Bird Portraits – Why I Do Them

Bird Portraits - Great Blue Heron

Nobody likes a rejection letter but I like to think it is just a necessary test that one must go through to further personal development in whatever creative enterprise you are dreaming of. Last fall I decided to submit some of my black and white bird portraits to a magazine which specialized in black and white images. What I really liked about the publication was that their mission, unlike many photographic magazines, was more about the art of photography than the gear. The format was for project and series oriented groups of images. At that point in time I had quite a few monotone portraits and thought I’d escape my usual zone of reluctance and take advantage of the invitation they extend to readers to submit projects. For the project submittal I enjoyed seeing some of my other images in a different light for a black and white interpretation  in order to provide  a varied set. Despite the fact that I could soooo see some of my pictures on their pages, obviously from my introductory line my submittal was not selected for publication. One of these days I’ll chat up the magazine here on the blog, as despite my disappointment, I enjoy what they are doing very much.

They had a very specific format for a submittal with quite a few text requirements to go with the images. A lot had to do with the artist’s inspiration to do the series. While I probably exceeded my word count which was specified, I’m not sure I could explain why I began looking at my bird shots as portraits rather than documentary observations in fewer words. One thing I debated was which birds to include and what to title the series. I was sorely tempted to call it “At Home with Herons” since so many were in a nesting colony heronry. But, I did include some other birds and decided to keep it simply “Bird Portraits.”  I hope you enjoy my attempt with the series introduction to Bird Portraits. And, the bird that really turned my thinking into making bird portraits was the Great Blue Heron image below. I thought it was an amazing bird when I saw it. Originally, a color image, I thought the fierce gaze expressed well in a black and white treatment. So this has been the Intro to sharing the Intro!! My story so similar to others who after raising children return to passions and interests of their own youth.


Feather left

Bird Portraits as a project arose gradually over time. When my last child graduated college, I returned to photographic interests I’d set aside so many years before. Remembering the serenity of Florida’s Big Cypress Swamp and its misty mornings, I wanted to photograph the primordial mystery of the glades and still dark waters silently mirroring majestic cypress trees. But, in the process I became charmed by the ethereal flutter of white wings dematerializing into the depths of the swamp and the haunting calls of birds unseen, but echoing in the distance. Soon, my quiet scenes of trees, water, and sky seemed empty without a bird to claim its home.

Since that time birds have increasingly occupied a special place in my viewfinder. While I did not set out to become a bird photographer, increasingly I sought out cypress scenes, mangrove settings and rookeries to observe and capture images which concentrated on the presence of the bird itself. The idea of bird portraiture hit home as I was photographing a Great Blue Heron surveying its wetland domain with such a fierce gaze and regal stance that it was surely channeling the spirit of a great Seminole Indian Chief. It seemed the ancient heart of the everglades was embodied in the bird. I wanted to capture that presence.

I could say that famed field naturalist and artist, John James Audubon, was the seminal inspiration for my work, but oddly, it is true in a reverse sense. It was only after I began capturing images of birds did I fully appreciate the complex artistry, beauty and accuracy of his drawings. Audubon captured not just the detail of feather and form, but his work was infused with a sinuous, living quality. My viewfinder became a time portal opening the view of a Louisiana heron tending its nest, or a Great Blue Heron asleep atop its incubating eggs, or a White Egret standing staunchly over its huddled chicks in a Florida rain shower. My camera provided me continuity with the past revealing glimpses of bird life much as Audubon witnessed and recorded nearly 200 years ago in the swamps of Florida and Louisiana.

According to William Faulkner, The aim of every artist is to arrest motion, which is life, by artificial means and hold it fixed so that a hundred years later, when a stranger looks at it, it moves again since it is life.” Ultimately, this was my greatest influence. I wanted to overcome the stasis inherent in any still shot and avoid a flat, immobile characterization. Portraiture should give dimension to its subject – showing more than its beauty and textures, but also, its mood, fierceness, tenderness – its life! I hope to have overcome a static portrayal to convey the intimacy of the nest, the character, and living artistry of some of the birds I’ve been privileged to observe and photograph. Whether a White Egret adorned with a bridal bustle of lacy aigrettes, the fierce profile of a Great Blue Heron, or the inquisitive meanderings of young chicks, this Bird Portrait series opens a portal into their lives.

Indian Chief Great Blue Heron

… enjoying the view!!…


I think that you have to believe in your destiny; that you will succeed, you will meet a lot of rejection and it is not always a straight path, there will be detours – so enjoy the view. – Michael York, actor

~ by Judy on July 24, 2015.

26 Responses to “Bird Portraits – Why I Do Them”

  1. I think, Judy, you might suffer the same problem as me. When at Art College other students filled their sketch books with graphic studies of . . . whatever (various parts of the environment), I found myself divided between the graphic and the textual. It was then I decided once and for all that writing was to be my life. Though I had not your talent in catching an image (but I was pretty good at designing fonts! That was my ‘in’; I had designed a font based on Book of Kells, & Head of Graphics was big fan of said style.)

    • Oh, I would be interested in seeing your font. I love fonts and have even purchased a few when I’ve used them for potentially commercial applications like cards. One of my favourites is Dirt2 SoulStalker and Angelic War….he has some very nice fonts.

      Looks like the turning point for you to be a writer happened in college. You are a fabulous writer and not just fiction, but also in the way you tell the stories of your geneology/history research projects. You must have oodles of notes and ideas gathered since college..I can only imagine!

      • Alas, I no longer have that font, and it was done before the days of digital cameras, and I never thought to take a pic. It plus other artwork were altogether in a big art-folder that, in removing myself from a less-than-endurable relationship I left behind, intending to return to collect. And when I did, the bast**d had binned it all. Years of work, gone. All that remains is what I’d given away (so my father has some, ditto my daughters.) After that, with the advent of computers, and me being deeply into writing, I kinda lost the necessary hand-to-eye coordination; and then I lost the inspiration (or was it the commitment?). However, to the rest of your comment: One wall of my bedroom testifies to collection of notes—it’s lined with A4 folders of every colour. Sometimes I even browse through them—and amaze myself at the ideas I’ve had in the past. Sometimes I build upon them, Sometimes, even, they become posts for this blog. Many times I say I shall bin them but cannot bring myself to it. Between the folders and books I sometimes think I live in a paper-castle. Still, better than castles in the air!

  2. Beautifully written, Judy! I am moved by your dedication to birds and their photography and want to tell you that this blog with your photos and your writing is a prized enjoyment I get in life.

    • Hien, thanks so much, that is such a great thing to say. Your kindness is appreciated!! I like to think that my compulsion brings some joy and beauty for others to view who aren’t close to subjects such as the birds I see here. I feel very fortunate to be in an area with these beautiful and interesting long legged wading birds!!

  3. This is a beautiful story and photograph, Judy. Unfortunately, rejection is familiar to all of us who are brave enough to put our work out there. Keep submitting, your work is beautiful.

    • Thanks for the kind thought Jill!! I have never been one to submit pictures anywhere, so it was a first and just because I liked the publication and thought the collection just might be a fit. I was pleased to go through the process though as I learned a lot.

  4. That’s a beautiful introduction to your work Judy. And the photo that inspired your portraits is certainly not static, it’s full of character and life.

  5. We all know the quality of your work, Judy. World class, actually. Do not take the rejection to heart. It is not a reflection of your work – I’m willing to bet it was a “compilation” rejection. They probably already had works selected that is similar to yours, and needed more works from people that approached the subject from a different direction. It’s kind of like putting a concert program together. If I already have Yo Yo Ma lined up to perform a cello concerto, I’m not going to have Itzhak Perlman come by to play his fiddle as well. I need to save room for the Debussy and Gloch works. I also think someone should publish a book dedicated solely to your work. It is that good.

    • Hi Jimbey!! Thanks for the very supportive thoughts!! I have thought if I made a selection of images and had a direction to go with the text, I’d try doing a Blurb or similar type photo book. It would be self pub really but was entertaining a thought to at least learn the templates and how to do layouts for something pretty.

      Yeah and magazine submittals, especially encouraged yet technically unsolicited ones, have to be what the magazine feels will forward their objectives. So its an opportunity but someone else’s publication and vision for it. I have no regrets for putting the submittal and I learned a lot from doing it. Including upgrading my efforts!!

      Thanks for being such a great fan of my bird pictures. I appreciate it!

      • Bird Pictures?!? Really? That sounds like jimbey speak. You do avian photography — *I* do bird pictures. 🙂

      • OH, well I did like that thing you came up with the other day “Avian Glamour Shots”!! I do like them to be pretty which is why those nestling wood storks were such a problem…..all that fish stuck on their pretty bills!! My goodness!!

  6. Your bird portraits are exquisite! Thanks, too, for including the insightful Faulkner quote. Trying to understand why certain “gate keepers” accept and reject work can be baffling. For example, I was stunned that Audubon’s paintings were at first generally rejected in American circles. However, part of his genius was that he loved what he did, and he didn’t give up! I really think that you, too, will find a publisher.

    • That is true and Audubon really reached his first acceptance in Europe. If I remember correctly from the biography I read, he ran into the bird artist Wilson one time and when he saw Wilson’s work, Audubon knew his was better. Not sure if he knew before seeing the work of others. It amazes me that Audubon’s style was not just scientifically accurate, but also very modern at the same time and just as appealing today. So funny that I took it all for granted until I examined my pictures, all the details I love and he had it right there drawn so perfectly wonderfully.

      Even though my submittal wasn’t selected, the one nice little thing was that the person there who is charged with opening the submittals and sending them on to be reviewed, seemed to genuinely love the image which I had tried to feature in the group… which was this White Egret from a previous post! I thought a good response from someone who sees these things every day was very nice. Otherwise, no commentary was forwarded, but that was the deal from the get go. It’s all good though.

      Oh and the Faulkner quote, I agree is marvelous. Sometimes the forces of the universe or magazine submittal gods are with you as when I was trying to find the words to express the life I sought for each image, that quote in all its perfection just appeared for me to tie everything together!!I cannot take credit for having had it in my arsenal forever.

      • Though I must have overlooked it earlier, that photograph of the White Egret is exquisite. I really like how you captured its feathers fanning out! That one of the folks involved in the process commented favorably is reassuring. I hope you submit again to that publication as well as to others. From what I read about Audubon, he just needed to get his work in front of the right people. Again, the Faulkner quote was just perfect!

  7. Judy your birds really tell a story, they are unique and beautiful. I can tell just by looking at your work that this is your calling, your gift to the world. Thank you for sharing your art with us.

    • I really have gotten drawn into the birds, but I do enjoy scenic and seascape images too!! So hope to get out and get a fresh look at some other subjects too! Even though this weekend a day trip to the keys ended up being another bird day, soggy though it was!! Thanks for enjoying my images!!

  8. Your photos are wonderful in the whole, and this portrait you’ve shown us is magnificent. The rejection had to be disheartening, but it’s all part of the process. As others have suggested, a rejection often has nothing at all to do with the quality of your work, and everything to do with specific criteria which the publisher has in mind.

    One suggestion I will pass along from the editor of a magazine where some of my work’s appeared. He says if they give you a word count, never, ever exceed it. And, in your case, I think I’d suggest using the same criteria for your prose as you do for your photos. Make it clear, sharp, and in focus. As I read, I had a feeling you were trying to capture in words the realities that your photos show. That’s perfect for a literary magazine. For a publisher of photos, maybe not. You and I both know about the perils of adverbs, but I think there are times when too many adjectives impede the flow of thought.

    Anyway: here’s to the next time! I’m getting ready to query a big-time magazine for the first time, and I anticipate it won’t be long before I get to add my rejection letter to yours. What then? Why, try, try again, of course!

    • Your constructive thoughts on the text are much appreciated. It could definitely have been tighter. As you say, I did try and refer to images in the collection with the introduction. Along with the ‘rules’ I did look at what others had done in a couple of the magazines and the word counts were higher and some made reference to images in their collections. So I tried to take direction from examples they’d used. But, all that is no excuse for lack of fine tuning! Next time I will work harder on that.

      I also realize that they do have specific things they are looking for, and barring introducing something new and out of this world as an unsolicited submission, I think they look for a level of refinement and success. They do other things with the portfolios as well, so it is beyond the one mag I believe. Just have to keep at it!! I wanted to aim high.

      As to you!! I look forward to great success with your query to the big-time magazine!! You are a writer in the truest and best sense of the occupation!!
      If I recall correctly from reading Stephen King’s “On Writing” he posted his rejection letters onto the timbers in his room. He may have been the one who said that he knew he was getting better when instead of just the letter and no comments, he would get the story back with comments and suggestions here and there. But, back to you…..your writing is so refined and beautiful that any rejection could only be a perceived fit or not. Big-time magazine…I am sooo curious!!

  9. Being a painter living in Florida, I really appreciate your bird portraits and thoughtful writing. Thank you!

    • Oh, thank you!! I can’t wait to go and see your paintings!! I always moan and groan why can’t I be a painter, then I can have control of everything and the pose of my subject!! And, then I wouldn’t have to debate when working on something for a possible print which and whether to fix up some torn up or decayed leaves. I have decided decayed leaves look much better painted than photographed!! But, on the poses I think many that I capture I would not have envisioned without direct observation first. Perhaps you do this, hike and observe and take some source shots for reference when painting? Thank you for visiting me here and commenting!!

      Update: I visited your Florida Works Page and just love the paintings! “Happy Landing” got me first but many of the cypress and bird scenes AND the leaves were just beautiful..and the colors!! Could not see where to comment but wanted you to know I loved the work and will be enjoying your view some more!!

  10. Love your photos, and here I really love your words and the feel behind your photos and works of art. The Faulkner quote is awesome “The aim of every artist is to arrest motion, which is life, by artificial means and hold it fixed so that a hundred years later, when a stranger looks at it, it moves again since it is life.” as this is what you do, and do so well.

    As for rejection, it seems like such an important part of growth. In fact without it I think we never would be able to find that extra-something inside that pushes into another realm. Love this post… 🙂

    • Those are wonderful things you’ve said and I appreciate it truly. I would love to think anything I have done would survive for someone to appreciate in 100 years and see the life in it!! What a great thought!! It may be true that at our best we influence people close to us and that the present is more important than wondering if anyone will remember your work in the future, yet it would be nice to leave something behind that might last, wouldn’t it?

  11. What a beautiful piece, Judy — full of love and passion, just like the images you so perfectly capture, those exquisite moments of this truly amazing environment and ecosystem. There’s nothing like it on the planet, and to have artists such as yourself showing it to the world is the most loving thing you could do. Especially when it’s constantly teetering with development and behind-door game plays.

    And rejection? Think of all the greats who experienced countless rejection until someone saw their brilliance. There’s a great list, out there of famous rejections. It’s a hoot and holler to read. 🙂

    • While I can’t really compare myself with the greats in art and literature, I guess I can share that simple human emotion with them of the disappointment of the rejection letter. And, now that you mention it, I guess that small connection with them is kind of sweet in its own right. See silver lining!!

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