures the wondrous appearances and behaviors of North American avians, recording 435 species in their natural habitats. Those environments, though, have changed in the nearly 200 years since the plates’ publication, as artist John LaMacchia makes explicit in his ongoing series of glicée prints of the same name. A contemporary update of Audubon’s watercolors, which were made between 1827 and 1838, LaMacchia’s images seamlessly integrate human trash into the bird portraits, presenting the reality of nature corrupted. In one, a plastic convenience store bag hangs on a branch below a bright Red Knot like a Christmas tree ornament; in another, a double-crested cormorant stands with elegance despite its deadly neckpiece — a notorious six-pack ring.

John LaMacchia, “Double-crested Cormorant” (2016), from the series Birds of America

“I’ve always enjoyed looking at Audubon’s prints,” LaMacchia told Hyperallergic. “His world is so pure and untouched. I wanted to do something in a similar vein that was more indicative of the times we live in today. The title of the series, which I adopted from Audubon’s book, Birds of America, seemed inherently loaded with meaning.”

The America today that he shows is one of self-indulgence and disregard for the planet. In LaMacchia’s prints, a field with a Pringles can and the lid of a plastic cup hint at a picnic long finished, and a bank with a syringe that points to a curious heron alludes to illicit activity. No human bodies are in sight, though; the birds remain as icons in their own environs.

“I suppose on some level there is an overarching message of accountability, but to me this is more of a study of mankind — our weaknesses, our indulgences, and bad habits,” LaMacchia said. “I like how in each print the birds are somewhat oblivious to the remains, yet they still somehow heroically prevail.”

Some of the works are very similar to Audubon’s originals, while others differ completely, but all adhere to the naturalist’s signature style of birds rendered with detail and a scientist’s accuracy. Audubon’s plate of blue jays shows three happily sucking on eggs stolen from other nests; LaMacchia’s depicts a lone jay on a branch, with a used condom as its sole companion. In his print that revisits Audubon’s pair of Eastern Towhees, LaMacchia shows a family of the black-and-orange birds in a nest whose form corresponds to Audubon’s recorded observations.

Such careful depictions are the result of LaMacchia’s collaboration with the ornithologist and illustrator Daniel Cole. LaMacchia first designed concepts for each bird through a process that combined photography and sketching; Cole then brought them to life by drawing the details in Audubon’s style. LaMacchia also asked calligrapher Hamid Reza Ebrahimi to handwrite the notations in a Copperplate style commonly used during Audubon’s time.

The trio has created five prints since 2014, with more currently in the works. LaMacchia would ideally like to create as many as Audubon did and showcase both sets side by side. Unfortunately, he won’t get to design all 435: a number of birds have become extinct since Audubon first observed them, including the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, the Carolina Parakeet, and the Passenger Pigeon. LaMacchia’s contemporary Birds of America makes visible some of the elements that threaten the populations that survive.

John LaMacchia, “Eastern Towhee” (2016), from the series Birds of America
John LaMacchia, “Eastern Towhee” (2016), from the series Birds of America
John LaMacchia, “Great Blue Heron” (2016), from the series Birds of America
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