Xavi Bou’s “Ornithographies”

Xavi Bou’s “Ornithographies”

Christoph Irmscher

The flight of birds has long been the source of human envy, the subject of feverish dreams as well as reckless folly, from Greek myth (think Icarus) to bible verse (“Had I the wings of the dove…”) to scientific speculation (Leonardo’s flying machine). Although we now know what precisely happens when birds fly, and although we have become comfortable replicating that process with the help of technology, we are reminded of our limitations as a species whenever air traffic, for whatever reason, grinds to a halt. Avian flight, for sheer grace and effortlessness, remains the mesmerizing, unparalleled mystery it has always been.

Few people were more obsessed with its secrets than the 19th-century physiologist Étienne-Jules Marey (1839-1904), the first to discover that an insect’s wing, in one revolution, descibes a double ellipse or figure 8, an insight he subsequently applied to birds. The relatively young medium of photography was a handy tool for Marey when he wanted to demonstrate his findings to his students at the Collège de France. He even developed a special apparatus with a rotating shutter, appropriately shaped like a gun, to help him shoot multiple consecutive images. He was hunting for something very specific—as exact a representation of a bird in flight as he could approximate. And, indeed, when he combined his multiple shots within one frame—voilà!—he would get a sequence of movements over time (hence the term he invented for that technique, “chronophotography”). Squint, and you can almost see that gull fly past once again, wings down, then up again, then down, then all the way up again, then down a little, then up, then almost straight, with a nice sideways tilt . . . the beginning of a gentle coast, out of the frame and into that great vastness of the sky:

Étienne-Jules Marey, Flight of Gull, 1886

Marey’s interest in visualizing motion links him with his contemporary Eadward Muybridge (1830-1904), who visited Marey in his studio in Paris and whose re-creations of galloping horses and walking, running, or leaping bodies in the nude are more readily familiar today. If Muybridge was the better artist, Marey was the more exacting scientist: his book, Physiologie du Mouvement: Le Vol des Oiseaux (1890), a monumental and transformative achievement, contained 164 remarkable illustrations of birds in action.

Marey is one of the inspirations often cited by the Barcelona-based photographer Xavi Bou (born 1979). A trained geologist, Bou embarked, almost by happenstance, on a professional career as a photographer for the fashion and advertising industry. But he could not shake his childhood memories of long walks taken along the coast with his grandfather, a bird enthusiast who instilled in young Xavi a lifelong passion for nature observation. Those powerful early impressions reasserted themselves years later when Bou, out for a walk, found himself staring at an animal’s trail on the ground, looked up, and began imagining the sky covered with the trails birds were leaving as they flew to their various destinations. If Marey had arranged multiple shots sequentially, Bou, using a high-resolution digital camera able to take 60 images per second, superimposed all those in one frame, thus creating images of incredible depth and complexity. In his own words: “The idea is to take as many pictures as possible to freeze every single movement of the object in motion.” He was, he explained, “interested in the complete shape that is produced by the movement.”

Bou’s technique yields images of an otherworldly, surreal beauty that, depending on the context, make his flying birds look like double helixes, fractals, or the festive streamers used at children’s birthday parties: outlandishly wonderful, spectacularly alien figures floating above landscapes stripped of human presence. For Bou, the tracks of flying birds are a kind of sky-writing, “ornithography,” a form of avian art revealed, as if it had originally been drawn in invisible ink, by his camera.

Xavi Bou, Ornithography #34: Larus michahellis, The Yellow-Legged Gull

Another photograph in the series shows several yellow-legged gulls ascending from the wetlands of the Ebro Delta, shooting into the sky in jets of propulsive energy, performing a wild this-way, that-way kind of dance, spindly-footed extraterrestrials straight out of some futuristic movie. The almost monochromatic, slightly blurry foreground, set apart from the blueish-gray sky behind it, enhances the unreality of the scene. Yellow-legged gulls in flight can be recognized by the contrast between the white head and the gray back and upper wings. But Bou’s multilayered image casually erases such identifying marks, blurring them into a symphony of sunsetty browns and blacks. Birds as individuals or as representatives of their species are not of primary interest to him. His focus is on the tracks they make, those hidden highways in the sky along which they travel, their wings producing art as they go. In Bou’s work, the dancer cannot ever, as W. B. Yeats also doubted, be separated from the dance.

Xavi Bou, Ornithography #126: Larus michahellis. The Yellow-legged Gull, Ebro Delta, Catalonia

Residents of Europe are familiar with the large formations of starlings in flight, also known as “murmurations,” named for the faintly thunderous sounds produced by their wings. All that’s needed for such a murmuration to take place is the arrival nearby of some fearsome predator, such as a hawk or falcon, and thousands of panicky birds glom on to each other and take off together: safety here lies, indeed, in numbers. The algorithms of such flock behavior have long fascinated scientists: while there is no central control, no obvious command center, each bird, by following a simple set of rules and interacting with the six or seven flying partners closest to it, instinctively does what’s good for the cohesion for the entire flock. Here the whole truly is not greater than the sum of its parts.

But Bou, being an artist, cares less about cause than effect: in “Ornithography #152,” a murmuration of starlings emanates dramatically from the top of a single tree, performing a giant sweeping swoosh to the right that appears to sort itself out as it gains in speed, as the unruly cohorts of birds that can be seen curling downward (caused, perhaps, by a marauding hawk) are scooped up and merged into the flock’s inexorable horizontal forward thrust to the right. In Bou’s composition, the starlings’ murmuration is a giant extension of that tree, as if a strong gust of wind had suddenly unraveled the tree’s leafage, unrolling it like so many strands of human hair or like the disentangled hundredfold tentacles of giant jellyfish in motion. But we also know that it’s not actually wind that has caused this upheaval—the smaller tree to the right remains entirely unruffled. The kinetic force of the flock’s departure is the collaborative creation of all the birds, a joining of wings, as it were, a collective work of art produced by thousands of bird artists, with a result unattainable to humans. How uninteresting the latter’s habitations, uninspired combinations of triangles or squares, seem in the distance!

Xavi Bou, Ornithography #152: Sturnus vulgaris, Common Starling, Ebro Delta, Catalonia

It’s no wonder that Bou’s visualizations of flock behavior are startlingly different from the YouTube videos made of such spectacles. If those clips feature a twittering mass of dancing dots the size of little houseflies, Bou’s chronophotographs reveal continuous lines of energy, not a ballet so much as a field of force. This is particularly striking in “Ornithography #62,” where the starlings’ murmuration takes the form of a kind of sideways tornado, blown perilously close to where the viewers would be standing, where indeed the lines briefly get tangled up, as if we were the predators these birds needed to avoid.

Xavi Bou, Ornithography #62: Sturnus vulgaris, Common Starling

As his project grew in both size and ambition, Xavi Bou ventured beyond his native terrain, taking exquisitely beautiful pictures in Iceland as well as the United States. What particularly fascinated him in Iceland was the contrast between “the size and heaviness of the volcanic rocks” and the “tiny patterns” created by seabirds. In “Ornithography #97,” the vertical rock rising in the foreground symbolizes the chthonic burden from which arctic seabirds are, if they wish, liberated. The heavy alphabet written by ancient volcanos contrasts with the elusive, always preliminary drafts, the thin or solid, wavy or straight, loopy or gently undulating lines scribbled onto heaven’s semi-transparent canvas by the light, swinging or gliding bodies of northern fulmars and Atlantic puffins.

Xavi Bou, Ornithography #97: Fulmarus glacialis & Fratercula arctica, Northern Fulmar & Atlantic Puffin, Vik, Iceland

Some of Bou’s recent images tend to move in the direction of conceptualism. Here the motions of birds appear unencumbered by any external terrestrial markers, whether they be rocks or trees, freed even from the anchoring mirror of the ocean. In a resplendent portrait of a flock of greater flamingos in flight (“Ornithography #18″), Bou’s chronophotography fuses the multiple bodies of the birds into an intricately patterned mega-wing, or at least a part of one. Pushed towards the edge of the frame, where the blue of the sky appears to yield to a kind of diaphanous white, that fantasy wing waves a mocking farewell to us as it gets ready to lift itself out of our sight: a reminder of the transcendent power of birds as well as of the glorious opportunities photography, given the deplorable limits of human perception, affords us when it succeeds in translating at least some of the evanescent, constantly threatened beauty of the world into images meant to last.

Xavi Bou, Ornithography #18: Phoenicopterus roseus, Greater Flamingos, Ebro Delta, Catalonia

Xavi Bou on the Art of Ornithography

“Ornithographies” has a distant origin, going back all the way to my childhood. I grew up in the Delta del Llobregat, an especially interesting area due to the passage of migratory birds. Yet, because the port and Barcelona are surrounded by the airport and numerous chemical industries, it is an area that has also been directly exposed to the impact of human settlement.

On the daily walks I took with my grandfather in the area, he taught me that each bird has a particular type of flight and song and that the variety of species and behaviors among birds was much larger than I could imagine.

Since then my curiosity has only grown.

I studied geology in the daytime and photography at night. Almost by chance, I found myself, from the beginning of my career, working in photography and advertising. This was not a profession I deliberately chose. My love of nature always accompanied me. Commercial photography did not fulfill me, and I felt the need to be more connected to what I was doing. Eight years ago, when I saw a trail on the ground, I thought what kind of trail the birds would leave when flying, and I began to imagine the lines that would appear in the sky. I thought it would be interesting to make them visible. I did some research and realized that such a project had not been undertaken before. When I had figured out the technology, I also realized that I had found something that would be very interesting to develop, since it united my three great passions: nature, art and technology.

The result was so amazing that I realized that I had found the project that I had sought for so long. What happened next was even more amazing: my photographs were received exceptionally well, and the interest that they sparked crossed the barriers of photography, reaching other disciplines such as architecture, mathematics, and music.

I first approached my work from a more naturalistic point of view, recording birds individually in their environment, but I expect that over the years my photographs will evolve into more conceptual images. The underlying idea behind my work—that the sky is a canvas and the birds the brushes that draw on it—has over time lost prominence, as has the role of color in my work. What has become more prominent is my interest in the layout of each type of flight.

With this project I feel like a curator rather than an artist, since I dedicate myself to looking for, and selecting, those avian choreographies and make them visible.

I am currently working full time to explore new ways in which to visualize the flight of birds. I have been fortunate enough to be able to publish and exhibit my work all over the world, and I hope to release a book this year.

But what really continues to motivate me is my desire to excite people about the world around them, to inspire them to look up and let themselves fall in love with the beauty that is there but that so often goes unnoticed.