Capturing the organic beauty of birds in flight

Capturing the organic beauty of birds in flight

In his new photobook Ornithographies, photographer Xavi Bou documents natural movement in a radically original take on wildlife photography.

One afternoon over a decade ago, Xavi Bou was walking around the Catalan countryside, taking a breather from the bustle of Barcelona city life. At the time he was working in fashion photography, but he’d always held a love and appreciation for nature. From a young age he’d been a hobbyist bird watcher after his grandfather took him out on walks, pointing out the diverse species that they would see. Taking in the wildlife around him, he stopped in his tracks. In front of him, carved into the ground, was a well-defined animal’s pawprint – the static remnants of a moment of motion – which gave him pause for thought.

“I thought about what kind of tracks would birds leave in the sky,” Bou recalls. “So I imagined planes and the lines they leave behind, and that it could be cool to make this visible, because different types of birds have different types of flight and behaviour.”

Fratercula arctica , Atlantic Puffin, Isle of Mingulay, Scotland, 2022

The idea sparked an eight-year-long project and a new photobook, Ornithographies, in which he reimagined the medium of photography itself. Through using high resolution, high frames-per-second cameras usually reserved for cinema, he collected thousands of images that he would combine in post-production to create a single image that visually captures the movement of different birds – of flight itself.

“It’s not classical photography, just a long exposure doesn’t work,” Bou explains. “I realised that what I need to do is take many pictures per second and stitch it altogether in a single image. So I recorded motion and then an algorithm allowed me to merge all those images [together] with a changing background.”

The series is a radically original take on traditional wildlife photography that challenges our understanding the world around us. There are beautiful DNA-esque oscillations, Pollock-reminiscent splashes, and co-ordinated masses as huge flocks fly in unison. “It’s important that the result is real flight, not an interpretation of it, so if you look at my pictures you don’t see the birds,” he says. “You lose the shape of the bird and what appears is this new organic shape – this natural movement.”

Sturnus vulgaris , Common Starling, Castelló d’Empúries, Catalonia, 2022

Most of the pictures are taken in Catalonia, within a short distance of Bou’s home. He originally thought of giving it a global focus, but becoming a father made him realise that he didn’t need to jet across continents to find beautiful birds and their flight. “In the beginning, I thought that to do a project like this, I needed to travel around the world and make these huge trips that these explorers do,” he says. “Obviously I want to spend time with my children, but honestly I don’t need to go very far for this project – we have really amazing nature around here and most species [I photograph] are common species, not rare ones. It’s also an opportunity to tell people the importance of close nature, common nature and the nature in the city – it’s a call to people to stop and watch the sky.”

Within an ever-worsening climate crisis, as the destruction of natural habitats and changing weather patterns threaten the wildlife around us and the existence of several species, Bou hopes his pictures can encourage people to be more conscious of their impact on the world. “My work is to engage people,” he says. “To be aware of nature, to be an activist, and to have a sustainable life, first of all you need to know what is around you.

“I think if people are aware of what they could lose, they would take it more seriously – if suddenly one year swifts didn’t come I will cry for sure, my life would be so sad if we lost our biodiversity,” he continues. “I think my type of photography, it’s a way to connect with nature through art.”

Delichon urbicum , Common House Martin, Vic, Catalonia, 2021

Ornithothraphies by Xavi Bou is published by Lynx Nature Books

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