Beauty Contest

A new book presents a pure vision of birds, in glorious color and exquisite detail.

In John James Audubon’s fabulous drawings of birds, he depicts every detail with great care, feather by feather, with a distinct color for each layer of feathers and great precision with the color and expression in their eyes. He places the birds in their own habitats with equally meticulous consideration. The narrative intention of the drawings is clearly stated; there are no doubts about the author’s goal. He chooses to show the bird in its own environment, and for him, the story is complete.

Audubon belongs to his time. His drawings correspond to the narrative prose of Balzac: equal parts objective and subjective, scientific and romantic, realistic and illusory. Since then, birds have been drawn, painted, and photographed by many artists, but no one has reached the purity of Audubon’s drawings and watercolors. Until now.

See this article's accompanying photo gallery

Andrew Zuckerman approaches birds with a contemporary, minimalist attitude: no more narrative context, no more psychological interpretations, no more candid shots in the wilderness. An absolute background made of pure white light acts as the field on which the birds fly or rest. In this incredibly luminous setting, the colors of the birds’ plumage come to life as never before seen by the human eye.

It is the light that really gives us that richness of color, that hyperrealist representation of every feather, the crystal clear expression of their eyes, the movement of their wings, and the language of their bodies. While Audubon was interested in the context, Zuckerman wants only the silhouette of the birds against the white background of light: an uncompromising notion of space in which any object becomes its own essence. Each bird can be nothing but that particular bird, the only one with that expression, that body language, and those colors.

Every aspect of the body has been captured by the camera: the beak, the legs, the feet, the wings, the tails, the eyes—and each part stands for the whole bird within that beautiful light.

The birds, from the intimacy of the very small to the majesty of the very large, acquire a transcendental dignity, each one becoming a god in its own universe. The powerful white light transfers its own intensity to the birds and transforms them into mythical objects of paradise, newly resplendent in all their colors.

Zuckerman knows very well the power of that light. As with his previous books, he is able to present the usual in the most unusual way by aiming at the essence, rather than the appearance, of the subject. The pages flow throughout the book as a cinematic sequence, teasing the viewer through a window into the limitless white world.

Once again he has created a masterpiece, an unforgettable document of those beautiful creatures who fly away to elude our gaze.