The earliest photograph of a living bird may be one taken by William Henry Fox Talbot in the early 1840s. Although the star of the British scientist’s salted paper print is an oak tree in winter, if you zoom in on one branch in the lower left quadrant, you’ll spot the silhouette of a bird, its round figure sticking out among angular boughs. This discovery is the result of an exhaustive search by the Dutch artists Anne Geene and Arjan de Nooy, who have somehow, incredibly, managed to identify the shadowy figure as that of a wood pigeon. The image fittingly introduces their extraordinary publication Ornithology, available through de HEF publishers, which takes you on a unique and page-turning bird-watching excursion through imagery, from the pair’s own photographs to paintings from art history.
Ornithology is the scientific study of birds, but Ornithology is more akin to an artistic study framed and presented as science. It arrives with an index and bibliography, and its table of contents suggests you have a serious research paper in your hands; the main topics include: History; Form and Function; Behavior and Migration; Reproduction and Oology; Studies and Observations; Unresolved. But inside, you’ll find photographs of birds skimming water in the “Surface Tension” chapter; “Bird Geometrics” consists of beautiful captures of inadvertent bird choreography; and plenty of snapshots of bird poop splatters make up the “Velocity” section.
“From the shape of the droppings, it can be deduced whether and how quickly the bird was in motion,” Geene and de Nooy write about these photographs. “A classification is shown for speed, increasing from 0–60 km/h, or from wood pigeon to mallard.”
Unlike most scientific papers, Ornithology is rife with such subtle humor stemming from the application of a researcher’s seriousness to the analysis of often amusing images. And unlike most scientific papers, it scarcely contains any text, with visuals all clearly laid out with a strong design sensibility. The chapter on “Birds in Flight,” for instance, features photographs of flying birds arranged in specific ways that convey a greater sense of motion beyond the already blurry, feathered subjects. Other sections presented without commentary are “Camouflage,” which captures chance moments when bird blend in with their surroundings, and “Sonograms,” a stunning collection of blue-and-yellow renderings of chirping birds framed within graphs that resemble stamped images.
Neither of the artists considers him or herself a serious bird watcher or scientist, but what makes Ornithology a particularly extraordinary endeavor is the variety of resources from which the pair drew to marry art and science. They individually photographed taxidermy birds at Rotterdam’s Natural History Museum (which hosted an exhibition on Ornithology earlier this year), then matched the images to descriptions of various species as preserved by Aristotle in his originally unillustrated Historia Animalium. They also went birdwatching at the Mauritshuis and chronicled all the birds that appear in the museum’s collection of Dutch Golden Age paintings, from live ones to those depicted as meals. The resulting cropped, closeups of the artworks — provided by the museum — appear in Ornithology in gridform and organized by artist. Geene and de Nooy have even gone to the length of identifying every bird, with birds painted from too great a distance simply labeled, “Unidentified.”
At over 300 pages long, the tome is an alternative encyclopedia that, in the end, does teach you a little about various birds, their characteristics, and their behaviors through Geene and Nooy’s peculiar taxonomies. Exemplifying witty image curation, it is simply a charming and absorbing read. And if you don’t believe me, take it from its dust cover, which notes, “The book is highly recommended by Charles Darwin, Harper Lee, Humphrey Bogart, Charlie Parker, and Woody Woodpecker, amongst many others.”