Books

Pulling Birds Out of the Sky

Stephen Gill’s new book of photographs, The Pillar, thrums with the spirit of birds, and demonstrates that without them, there is no land; without the birds, there are no pictures.

Stephen Gill, The Pillar 2015-2019 (all images © Stephen Gill, and courtesy of Stephen Gill / Nobody Books)

The Pillar is not Stephen Gill’s first book of birds. They appear here and there, populating a number of the photographs and books he’s made over the years. In Night Procession (2017), an encyclopedic volume of photographs Gill took deep within the Swedish countryside where he lives, birds appear rearing the mantle of their wings, in the split second before landing, or pictured in a stillness so noble they look like statues. An earlier book, Pigeons (2014), is a slim catalog of London pigeons, starkly illuminated in the city’s darkest crevices, holes, and shafts. There is Gill’s Book of Birds (2010), a series of wide shots taken in East London, where birds are part of the structure of the city, appearing almost magic-like on a telephone wire or under a bridge. And, going back to the very beginning, there is what Gill describes as his first photo project as a boy of 13, “sitting in the bathroom window of my parents’ house in Bristol with a 10-metre cable release attached to the camera, attempting to photograph garden birds.”

Stephen Gill, The Pillar 2015-2019

Decades later, Gill has returned to a sort of cable-release system to take pictures of the birds around him, in Sweden, where he lives. These are the pictures that make up The Pillar — hundreds of photos that span four years since he started the project in January of 2015. Every image shows the same wooden pillar, the same field, the same sky through time. What changes are the things that pass through, day after day and night after night: the birds. In some photographs, they appear in droves, sharp, dark streaks moving past the pillar. In others still, crows with milky eyes tear at each other in the dark mist of the night. Some pictures are just blurry feathers pressed against the camera lens.

Though there are photographs in which the field looks empty of the birds, the photographs still thrum with their spirit. It is a spirit that transcends time and place. Without the birds, there is no land. Without the birds, there are no pictures.

Gill’s interest in starting the project came from the stillness of the landscape around his home in Sweden. “The bird activity [the landscape] contains is diluted by the vastness of the flat open land and sky,” Gill has written about the project, “which gives the impression that very little is going on.” His interest piqued, he decided to see if he could “pull the birds from the sky.” He planted a pillar in the ground to attract birds in the area, and installed a motion-sensor camera next to the pillar to capture any movement. To his surprise, the experiment worked, and the first pictures that emerged showed all kinds of birds appearing, landing and resting at the pillar. “From my kitchen window,” Gill writes, “the pillar appeared like a matchstick in the flat distance yet the absence afforded the birds a greater presence in my mind. Even when I was out of the country I would be imagining the activity on the stage.” He continued the process for the next four years. The resulting photographs make up the book.

Stephen Gill, The Pillar 2015-2019

There is a sort of sight that goes beyond the physical ability to see, an intuition that any artist must trust in order to create. It is, in other words, trust in the thing itself, the “presence” that Gill so aptly describes feeling in his mind. It is the trust that you do not need to see the thing to know that it is there — and that the work will guide you to it. In Annie Dillard’s words to a reader who wanted to know how to write: “Aim for the chopping block. If you aim for the wood, you will have nothing. Aim past the wood, aim through the wood; aim for the chopping block.”

Stephen Gill, The Pillar 2015-2019

In The Pillar, Gill’s trust — in the birds, in the landscape, and in the particular arrangement of the pillar, the camera and the field — is palpable. It is through this trust, and his photographs, that we see the birds as they truly are. In The Pillar, Gill has aimed for the chopping block, and he has split the wood.

The Pillar (2019) by Stephen Gill is published by Nobody Books and is available from nobodybooks.com.

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