“Form follows function, then beauty follows form.” That’s how the feather came into existence, according to photographer Robert Clark, whose new book, Feathers: Displays of Brilliant Plumage, pays homage to the ingenuity of avian evolution.
Take the Great Argus, for instance. The male’s wing feathers, Clark explains, are the centerpiece of its mating dance. Not only do the layers of patterns contrast the rest of the argus’s speckled but drab plumage, scientists believe the shapes may also mimic the seeds that the birds eat. Or the Spotted Eagle-Owl, which uses down plumage to keep its breast warm and serrated flight feathers to dampen the sounds of its massive wingbeats as it hunts. Meanwhile, the King Bird-of-Paradise has a pair of bizarre, wiry quills on its tail, which the male bounces up and down while attempting to woo a mate. Every feather add to a species' personality; every feather lives to serve a purpose.
Growing up in Kansas, Clark would save the pinions left behind by meadowlarks and quail. But he truly began to appreciate the ubiquity and complexity of feathers, and their varied forms and functions, while shooting a story for National Geographic about their evolution. That fixation stayed with him as he visited natural history museums at home in New York City and around the world, from China to Germany, photographing the plumes of 180 species of birds and their prehistoric ancestors, some positioned alone, some still attached to their taxidermied skins.
While snapping the specimens, Clark worked with various shadows and angles to give the plumes more depth, but made sure to leave any imperfections in the feathers as is. “Some birds look boring,” he says, “and then you turn the light and they become dynamic.” In the book, these ethereal flight feathers, tail feathers, contour feathers, and down feathers appear as close-ups on black backdrops, accompanied by explanations of their adaptative performance and the behaviors they dictate. Clark says his aim was to balance an appreciation of the physical beauty of the feathers with reverence for their finely tuned evolutionary function. After all, it’s the perfect marriage of the two that makes feathers so breathtaking. “If a human tried to invent a feather,” says Clark—“Well, good luck.”
Feathers: Displays of Brilliant Plumage, by Robert Clark; preface by Carl Zimmer, Chronicle Books, 176 pages, $29.95. Buy it at Chronicle Books.