Ruffled Feathers: Recording Birds Caught in Nets

Todd Forsgren
Todd Forsgren
Variable Seedeater (Sporophila corvina), 2012.

Todd Forsgren ruffles feathers every time he takes a picture.

A photographer and professor at the Maryland Institute College of Art, Forsgren has been recording images of wild birds in the moments after they fly into mist nets. Spread through the forests of the world, scientists and biologists rely on these nets to catch wild birds, temporarily suspending a bird’s flight plan as they measure, weigh, record and band the species before releasing them unharmed.

“It’s kind of like guerrilla 4×5 photography—I basically give myself ten minutes or so to set up and take the photographs so that biologists can get to the birds as quickly as possible so they don’t get stressed out,” says Forsgren.

As a biology student in college in 2003, Forsgren started bringing a camera with him on his trips to conduct fieldwork, but soon found himself more and more engrossed in his photography.

“Before long, it was clear that that’s where I wanted to put my energy,” he says. And so in 2006, Forsgren began pairing up with biologists conducting field work, offering to photograph their study species in exchange for prints of the birds they observed.

Field Museum Library/Getty Images

Raven, Plate 101 from John James Audubon's Birds of America in late 1830s.

The clean background of his ornithological photographs suggest a controlled studio environment—a look not easily accomplished when working in the field across seven different locations ranging from the plains of Texas to the dense rainforests of Costa Rica.

“Obviously, in my photographs, you can’t tell that often times I’m in the rainforest or dry forest or grasslands,” he explains. Forsgren usually lugs his equipment over all sorts of terrain—his packing list includes either one or two studio lights, a light box, and 4×5 view camera with dark cloth.

Forsgren’s setup provides a clean slate that highlight the splashes of color and complex patterning of the netted birds, like the red cap of the Rufous-winged Woodpecker and the slight streaks of yellow on the underbelly of the Puerto Rican Tody. The aesthetic of his photography re-imagines the work of classical ornithologists, playing off the “very flamboyant poses” found in the sketches of John James Audubon and the systematic illustrations from the 20th century field guides of Roger Tory Peterson.

Audubon had the ambition to find and paint every bird of America, an aspiration Forsgren wants to take to the next level—his ultimate goal is to photograph Birds-of-Paradise in New Guinea.

Todd Forsgren is a photographer based in Washington, D.C. His Ornithological work was recently part of a group show, ‘Winging It’, at Heiner Contemporary in D.C. See more of his work here.

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