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An Incomplete Dictionary of Show Birds: Interview with Luke Stephenson

Image: Cuban Finch #1, 2016 © Luke Stephenson

Britain and its national psyche are at the core of London based photographer Luke Stephenson’s work. For over a decade he has been photographing subjects that, for him, epitomise British eccentricity and culture, including puppets, the iconic ‘99’ ice cream and the World Beard and Moustache Championships.

In 2009 Stephenson discovered the peculiar and insular world of show bird competitions and began to immerse himself in the subculture of ‘bird fancying’. He has spent the past seven years tracking down and gaining access to ever more exotic species to photograph, inadvertently becoming an avid collector of these prized birds himself.   

In this interview, Alexandra Olczak discusses the newest works in the series An Incomplete Dictionary of Show Birds with the photographer, which is currently on view in our Print Sales Gallery and at Selfridges, London, as part of a new display In Fine Feather. By combining his unique style of photography with the formal language of studio portraiture, the artist lends his feathered subjects an affectionate and often human presence.

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Alexandra Olczak: Your previous series, for example 99 x 99s (2014), which documents 99 types of 99 ice creams across various British seaside locations, have led you to be considered a ‘portraitist’ of sorts. Do you think this is an accurate description of your approach to photography?

Luke Stephenson: I think it’s a very interesting idea that someone can take a picture of an object or thing, and that in doing so it gives an audience some sort of insight into the person who made it. With the 99 project, I wanted to see the various differences between ice creams from around the country, but as I looked at them – and maybe I’m the only one to see this – I noticed particular differences specific to certain counties. I suppose in a strange way this could be classed as a quasi-portrait of Great Britain through its ice cream! 

With the Show Birds project I took the decision very early on that I didn’t want to take portraits of the people who owned and bred the birds, as I thought they would be showing themselves through the animals. For many of these breeders these birds have been a life’s work, so to show their achievements in that respect says something about them. I think it’s always nice to not give the viewer too much information, but allow them to join the dots. 

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Bearded Reedlings #1, 2016 © Luke Stephenson

AO: How did you figure out the best way to photograph the birds?

LS: Well, there was quite a bit of trial and error. When I first photographed some budgies back in 2006 I naively thought they would calmly sit on their owner’s finger but soon realised this wasn’t the case; I discovered you needed to use some sort of cage or box.

There was a photographer called Dennis Avon who was a very prolific in bird photographer, and I learnt he had a box that he photographed the birds in but had very little information as to how it was made.

My dad helped me make various boxes; the first was made with chicken wire but the birds hung on to the sides and rarely sat where I wanted them to! So after a few more failed versions, someone told me that a bird will generally sit at the highest point and I finally came up with a wooden box which only gives the bird one place to sit (which is exactly where I need them to be).  My bird ‘studio’ is constantly evolving as I think of ways to improve it. I very much enjoy the DIY nature and challenge of photographing something that isn’t a typical portrait subject.

AO: As I understand it, there are several stages to producing these stark and detailed close-ups: tracking down new species, gaining permission from the breeders, travelling to different locations with your bird studio, testing different backgrounds, and editing the resulting images to find the best shots. Which parts of the process did you find most enjoyable or challenging? 

LS: Yes there are many elements as you say… I’m lucky to have met some lovely people along the way who have been happy to share their knowledge. During the first part of this project I met a former policeman called Alan, who bred canaries and was very active in that scene. He was happy to vouch for me in case anyone had any reservations – there can be a bit of suspicion in the bird world due to past bird thefts. That helped a lot in gaining access to the birds. More recently, I’ve been looking for more exotic and native breeds to photograph, and have travelled to Europe to meet some keen collectors who’ve been invaluable in their help.

I think the most satisfy part of the whole process is when I’m looking though the lens at the bird in my box, and all the planning has worked and I press the shutter and just know I’ve got a beautiful shot.

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Luke Stephenson, Installation view, In Fine Feather, Selfridges, London

AO: What’s the furthest place you have travelled to for a photo session? Have all your pursuits been successful to date?

LS: As I mentioned, I travelled to Europe recently as the hobby is still very popular in Belgium, Germany and Holland. I visited a bird show outside Eindhoven, which is very highly thought of and was very different to any other bird show I’ve attended. They spend a week or so building very elaborate habitats for exotic species that various members own – it was better than most zoo collections and very impressive to see. I spoke to a few people while I was there and met a helpful guy called Rick; he helped put me in touch with some of the members and I then got permission to return to Holland with my bird studio to capture some wonderful birds.

Generally because of the research I do before a shoot I usually come away with some good pictures, but sometimes I don’t always select the right colour backgrounds and that can often make or break a shot, which is annoying.

I once drove for two hours to visit a breeder in the borders of Scotland! He had, amongst other species, a Pekin Robin, which I had wanted to photograph for some time. As soon as I arrived I realised I’d forgotten the lights for my box – which are crucial – so couldn’t get any shots that trip. I was invited to return the following week but by that time the Pekin Robin had sadly died, which was a real shame… it took me another 3 years to track another one down. 

AO: You once said that your initial collection of avian portraits for this series started with budgies, as they were “accessible, familiar, and wonderfully beautiful.” Apart from new species, how does this new collection of birds differ?

LS: As well as travelling further afield and discovering more diverse species, I’ve also managed to photograph a lot more native British birds. They tend to be my favourites as they’re so familiar.

I think I’ve matured a lot as a photographer and have learnt so much through the project. Since publishing a photo-book in 2012 I have been living with the pictures and looking at them a lot – you start to learn what works in the images and what doesn’t after a while, so I think the latest work is a bit more refined thanks to that.

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Paradise Tanager #1, 2016 © Luke Stephenson

AO: In a way you could say you have become somewhat of a photographic “collector” of these birds – have you ever owned a show bird yourself? Would you consider yourself a bit of a show bird connoisseur thanks to this project?

LS: Yes, I would say a lot of my work is based around collections of things; I enjoy getting deeply involved in a subject and learning about its various elements.

With the Show Bird series it has unexpectedly grown into a large collection that has taken me a number of years to amass. Having met so many enthusiasts over the years, you can’t help but pick up various bits of information and it sometimes surprises me when I’m chatting about birds how much I actually know! In that respect I suppose I have become a bit of a connoisseur, but there’s always more to learn with something like this.

My wife actually bought me a yellow canary for my birthday a couple of years ago. He was called Bobby and was lovely to have in my flat – he would sing all day and keep me company. I kept his cage door open for him so he could fly around my living room whenever he wanted and go back to his cage at night to sleep. Sadly he’s no longer with us, but I’ve been thinking more and more about getting another bird lately… maybe something a bit more exotic. I enjoyed the sound of him singing all day.

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Luke Stephenson, Installation view, In Fine Feather, Selfridges, London

AO: Your countrywide road trip for the 99 ice cream series lasted 25 days, whereas you’ve been photographing show birds over the past 7 years now. Did you ever expect this to be such a long-term project? Do you think your ‘Dictionary’ will ever be complete?

LS: It has been a long process, and not something I ever imagined doing when I first photographed some budgies! I like the way these long-term projects evolve and change as you get to understand the subject matter more and more. There are still so many birds I’d like to photograph and so many variations of each species I don’t know if it will be ever finished! I’m going abroad to other countries and learning how they do things, so that could be a way of expanding the collection in the future. 

Luke Stephenson (born in 1983, Darlington, England) lives and works in London. Since graduating in 2005 and winning the Jerwood Photography Prize the same year, Stephenson has been working as a freelance photographer focusing on eccentric British hobbies and exposing fascinating “archaeological layers of English culture” hidden from the mainstream. His work has been published in a variety of publications including The New York Times Magazine, The Guardian, Dazed & Confused, Foam, Art Review and Wallpaper*.

Alexandra Olczak is print sales gallery co-ordinator at The Photographers’ Gallery.

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