A Spectacle of Wings: Photographs by Rosalie Winard
9 September—14 December 2008
“Beauty can be a tool if used well,” Rosalie Winard says, and it is a tool that she wields with a distinctive touch. She photographs birds as one might a family member caught in an intimate moment, and her avian portraits have been praised as both meditative and exhilarating. A self-taught documentary photographer, artist, and student of natural history, Winard slips soundlessly into a vivid and detailed realism in each of her images. “It was the spring of my freshman year of college when I opened my heart to the birds….
Off in the distance a solitary brown pelican appeared…. That morning as I watched the pelican’s ancient form dip and glide, the world slowed down for the very first time.” Rosalie Winard’s captivation with birds would follow her inexorably as she moved away from her early thoughts of being an ornithologist, into the study of music, and on to careers in documentary film, video art education, and photojournalism.
Winard first viewed birds through different lenses. “It was in an environmental biology course that binoculars became my second set of eyes,” remarks Winard. The camera later replaced her binoculars as she searched for ways to depict the birds' elusive aspects and paradoxes: their simultaneous fragility and power, tranquility and action, elegance and humor.
Rosalie Winard counts more painters among her influences than photographers, and her choice of infrared film produces an effect reminiscent of a charcoal drawing with its grainy textures and tones of gray, black, and white.
Oskar Kokoschka, Franz Marc, and Edouard Vuillard inspire her as an artist, though their work is utterly different from her own. It’s the “shared essence, the sense of shared concerns” that Winard cites as she likens her image of a great egret with breeding plumage to a painting by Vuillard of his mother and sister in an interior. The swooning ethereal bird, white in a sea of incandescent foliage, brings to Winard’s mind the small canvas in which Vuillard’s, also interwoven with her environment, seems to emerge from the patterned wallpaper.
It was award-winning documentary filmmaker Errol Morris who introduced her to the possibilities of the infrared film that she has used to great effect in her bird portraits. “In a way, it’s counterintuitive,” Winard explains. “The best times to shoot birds are at dawn and dusk. This film needs bright light, but there was an essence. Finally, visually, I was seeing what I felt.”
The technical aspects of her work, though, are only a means to an end. As naturalist writer and activist Terry Tempest Williams noted in an essay in Winard’s recent book on wetland birds: “First and foremost, Rosalie Winard is an artist of restoration. Through the act of witnessing these fragile, enduring birds of America’s wetlands, she refuses to let their noble and imperiled lives remain hidden.”
Her extraordinary photographs bring to the fore not only the poetic splendor of these magical creatures, but a heightened awareness of the precarious habitats that support their existence. “With already half of the world’s wetlands gone, we need a new mindset that appreciates the wetlands as water’s source and storage instead of land to be drained and developed,” said Jamie Pittock of the World Wildlife Fund. As both artist and activist, Winard uses these images of what she calls her “avian primitives” to heighten awareness of that need.
The exhibition is co-sponsored by the Mount Holyoke College Art Museum, Biology Department, and the Center for the Environment.
The exhibition accompanied the publication of Wild Birds of the American Wetlands by Rosalie Winard (Welcome Books). Mount Holyoke College alumnae can receive a 10% discount to the book by contacting Welcomebooks.
(American, b. 1953)
American Avocet, Farmington Bay, Great Salt Lake, Farmington, Utah
Pigment print photograph, 2005
Photography courtesy of the artist