Tim Flach Birds

Wing and a prayer

Tim Flach’s rare and endangered bird portraits are punk AF

Are birds difficult models? Known for his personality-filled portraits of wildlife, the renowned photographer takes us behind the scenes to highlight the diversity and fragility of birds from around the world

Photographers end up being witnesses.

Tim Flach

“Photographers end up being witnesses,” says British photographer Tim Flach. Sadly, it’s too often a disappearing natural world that wildlife photographers are witnesses to, with more than a million species of animals and plants currently threatened with extinction.

Iconic beasts, such as rhinos, elephants and tigers, often dominate the hearts and minds of wildlife lovers, but habitat loss, pollution, the illegal wildlife trade, and climate change don’t discriminate, impacting all kinds of creatures, large and small: spiders, frogs, lemurs, fish…

Known for his colourful, characterful portraits, Flach has photographed a vast range of animals in his London studio and in the wild, with previous projects focusing on horses, dogs, and rare and endangered species, such as pandas, pangolins and saigas. His body of work has earned him an Honorary Fellowship from the Royal Photographic Society and more than 164,000 Instagram followers.

For his latest book, Birds, Flach welcomed some of the world’s most spectacular ‘feathered friends’ into his studio and visited private collections and bird parks across Europe, as well as photographing several species in the wild, from penguins in Antarctica to puffins off the Welsh coast. The book celebrates the remarkable, often under-appreciated diversity of birds, including endangered species, and highlights the need to protect them – for their sake and ours.

Here, he talks to Graeme Green about troublesome models, giant eggs and staying hopeful…

Q&A with Tim Flach

Are birds a little under-rated in the world of wildlife?

There’s a revelation to be found in the evolution and biodiversity of birds. They’re like living dinosaurs. There’s an aesthetic level of beauty and wonderment. They can fly, which is an extraordinary capability. They lay eggs, which are amazing structures that do incredible jobs. They’re found on every continent on the planet and there’s such diversity. For me, this has been a journey of discovery.

What is it about birds’ eggs that you find fascinating?

Eggs are a wonder of evolutionary engineering. There’s something so pure in the form of an egg.

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Is there a particular bird’s egg you find the most beautiful or intriguing?

During the production of my book, a friend loaned me an egg of the extinct Madagascan elephant bird. The elephant bird laid the largest egg in Earth’s history, exceeding the size of any other species, including the dinosaurs. It’s the equivalent in volume to 170 chicken eggs. There was something special about holding it in the palms of one’s hands, given it was larger than the size of my head.

What else did you learn about eggs while working on Birds?

Some of the eggs I photographed had extraordinary scrolling, such as the bronze-winged jacana’s egg, which is decorated with continuous, calligraphic lines of colour that help the eggs to blend into the jacana’s floating nest of matted reeds and other aquatic vegetation. As the egg passes through the viaduct of the bird, lines are drawn onto the surface of the egg, which is known as ‘scrolling’. In the case of the jacana eggs, the patterns are so extraordinarily complex and beautiful.

Where do you stand on the big question of which came first: the bird or the egg?

I have to say I’m more an ‘egg’ person. For me, it’s all about life bursting forth.

This 24 day old toco toucan chick makes it much easier for us to imagine how birds evolved from meat-eating dinosaurs called theropods

Many of the photos in Birds were taken in controlled studio settings. Are birds difficult models?

Even if they’re in captivity, birds aren’t often on public display, so they’re not used to people. They were challenging. In the studio, we built specialised aviaries that allowed us to be obscured, so my camera and myself were not viewable by the birds, so we could control their stress levels. That was important. I didn’t want to just photograph the bird. I wanted the bird to be natural and to be in great condition.

The iridescent Nicobar pigeon is the closest living relative to the dodo 

Your images often have black or white backgrounds, removing details of a subject’s environment or habitat. What do you like about this approach?

One thing photography does is it fragments a moment in time. This can extend a person’s experience of a subject. I hope by distilling or reducing my palette, and sticking to the subject, with plain backgrounds, the viewer can concentrate on the birds, whether it’s abstracts or flight shots or these characters looking straight at you.

With birds, there might not be the anthropomorphism that we associate with some animals or a sense of cuteness. But I’ve tried to create these intimate portraits, which emphasize the character and personality, so we reflect on them in the same way we might with a human portrait.

The toco toucan is the largest and best-known toucan species and lives in South America’s tropical forests

You’ve photographed rare and endangered species, including birds many people will never have heard of. Do you think photos can help people to care more about birds and the natural world?

That’s an important point: caring. I didn’t go out searching specifically for bird species that are endangered, but I do have Bali starlings, which were down to maybe six in the wild, and the Blue-throated macaw, which is Critically Endangered in the wild. The Philippine eagle is one of the most amazing-looking birds, with one of the longest wingspans of the birds of prey, but they’re down to about 600 left.

I didn’t drive this project as a conservation book. I’m about to go and do insects, which will concentrate on that. But by seeing the wonderment and beauty of the natural world, we can connect, and that’s a very powerful thing.

As Covid steps back from the news, there’s a lot more being talked about in terms of biodiversity conferences, floods, natural phenomena and climate change. Birds are part of that conversation. They’re struggling with climate change and also the decline in insects, which is the main food for most bird species. I don’t know if that shift in consciousness is going to move fast enough. But we must maintain hope.

Out of interest, the Spix’s macaw, which I also photographed, is the very first bird ever to be reintroduced, having been extinct in the wild. I was part of the team that helped its reintroduction into its native habitat in Caatinga, Northern Brazil recently. 

What do you hope people take away from seeing and learning about these birds?

I hope this project reminds people just how extraordinary birds are. I hope they realise what it means if we were to lose this biodiversity. We are who we are because of this extended family of sentient creatures. It’s important for us to value that. Birds, like so many groups, are under a huge amount of pressure. The numbers are dwindling right across the world.

How does seeing wildlife out in the wild compare to working in a studio?

There’s something very magical about being out there and having that moment in an environment that’s wild. For this book, I did go to Antarctica to photograph the chinstrap penguins, and being in those unusual environments was extraordinary. I previously spent time tracking down Western lowland gorillas in Gabon. There’s something special about being there, a sense of place, getting up early and experiencing the light coming up and going down.

Chinstrap penguins may be cute, but have a penchant for projectile pooping and beating each other up!

Whether it’s birds, monkeys or pandas you’re photographing, why do you like to have a feeling of ‘personality’ in your portraits?

One thing that’s really important is to evoke empathy. If people truly care, we can bring creatures back from the edge of extinction. To care, you have to connect to your subjects. My work is looking at how to create that attention-grabbing moment and to support the storytelling or science.

Do you feel you’re documenting a disappearing world?

Absolutely. Photographers end up being witnesses. We go out and meet people who are close to the issues and dedicate their lives to wildlife. Those people share their experiences and knowledge with people like me, who then share our images. You can’t un-see what you’ve seen.

We have seen the ascension of the image. On social media platforms, images play a more and more central role. As we become more separated from the natural world, the role of imagery to tell stories and engage people with what’s going on is essential.

What’s so good about this?

Birds don’t get nearly as much attention as they should or that other more iconic wildlife species, especially mammals, do. But birds are incredibly diverse in appearance and behaviour, and face many of the same threats that other species do. Tim Flach’s work gives them his bold, striking, portrait treatment, which will hopefully increase appreciation of our feathered friends… Birds by Tim Flach is out now, published by Abrams, with text by Richard O. Prum. For more, see timflach.com and follow Tim on Instagram @timflachphotography.

Meet the writer

Graeme Green is a photographer and journalist who’s been travelling the world for 20 years reporting stories and photographing wildlife, people and places for international publications including The Guardian, BBC, The Sunday Times, New Internationalist, Wanderlust, British Journal of Photography and Digital Camera. He covers subjects ranging from wildlife and conservation to human trafficking. Graeme is also the founder of the award-winning international wildlife conservation initiative, newbig5.com. His first book, The New Big 5: A Global Photography Project For Endangered Wildlife features essays by Jane Goodall, Paula Kahumbu (Wildlife Direct), Wes Sechrest (Re:wild) and more. You can follow his work at graeme-green.com and on Instagram @graeme.green.

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