Trending: The Beauty of Pigeons and the People Who Love Them

By David Schonauer   Monday March 12, 2018

Pigeons are in vogue. Visually, at least.

A new book called  The New York Pigeon, from photographer Andrew Garn, views the birds in a glamorous light with studio-style portraiture worthy of a fashion magazine and high-speed strobe images that capture them in flight.

The book, notes publisher powerHouse Books, “is the product of eight years of passionate photographic inquiry of pigeons' undeniable power and allure. As seen on the cover of New York magazine and The New York Times, Garn’s dramatic, hyper-real studio portraits capture the personalities, expressiveness, the glorious feather iridescence, and deeply-hued eyes of our often overlooked, city-dwelling brethren.” Garn also uses high-speed strobes to capture the birds in flight. Garn, a native New Yorker, finds common creatures that are gritty, resilient, and uncommonly beautiful

Meanwhile, National Geographic  spotlights the work of photographer Charlie Hamilton James, who has taken an inside look at a community pigeon keepers in Brooklyn, who work daily to feed, clean, medicate, and exercise their birds, keeping them in top shape to fly them against rival flocks.

The New York Pigeon

In 2008, photographer Andrew Garn was looking for a new subject, and, he told New York magazine, “pigeons just seemed sort of unexplored, like, why not?” Since then, he’s photographed thousands and thousands of pigeons, at coops, in homes, and at the Wild Bird Fund, a rescue center. His work has been featured in a number of exhibitions and is now compiled in The New York Pigeon, from powerHouse Books.

“I always thought they were kind of gross and they poop everywhere,'' Garn told The New York Times  in 2011. After he began handling them and observing them at close range, he was struck by the beauty of their intricate feather patterns and color variations, as well as the birds’ prehistoric feet.

Garn, a fine art and editorial photographer whose work has appeared in Fortune, Forbes, Interview, Vogue, Vibe, Time, Newsweek, Der Spiegel, French Photo, and Elle Décor, used what he calls a ''bird box’'—made out of whatever material he had on hand, including a jacket—to create a dark backdrop for his portraits. He told The Times he avoids drinking coffee on days when he handles the birds to keep the anxiety levels of both man and bird in check.

“As a photographer, you want people to look at things that they don't even look at,” Garn told The Times. “And that's the trick: to make things look more appealing than they are. It's not always possible, but with pigeons it is.’'

Garn’s new book also tells the 5,000-year story of the feral pigeon and explains why pigeons are so successful in cities, why they have such diverse plumage, and how pigeons adapted to survive on almost any food. Their magnificent flying ability, for instance, harkens back to their origin on cliff sides, where they had no protection from enemies.

“They’re one of the most maneuverable birds in the world,” Garn noted in New York magazine.

The Pigeon People of Brooklyn

Photographer Charlie Hamilton James has seen a lot of the world and experienced nature in its varied forms. While working on a BBC television series and shooting stills for National in the Amazon rainforest of Peru, he caught the flesh-eating disease leishmaniasis. “This wasn’t my first experience with a rare disorder—in 2012, also while working in the Amazon, I got a botfly in my head. Weirdly I’ve always had a fascination with botflies,” he told Nat Geo’s Proof blog in 2014.

Another time, in an attempt to save a patch of rainforest land from illegal loggers, he bought it, only to find out later that it was in fact a coca plantation. As James related in The Guardian, he was told by a local, “You have bought the most dangerous piece of land, off the most dangerous family, in the most dangerous area of southern Peru.”

Compared to that crowd, the pigeon keepers James met in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn were kindly souls — though, he told National Geographic, that they weren’t easy to find.

“After their leads dried up, James and assistant photographer George McKenzie, Jr.  resorted to approaching people on the street in order to gain access to the complex but cagey subculture,” notes National Geographic. “One suspicious stoop-dwelling flier was convinced of their good intentions only after seeing James’s National Geographic business card and verified Instagram.”

Brooklyn’s pigeon-flying tradition sprang from the borough’s Italian enclave, but, notes Geographic, it has  become important to African American and Hispanic Brooklynites as well.

“What’s hilarious is that everyone does it wrong, according to the person next to them,” says James. “It’s not just between uncle and nephew. If they look across at another loft, it’s, ‘They don’t know how to keep pigeons. None of these guys.’”

Gentrification is doing away with the tradition of pigeon-keeping: “McKenzie estimates about 60 percent of Bushwick’s pigeon lofts have been removed in the last decade, the birds sold or given away as buildings are bought up for condominium remodeling,” notes Geographic.


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