Bird skins are dead birds that, after they have been killed, are preserved for ornithological study. The birds are gutted and stuffed. They are stretched out long, wings folded at their sides. Their feet are withered and crossed, with tags attached to them identifying the species of bird, the date and the name of the person who collected and preserved the bird.
The first print from this series is “Warbler Skin” (2008). I was drawn to the source image for this print for two reasons: first, the tension between the tranquil look of the bird and the evidence of it’s violent end was compelling, and second, the collector’s tag tied to the bird’s legs read “John James Audubon”. I was startled both by the stark beauty of the image and the direct link between Audubon, who is revered for his portraits of American birds, and the death of this small songbird. As it turns out, Audubon, in his exhaustive “Birds of America” painted every bird in America, life size. However, each of the birds he painted was dead. Audubon collected and killed them himself and posed them in oddly unnatural, hyper life-like, sometimes mannerist tableaus.
In searching for similar images I was surprised to find that they were scarce. Having already embarked on this hunt, I had to find a way to see more of these rare and delicate objects. In a way I became a detective - birding for dead birds instead of live birds – turning birding on its head. I spent several days at The American Museum of Natural History, looking through their archives of bird skins and photographing them. The skins are kept in tall cabinets on what looked like baking sheets. In those rooms, filled with shelf after shelf of dead birds, there was a serene quality – thousands of wild things tamed by death.