Field Notes: Falco peregrinus

Last week, my assistant and I travelled back to Chicago for another go at creating images in the Field Museum’s ornithological collection. The trip yielded another batch of successful plates- both on ruby glass and metal- which join the collection of images I’ve been building.

In an effort to accumulate a strong body of work for this project, my inspiration has grown from solely grassland passerines to include the Peregrine Falcon. My interest was initially sparked by my Field Museum contact, Mary Hennen, assistant collections manager in the bird division of the museum and director of the Chicago Peregrine Program.

DDT, an organochlorine insecticide, is widely acknowledged to be linked to the thinning of eggshells of birds such as Bald Eagles and Peregrine Falcons, which heightened the eggs’ fragility, making them more vulnerable to being accidentally crushed. This put a pressure on Peregrine populations, and as a result they were wiped out in the Midwest. But unlike many extirpated species, the Peregrines are making a comeback- due in part to the hard work of the folks running recovery programs like the Chicago Peregrine Project (https://www.facebook.com/IllinoisPeregrines).

Holding in my hands the study skins of three individuals who once were part of Chicago’s Peregrine population, the uniqueness of their plumage struck me. One was transitioning between his juvenile and adult plumage, the striking result was a mixture of mature and immature calico coloration. I marvel at their beauty and their story of resurgence.

Be sure to check out the Chicago Peregrine Program’s website…there’s a great map feature that pinpoints actual Peregrine territories! (http://www.fieldmuseum.org/science/special-projects/illinois-peregrines).

2 former Chicago residents.
2 former Chicago residents.
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Field Museum Sneak Peek

The Field Museum
The Field Museum
On the inside looking out!
On the inside looking out!

As artists we constantly strive for inspiration- it’s our bread and butter. Over the past two years, I’ve drawn much influence from natural history- specifically antique ornithological study skins and mounts. Unlocking a museum cabinet to find a specimen collected in the summer of 1891 (complete with handwritten tag from that year) is a thrill akin to discovering hidden treasure. There’s a connection between these old birds and the wet plate collodion process I’m using to capture them.

Last week I was lucky enough to spend a few days immersed in the ornithological collection at Chicago’s Field Museum. I loaded all my equipment onto two carts and wheeled my giant camera and tiny darkroom right into the midst of a collection spanning more that 500,000 specimens. As I mentioned in my last post, Dr. Sharon Gill of Western Michigan University and I have been working for the last year or so on developing a multimedia project featuring her scientific expertise and work with audio recording as well as my photographs. Being able to pull specific species from specific localities was a pivotal factor in our project that really would not have been possible without access to the Field Museum’s collection. Because of this, a great deal of gratitude is owed on my part to the fantastic folks stewarding the bird collection Field Museum.

The key to unlocking these treasures lies within a birding field guide, an old green booklet filled with Latin names and corresponding cabinet numbers, and an investigative outlook. Armed with these things, two days worth of work spawned a collection of 7.5×9.5 images on ruby glass. The “ruby glass” is a touch that I found lended itself well to the subject matter. The color is actually more of an amethyst, which gave great depth to the detailed specimen plumage, as you can see.

A ruby plate just after being developed
A ruby plate just after being developed
My Deardorff camera
My Deardorff camera
The keys to the collection...
The keys to the collection…

A Dying Art

Before instagram and iPhones, even before film, photographers captured their subjects in dagguerreotypes. Dagguerreotypes- recognized as the earliest photographic process- eventually gave way to the colloidion process.

Drawing inspiration from historical photographers, equipped with a small portable darkroom and an 8×10 Deardorff camera, I’ve recently had the good fortune to be welcomed into the ornithological collections at Western Michigan University and the Chicago Field Museum to create collodion images of bird specimens. In partnership with Dr. Sharon Gill, a project incorporating audio, photographs, and scientific data is currently in the works.

Two Old Crows: Tucked away in tissue paper, a chance discovery in the ornithological collection at Western Michigan University.
Two Old Crows: Tucked away in tissue paper, a chance discovery in the ornithological collection at Western Michigan University.