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New York photographer Lynn Savarese has a tiny, unusual exhibit up this month at Umbrella Arts in New York featuring her portraits of ancient taxidermied birds, many from the American Museum of Natural History’s collection and many the work of the late David Schwendeman who was the museum’s last full-time taxidermist before retiring in the early 1980s.
The topic may sound morbid but the luminous images, cropped rather tightly—to the point where some only show a part of the bird—reveal a world of detail.
Some of the portraits in Savarese’s series “My Still Life Aviary” are as fabulous as the best fashion photos. This is particularly true in those where Savarese’s subject is turned partly or fully away from the camera, the better to display its silhouette and its colorful plumage. Her photo Pinnae Caeruleae Caudae, with its feathers of turquoise and azure, is a favorite in this vein.
Other images depict, with poignancy but never gruesomeness, the sad-slash-bad ways that the scientist’s tendency towards taxonomy via taxidermy can be misguided or go awry. In those photos, the birds often have bits of thread hanging off them—hallmarks of the taxidermist’s hand—or else tags handwritten sometimes many decades ago by ornithologists long gone themselves. Case in point is Vigil, where the fine-feathered fowl seems to be in drag, complete with fuchsia lipstick and eyeliner.
“I’ve never lost sight of man’s hubris in turning these animals into replicas of themselves and the inherent irony in striving to achieve a kind of immortality for them by killing them,” Savarese said about this series. “Doubly ironic, however, is that I have also never felt more deeply the wonder and beauty of our animal kin than in my close-up encounters with these mounted birds.”
This series is Savarese’s effort to tell their fuller story in a holistic way, as she says, “to capture their haunting charisma and the ethical challenges they present, as well as their power to convey the endangerment and threat of extinction many bird species face today.”
Curated by Harvey Stein, “My Still Life Aviary” is a stark departure from Savarese’s last show, “New York’s New Abolitionists,” which was displayed at New York’s International Center for Photography, where she studied photography. The 50 black-and-white works in that show were commissioned by the New York State Anti-Trafficking Coalition. Savarese’s formal portraits of leaders in the fight to end sex trafficking (including both survivors of trafficking and people like Gloria Steinem, former New York Mayor David Dinkins and U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara) were solid and serviceable, but did not showcase the level of artistry and the clear point of view of the aviary series.
“When you are shooting something knowing it is going to be destroyed, you photograph it differently,” said Savarese, mentioning the exhibit she had just seen of the photographer Charles Marville, whom the city of Paris tasked in the mid 19th-century with photographing its medieval streets before they were razed to accommodate Haussmann’s grand boulevards. (Marville’s work is on view at New York’s Metropolitan Museum through May 4).
Musing on Marville as well as her own work, Savarese said, “It is one more reminder, and I think Susan Sontag writes about this, that photography is always photographing death.” She continued, “You are always photographing a moment that will never return. At the same time, with my aviary show, you are sort of bringing the birds back to life in a way through these photographs.”
Savarese’s impeccably lit bird photographs fit firmly within the tradition of the still life, known in French as nature morte, which has its roots in the Middle Ages and Greco-Roman art and typically depicts various fruits, flora and fauna and other symbols in various states of beauty and decay to signify the fragility of life or to pose questions about the nature of death and time itself.
(Last month’s excellent cover story in ArtNews surveys a number of Savarese’s contemporaries who are grappling with and adapting the genre as well.)
I’ve been thinking about the contemporary still life since last year, when I saw the Norton Museum of Art’s mesmerizing room wholly devoted to the genre through the ages. At its centerpiece is a 2011 Norton commission in clear glass by the artist Beth Lipman (candlesticks, wineglasses, bowls, fruits, and plants all arranged banquet-style atop a black wood casket, custom-made to the dimensions of the artist herself) sparkling amidst dark works that span the 17th-century (John Dugdale’s Mourning Tulips from 1654) through the late 20th-century (large-scale Polaroids by Marina Abramovic from the 1990s).
Savarese’s birds would fit right in this continuum, advancing the story and relevance of nature morte and the question of what it means to be working within that genre as we wade deeper into the 21st-century.
What makes her birds an exciting part of the still life tradition is the tension between the very contemporary look of her images (the lighting, composition, and color saturation) and the sometimes dusty, falling-apart quality of the subjects themselves; it’s clear the taxidermists completed their work a couple of generations ago.
That same tension struck me as having deeper meaning. Her photos are not just studies steeped in vanitas and the transience of life, they capture and question cupiditas too, the collector’s greed and desire. Her subjects represent an original, though perhaps well-intentioned, cupidity of the collector, the collector of natural history, but now the very selling of Savarese’s photographs creates an opportunity for another level of cupidity, the cupidity of the art collector.
My Still Life Aviary can be seen through March 29 at Umbrella Arts, 317 E 9th street, in New York City.