“Rats with wings.” The malicious descriptor has clung to pigeons ever since 1966, when New York City Parks Commissioner Thomas P. F. Hoving condemned them as such in his calls to clean up Bryant Park. While most city dwellers see pigeons as vermin, reacting to their presence with shooing hands and kicking legs, Andrew Garn has spent nearly a decade getting close to them. Where people see filth and signs of nuisance, Garn finds grace and marvel.
A native New Yorker, Garn has spent the last eight decades photographing the urban avian, both outdoors and in a studio, where they appear like models in an Irving Penn shoot. Garn’s meticulous studies are collected in The New York Pigeon: Behind the Feathers, a new book published by powerHouse Books, which invites readers to see these Columbidae as friendly, feathered neighbors rather than pesky foe.
Photographed up close, the birds flaunt their unique personalities and striking features — so often overlooked by hurried pedestrians. Far from fluff balls of grays, Garn’s subjects are pristine models who show off stunning, unexpected hallmarks: lavender eyes, heart-shaped wings, glam ruffled feet that recall outlandish rave boots. At times he captures them in flight, using high-speed strobe photography, to freeze them in dramatic form.
Garn volunteers with the Wild Bird Fund (WBF), the city’s sole wildlife rehabilitation center, and worked with the organization to produce his book. Many of the avians he captured were found and sent there, often to treat afflictions such as lead poisoning, which harms 15% of birds admitted to WBF. As with New Yorkers, the city is not always kind to pigeons: they have been found in all sorts of urban hazard sites from an abandoned shopping bag to a hot dog stand, which left one bird’s wings covered in grease. Other birds Garn photographed were purchased in supply shops or were escapees from breeders coops or homing flocks. Brief summaries of their perilous journeys accompany Garn’s portraits, offering further insight to their characters. And every bird, too, has a name, from Noodleman to Dr. Brown, whose portly figure graces the cover of The New York Pigeon.
While Garn’s photographs are its main allure, the tome also includes a brief history of the feral pigeon. From their role in Ancient Egypt as sources of fertilizer to their numerous contributions as news or wartime messengers, pigeons have built vital relationships with humans over centuries.
And they still do, even in cities where they have a bad reputation. Accompanying Garn’s pigeon photos are his portraits of pigeon devotees in New York City, from WBF’s director Rita McMahon to pigeon fanciers who keep flocks on their roofs or even in their apartments. Perhaps more of us in this concrete jungle, too, can begin to appreciate the wonders of these flying creatures, and even identify with them on some level. Journalist Emily Rueb, in the book’s introduction, reasons that the pigeon should be the city’s official bird. “Like many New Yorkers,” she writes, “they are immigrants that have survived in the face of adversity; they soldier on, in spite of missing toes and rumpled wings.”