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A real tweet

by Dr Sarah Engledow, 9 March 2016

Sarah Engledow plays wingman to Leila Jeffreys.

Commander Skyring, Gang-gang cockatoo by Leila Jeffreys
Commander Skyring, Gang-gang cockatoo by Leila Jeffreys

Knowing even a bit about birds, we know they don’t get dressed. What they’ve got on, they don’t put on. In Leila Jeffreys’ photographs, every bird is naked - and entirely comfortable with it. Yet, as I look at them, I keep thinking of words like 'raiment' and 'livery'. Look at the black silk attire of the red-tailed black cockatoos, hairpins of glass and amber beads, gorgets spangled with gold, scalloped and tiered satin opera capes; the tiny fluffy trousers on the boobook owl, a creature from a fable; the gannet's breast plumage, like furled curled petals of a Chinese white chrysanthemum; the sheath over the miniscule silvereye, filaments of mythological metals - silver, gold and gamboge - wrought by fairies. 

That’s just the first paragraph of the florid and digressive introduction to the book Birdland, in which I used every adjective I know. 

Leila Jeffreys, represented by Olsen Irwin Gallery, is a fine-art photographer who has exhibited in Sydney, Melbourne, London, New York, Hong Kong and Singapore. She specialises in stark, warm portraits of birds, taken against plain backdrops under lights in a portable studio she invented. Mostly, she finds her subjects through her network of birdwatchers, sanctuaries, rescue centres and wildlife carers. Since her childhood in New Guinea, Western Australia and India, she’s been friends with animals; an intense dedication to species protection informs her work. While utterly contemporary, the book’s an elegant, distinctly feminine descendant of the renowned 'Exhibit Format' volumes that contributed profoundly to the establishment of the American conservation movement in the 1960s.   

Three elements of Jeffreys' works are characteristic. First, in her portraits there’s nothing to compete with the birds' own texture. In contrast to their cousins in wildlife photographs, the subjects aren’t peeking from under grevilleas or between grass blades, perched atop rocks, flying against clouds. Secondly, for the very brief, strange period of their lives that they’re being photographed, the birds inhabit a shadowless place. Thirdly, Jeffreys’ photographs are printed to huge scale, enabling us to see and conceive of birds in a way that even the greatest ornithological illustrators couldn’t and can’t offer us. Until I looked at Leila’s photographs, I never really considered the way feathers fitted around a bird, for example. Certainly, I hadn’t observed the different positions of birds’ nares, or the different textures of their ceres.  Actually I neither knew what nares or ceres were, nor that some birds have them and some don’t. Of course I knew that birds had eyes, but not that they came in so many different colours. It turns out birds’ eyes - even wrens' - aren’t just little black beads. Fancy that!

Looking through her viewfinder, Leila can’t instruct a bird to bring his right foot forward a little, put his wings by his side or raise his beak a fraction. Yet it’s the expressiveness that viewers perceive in the birds that makes her pictures portraits. She brings a unique combination of technical skill, ingenuity, patience and empathy to her work; the results are objective and celebratory at the same time. It’s open to discussion whether her chief skill lies in coaxing a look out of a bird through her ability to form a bond; or in selecting, from a brace of photographs, the one - it might be one she didn’t even know she was taking, at the time - that best reflects her understanding of that bird’s personality. Principally, she reveals what we habitually miss, either because we don’t register the presence of a bird at all, or a bird we do notice is too small to see properly, or doesn’t stay still for inspection. When Leila works with birds, she talks to them. Talking to wrens and finches is fairly unrewarding; all she can do with subjects like that is wait until they stare at her lens. Other species, though, are liable to respond to her wheedling; with a head tilt, perhaps, a change of stance or a glance. Some birds will offer up a range of looks, varying greatly, as her relationship with them develops. The process isn’t easy, technically; but it’s simple, emotionally; it’s honest. The moment you meet Leila, you see why the birds like her. 

If I may borrow a phrase from Sir Robert Menzies - as I think I will, more often, from now on - it’s my melancholy duty to inform you officially that in contemporary Australia, one rarely experiences the enjoyment of looking at an image of a vivacious person, effortlessly inhabiting well-fitted garments of rich cloth and intense colour. Scuffing around in this endearingly casual country, we can only yearn for one of the traditional joys of portraiture: the clothes. The cut, colour and texture of the plumage combine with the stately, haughty or droll attitudes of the subjects in Leila’s pictures to comprise objects of art that are luxurious pleasures in themselves; but that also expand our joyous understanding of the world we inhabit, yet see so incompletely, in the short time we have here.