(N.B. Rather than blithely pinch Georgina Steytler's remarkable images, the images used here are my own feeble attempts at capturing the bird life near my home, around the Maribyrnong River. Georgina Steytler's images are of course vastly superior!).
Like most of us in Melbourne, during the (many, long, strict) lockdowns I got to know my particular 5km radius area very
Luckily, for me this area includes a particularly nice stretch of the Maribyrnong river. Until the lockdowns my relationship with the river was really one of relatively casual use and appreciation - the river was a pleasant something to ride alongside on the way to work (I've even seen dolphins on my morning rides!) - a nice place for a picnic with friends.
2020 we had an unusually lovely and sunny winter here in Melbourne. Which was lucky as
just about the only entertainment legally allowed during those months was long walks within a 5km radius of home. In our house, with two kids home schooling, there was of course a very frequent need to just get out of the house for some air and sanity.
During the long stretches of home schooling (what fun that was!) - my
youngest was given a 'Birds in Backyards' project, and to help this
along I took a few casual shots of the frequent visitors to our back
garden - mainly a blackbird family we've seen raise young for several
years running now, but with reasonably regular visits from Red
Wattlebirds, Magpie-Larks, various pigeons, the not popular but
ubiquitous Mynas (Noisy and Indian), an occasional Grey Butcherbird, and more.
led to taking the camera on ours walks just to see if we could spot
some different birds. I laugh thinking about it now - we were amazingly
ignorant, really, of what was all around us. A Red Wattlebird was
exciting, every bird was given a name by the kids, and I remember the giddy high of my first photograph of a New Holland Honeyeater - badly underexposed and with the bird mostly obscured by twigs though it was.
It was just a classic case of 'too busy to notice' really. I've always loved nature & wildlife in general - I spent a fair chunk of my twenties hiking all over the world - and birds are of course the most accessible form of wildlife.
But...I just wasn't seeing what was there anymore.
All it took was really looking. The birds are there - everywhere, really, around us - literally scores of them - the trick is just to get to know them, to appreciate them, to be deliberately observant and mindful of their presence.
Before long we'd come to know our bit of the river intimately, and since then I try and go down at least once a week for an hour or two, camera in hand, to capture the local wildlife. My favourite spot is Pipemaker's Park, but there are several good spots along the river from Flemington to Essendon.
As someone with a former life of professional photography - mostly in the tightly controlled environment of the studio - I've lately really come to appreciate the technical challenge and unpredictability of bird photography. I don't really do any photography of note anymore - between the business and family life, who has the time?
So, it's nice to flex the old muscles, and to do something so far out of my comfort zone - something I am, basically, pretty terrible at! And all the while spending time in the small parcels of nature the river can offer in amongst the endless urban sprawl of Melbourne. My adopted home has grown from 3 million people to nudging 5 million in just the 22 or so years I've been here, and all too often it makes me feel city-locked in the worst way. My amateur bird photography efforts have become an important sanity saver these past two years. And of course, along the way, I've been inspired to check out the work of others who do this so much better than I can!
This brings me (at last) to the book. It's called 'For The Love Of Birds' and has been made (both the photographs and the text) by a remarkable person, Georgina Steytler.
I don't think I've bothered to write a book review in a long while - but I loved this book, and so I can't resist telling everyone about it.
First and foremost, the photography is beautiful. Just beautiful. It's not the most technically perfect bird photography I've ever seen (and I am, for better or worse, someone who is often attracted to technical perfection) - but rather the skill here - and it is really the much greater skill - is in showing the personality of the birds, and how they are in their environment. This is expressive bird photography, not just sharp shots of things-with-wings.
But I don't want to under-rate the photographic skill here either - the use and understanding of light, in particular, is exceptional throughout. And what is photography, if not that? The work is full of wonderful creative flourishes - there is no being afraid to under or over-expose, in a technical sense, if it serves the image and the story. There is abundant traditional golden light, of course - but many of the images are taken in the much more subtle pre-dawn or twilight times of the day. There's a subtlety and depth to these images rarely seen in nature photography (and that is certainly & clearly lacking in my own!).
(Before I knew of Georgina Steytler's work, I'd come across it in many contexts (cards and the like) - and noticed the images enough to go seeking out the photographer's name. Before too long my brain was saying 'it's that Georgina again, geez she's good'...eventually I got off my proverbial and looked up her work properly - something I really don't actually do all that often, as I am looking at beautiful images all day every day here at Image Science so I tend to do other things in my down time!).
Of course there are traditional bird portraits with sharp eyes and dazzling feathers, but so too are there images rich with the individuality of the birds, images of the birds in their natural environment, images that speak to life lived by the birds, all just beautifully captured. The love of, and respect for, the birds is evident throughout. Birds both common and rare - many of the wonderful photos are of quite 'pedestrian' birds, in fact - but elevated to a status beyond their day-to-dayness by the thoughtful image making.
My typical relationship with a coffee table book like this is a casual flip and pause - stopping if something grabs the eye, reading a bit of text here and there. Rarely, if ever, will I read a book like this cover to cover, but in this case I most certainly did. The text is the equal of the photographs - interesting, but also important - without being overly preachy. It thoughtfully tackles many aspects about the relationship between birds and people (including those of us that dabble in bird photography).
I particularly enjoyed the thoughts on Nature not being 'out there' as some abstract, hard to reach concept - but rather, that which is all around us. This echoed my thoughts and my changing and developing relationship with the Maribyrnong River. Of course all the birds shown here are relatively common - you can see many of them all over most Australian cities, if you just look carefully enough. It doesn't take fancy equipment - just your eyes, perhaps supplemented by a basic pair of binoculars. And I hope this remains this case, but I fear perhaps it won't. It is, of course, up to all of us to protect these valuable areas. And if the pandemic taught me anything, it is just how truly important these shares natural spaces are within the urban context.
The RRP for this large, well made hardcover book is just $60 - but the book can regularly be found for $30 to 40ish online - Amazon has it of course. (But I'd recommend you get it from your local bookstore, if you can - it's not like Bezos needs another rocket eh?).
I believe copies are getting scarce - I've seen 'sold out' notices around the place - so snap up a copy while you still can - and support Australian wildlife, photography, and publishing, all in one go!
(I don't know the author...I just love her work...but I do live in hope she'll one day have a desperate monitor calibration enquiry that makes its way to me and I'll meet my idol!)
Image Science have been very easy to deal with, more than happy to help someone who previously knew nothing about how any of this worked! I knew what I wanted to achieve but no idea how to make it happen but had literally a million questions that were answered for me and was guided through how to make my plan a reality. I’m very happy with the result!