Saturday, January 15, 2011

Cormorants à la mode d'Audubon

Bickering, snickering, sniping and biting, jostling and jousting: this erupts when dozens of double-crested cormorants settle in for the night's roost in a row of tall trees along the the Ship Canal.

John James Audubon. Rough-Legged Falcon, 1938. 
Arriving from a day of fishing in the Sound or a nearby lake, their approach and landing are awkward and ungainly; they often have to circle around two or three times to make successful purchase on a branch. Landing is even more problematic if it aims to settle in next to another bird who is already comfortably tucked in--squabbling and scuffling ensue. But only briefly--the argument is short-lived, practically perfunctory, and quickly everyone calms and quietens.

This jostling and jousting and the postures of aggression remind me of Audubon's depiction of birds: he often painted them in a pugilistic contortions: necks twisted, beaks open, bodies torqued in battle. I'm not sure if he did this intentionally, to show off the expanse of wings, the full glory of coloration, or if it reveals something about his perception, conscious or not, of the nature of human relations.

As a photographer, I am amazed by his ability to freeze moments of such action and flurry without having had the benefit of stopping time with a camera. How was he able to envision and execute split-second postures and actions in such a masterly way?