Stephen Gill, Gill and the Birds: A Photographic Code of Ethics — Alexis Desgagnés

[Winter 2020]

Par Alexis Desgagnés

On the threshold of my teenage years, my greatest passion was to observe birds. I spent countless hours, binoculars hung around my neck, prowling slowly, silently, through woods and meadows, looking out for a rare gem! When I was thirteen, a camera, a gift from my stepmother, replaced the binoculars, gradually turning my destiny from ornithology toward art. I still remember how surprised I was at my first photographs – of birds, of course. Photographed with a 50 mm lens, the birds in these pictures were simply indistinct points in vast landscapes. Quickly, my disappointment in these pathetic images gave way to a question, which seems today to have been the origin of my reflections on art: how does one photograph birds?

Implicitly underlying this seemingly simple quandary, which I attempted to solve by obvious technical means (refining the approach to the subject, using a telephoto lens), was intuitively inscribed a fundamental questions of principle, which spoke to me about the close relationship between ornithology and photography. What does it mean to observe? How is the subjectivity of the one who observes tied to the objectivity of the one who is observed? What is the gaze? What is a point of view? Years later, I found echoes of these preoccupations in books by English photographer Stephen Gill, especially in The Pillar, which received the Author Book Award at Les Rencontres d’Arles 2019.

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