On Feathered Wings: Birds In Flight” by Richard Ettlinger

Publisher: Abrams

Review by Conrad J. Obregon

Bird watchers and bird photographers know that the hardest view of their subjects to catch is when they are in flight. That is why this book of bird flight pictures is so amazing. I suspect that Ettlinger had to find six co-photographers because no smaller group could come up with enough pictures to make up a book.

The book begins with pictures of raptors: hawks, eagles, owls. It’s particularly awesome to see these birds with fish, rabbits, mice or insects in their talons. Next are pictures from the shore, including shorebirds, gulls, terns, puffins and a few waders. These are followed by wetlands pictures including more waders and ducks. The book finishes up with a few pictures of songbirds, mostly swallows. The pictures are from North America, Europe, Asia and Australia.

These pictures are amazingly sharp, given that their subjects were moving rapidly. All of the pictures are tributes to the skills of the seven photographers. The majority of pictures are of the raptors, probably due to the fact that they are usually larger birds with less angular motion required to keep them large and framed. The number of songbirds is disappointingly small.

I would love to have any of these pictures hanging on my wall. All of the pictures are closely cropped, so that the birds seem ready to burst out of the frame. And that’s also the rub in part. A book is a work of art in its own right and as such relies upon both repetition and variation. It needs a rhythm and the one here is repetitious, so that after a dozen or so pictures, the images started to blend together. To make sure of myself I looked at the work of another bird photographer, “Birds of Prey” by Tom Vezo. His pictures of raptors in flight were some times closely cropped, but on other occasions were pulled back to give the birds a little more blue sky to fly into, or showed the bird flying in an environment, like a field. And the paucity of passerines sent me back to a work of one of the all-time world-class photographers, “Vanishing Songbirds” by Eliot Porter. It’s time for somebody in the digital age to duplicate Porter’s achievement.

Like most collections of photographs, the text of the book seemed like one of those requirements that after one reading (or for some self-explanatory images, no reading) could be ignored. And I was disappointed to find there was absolutely no reference to technique, even as an appendix. Perhaps the authors wanted to keep their secrets from the envious eyes of other photographers.

Yet even though I have quibbles, I’m certain no bird watcher or bird photographer will feel disappointed when they read this book.

Join the conversation! 1 Comment

  1. Interesting point. I’ve noticed this too, there is a disjunct between photographs in books and the texts accompanying them. It seems like the trend is to make the photographic technique more mysterious, so there is little mention about technique or style. Oh well, as long as there are good photos.

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