Audubon’s camera: “Waterbirds”

December 16, 2009

Cross's snowy egret

Theodore Cross’s photography book is being marketed by W. W. Norton as the book John James Audubon would have made if he had used a camera.  

That’s one heck of a claim.  Audubon (1785-1851) painted every known bird in North America in life-size paintings that became the famous Birds of America. Jonathan Rosen, in The Life of the Skies: Birding at the End of Nature, writes this about the 19th century artistic ornithologist:  

“His birds are weirdly anthropomorphic (his white pelican looks as if it might consult a pocket watch before flying) and yet they are preternaturally realistic. They look like people who have been turned into birds and might turn back at any enchanted moment, but they have the simultaneous effect of returning their viewers to the wilderness.”  

There are 179 color photographs in Waterbirds’ 344 pages. According to the publisher’s website, “These breathtaking photographs are accompanied by gracefully written field notes and fascinating accounts of the birds’ habits and habitat. The book is introduced by an extended anecdotal essay giving insights and observations of the extraordinary man who, at age eighty-five, is as eager to track down an eagle in Alaska as he was when he began photographing in midlife.” 

Audubon's snowy egret

The book’s definitely caught my attention (Oh Santa!) as it has that of others.  The New York Times featured Waterbirds in their Science section, and Melissa Block interviewed Cross for NPR. Even the Brits have listed the book in a Christmas roundup, which features one of Cross’s gorgeous photos. Typical to impressive photography books, Waterbirds is pricey ($100 on the publisher’s website and a bit less at online booksellers). Nevertheless, it’s out of stock in several places, so the cost apparently is not a shopper stopper. 

Of all the slideshows viewed, I prefer the The New York Times and The Picture Show.  The Barnes & Noble site doesn’t offer many images, but it does give a blurry interior page display, so you can get an idea of the book’s layout.  In the YouTube version, the voiceover is annoying. 

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