Looking at the body language and the expressions on the faces of the exotic birds in Claire Rosen’s “Birds of a Feather” series, it’s hard to believe that they’re not in on the act, cooperating with the photographer to produce a great shot as deliberately as a high-fashion model on a commercial shoot. Photographed against stylish backdrops of vintage wallpaper, their colorful plumage complemented by the intricately patterned florals, geometrics and undulating leaf shapes, the birds seem to know that the viewer is admiring them. A few even give a little “come-hither” attitude.
Or is that just our tendency to anthropomorphize our experiences with animals and birds, and attribute our intentions and emotions onto what we see and experience? In part, that’s what the series is about, says Rosen. There’s also an allusion to the Victorian in these images: an era to which the photographer says that she is particularly drawn aesthetically in its general fascination with the natural world, and a time when aviary collecting and display came into fashion.
“The Industrial Revolution and colonization created this disconnect from nature in the Victorian Era and yielded an awareness of faraway places, amazing creatures and unfamiliar cultures. There’s this nostalgic feeling of loss of connection with nature; and looking at it that way, this series references that desire to possess the beautiful and exotic. But by removing it from its natural environment, it’s changed forever; it’s a bit sad and beautiful simultaneously. And I can’t help but think when looking at these images that in a way, it’s not dissimilar to people in the modern world.” We, too, she says, are somewhat displaced from the natural world, “but our environments are nicely decorated, so no one notices.”
The Center for Photography at Woodstock (CPW) is currently showing 14 photographs from Rosen’s “Birds of a Feather” series. (There are more than 30 images altogether; Rosen says that she hasn’t taken an exact count.) Gallery hours at 59 Tinker Street in Woodstock are Wednesday through Sunday from 12 noon to 5 p.m. The exhibit will remain on view through April 5.
Most of the project was done during a concentrated period of time in 2012 inside an exotic bird “superstore” in New Jersey. Rosen took hundreds of sheets of vintage wallpaper with her to match up the right bird to the right backdrop. A friend came along to act as “bird wrangler” and help set up the shots, but Rosen says that the birds were “surprisingly cooperative. I thought it was going to be much harder than it was. They seemed very happy to be there.”
The shots were set up with traditional portrait lighting and the initial photos taken in a straightforward portrait style. As the project progressed, however, Rosen began to notice that the images where the birds were turned around a little bit or their heads were at a different angle were perhaps the most interesting visually, and she included those as variations within the whole of the series.
And then there were those “gift” moments, as Rosen refers to them, when the bird’s head lined up perfectly with the decorative elements of the wallpaper, making it appear that the bird is wearing a crown or a decorative headpiece somewhat reminiscent of the “fascinators” of which the royals in England are so fond. “It really is a split second when that happens,” says Rosen. “That’s what I was aiming for, but it’s not like directing people…it’s just waiting for those perfect moments. But I think that’s the part that I enjoy about working with animals so much: You plan and prepare as much as possible, but then you kind of just have to surrender; it either happens or it doesn’t. It’s that moment of serendipity that will never happen again.”
For the most part, the series is complete, but Rosen did do some additional photos the following year with her own parakeets, and she added a striking toucan image last year when she was traveling in Honduras. (That image is not included in the Woodstock show, but can be seen on her website.) She also says that she wouldn’t rule out adding to the series again if she could get access to a flamingo.
If Rosen’s work has a signature, she says that it would probably be the sense of whimsy in it, and the Victorian aesthetic associated with a lot of the photographs in terms of concept and theme. There’s a strong sense of storytelling in her images, often shot in a series, and she’s drawn to fairy tales and fables as inspiration – that duality of beauty and darkness. “They’re really about archetypes and the human condition and about the sort of process that’s universal that we all go through to figure out why we’re here,” she says. “They’re a way of making sense of the world and a way of explaining things.”
Currently she’s working on a series of photographs of her parakeets inside a dollhouse – “I’m not ready to show any of it, but I’m pleased with how it’s going so far,” she says – and she’s working on a coffeetable book of her photographs of vintage taxidermy in the collection of the Millbrook School in Dutchess County. Rosen did an artist residency there, documenting the school’s extensive collections of natural history, which include a treasure trove of bird nests, skulls, a collection of 10,000 eggs and approximately 500 vintage taxidermy mammals, birds and reptiles. Rosen photographed the collection dramatically lit as if in a spotlight against a pitch-black stage. The images can be seen on her website.
She likes the vintage taxidermy, she says, for its sense of history. “I kind of like when it’s not perfect and it’s falling apart a little; it has this story to tell. Some of the collection up at Millbrook is from the 1800s; it’s like a time capsule.”
The New York City native is currently based in New Jersey, but says that she would like to live on a farm in upstate New York, and has even looked at a few places near Millbrook and Hudson but hasn’t found the right one yet.
Rosen has a Liberal Arts degree from Bard College at Simon’s Rock and a Fine Art degree in Photography from the Savannah College of Art and Design. Her work has been exhibited internationally and is in a number of public and private collections. Among her numerous awards is her inclusion two years running (in 2012 and ‘13) on Forbes’ annual list of “30 Brightest under 30” in the Art and Design category.
Claire Rosen’s “Birds of a Feather,” Wednesday-Sunday through April 5, 12 noon-5 p.m., free, Center for Photography at Woodstock, 59 Tinker Street, Woodstock; (845) 679-9957, www.cpw.org, www.claire-rosen.com.