Almost two dozen years ago I took an introduction to photography course in college. These were always popular but one of the nice things about being a design major was that priority was given to anyone who could use the course as one of their requirements. My instructor was Lukas Felzmann, at the time a relatively new lecturer but who’s still teaching today. He was good. I imagine that beginning photography is simultaneously wonderful and a drag. Great to introduce students to art. But you also have to suffer though what students think Art™ is and how they think it should be discussed.
He had a pretty loose hand in the class. Simple assignments like a self portrait or creating in a sequence of 5 photos. I was shooting a Nikomat FTn with an ancient 50mm ƒ/1.4 lens and we were doing all our own development and printing in the darkroom. I never liked developing. I loved printing though and miss the magic of seeing things emerge in the developer.
Class mainly involved looking at photos. Getting a basic introduction to the black and white canon. Looking at our own work. Us talking about what we liked. Felzmann talking about why things were noteworthy. He also did something very cool in that he showed us his own work. Not in a sense of “I’m so good” but in a sense of fairness. Art class is kind of a scary thing because you have to put yourself out there with every assignment and it’s nice for the teacher to include themselves in that.
I’m surprised at how much of his work I remember now. Camera obscura stuff which he was doing at the same time as Abelardo Morell. Weird little sculptures of string, sticks, and rocks which he created in the field as subjects for large-format photographs as well as in the gallery to be displayed with the photographs.
And then there were his bird photos.
A large part of his presentation consisted of photos of flocks of birds. Highish contrast so the birds were mostly silhouetted agains a flat grey sky. I don’t think I quite understood them at the time. As much as they invited careful looking (I remember him being passionate about little details in the frames such as how they look almost bomb-like when their wings aren’t extended) they didn’t grab me as photos.
Flash forward a dozen years and the photography bug has not only bitten me really hard but I’m actively viewing, taking, and writing about photographs. I’m even taking photos of birds* which means that I’m spending even more time just watching birds fly—sometimes solitary, other times in flocks.
*Oof that blog post has not aged well as the changes WordPress has made to how linked images work have torn apart all my careful HTML sizing.
And yeah Felzmann’s bird photos came back to me whenever I would watch a flock of birds do its thing. The ones by my work were countershaded so not only were the flocking shapes interesting they shimmered as the birds turned and I got a glimpse of their white undersides. But I remember seeing flocks in the city taking off of building tops and casting shadows of mirror flocks on the building sides as they swooped around.
Many times I’d just watch and forget to pick up my camera. Other times I’d try and take a photo and be disappointed with every single frame. Every. Single. Frame. Part of this is a lack of skill. Another is a lack of equipment. But the largest part was actually the mindset that I had to get it right in a single image.
Around this same time I noticed Felzmann’s book had come out. I added it to my Amazon wish list because it reminded me of where I started as a photographer and I felt it would be nice to own a memento of those years. But I also had a suspicion that the finished project would be much more up my alley than it had been when I was an undergraduate. It took another decade years for me to actually get the book (too many books, not enough time) but I finally go it as a gift last Christmas and was very pleased to find out that my suspicions were correct.
My problem when I was a student and when I was birding was that I was operating in the mindset that each photograph needs to be of something. Yes, many of the photos in the book are beautiful frames in and of their own accord. But that’s not the point. As a group? That’s where the magic is.
Felzmann realized that filling a book with a series of swarm images is the best way to convey the experience of actually watching the swarm. This isn’t a moody book like Fukase’s Ravens; it’s joyous in the way that watching a flock of birds swarm is one of those things that makes you feel alive because nature is so beautiful.
There are images of swarms in the landscape. Images which are edge-to-edge birds. Images which are only a couple birds. Images where the birds are strong distinct silhouettes. Images where the birds are almost lost in the atmospheric haze.
We’re invited to look closely but the images also hold our hands in this. Multiple pages of the same framing with just the flock changing gives us a sense of movement. Other times it feels like we’re zooming in and getting right into the middle of things so we can notice details we didn’t notice before. Like those aforementioned bomb shapes but also “intruders” in the flock which are both disrupting and causing the flock activity.
It’s a book that works as both a slow deep look and a quick skim but in both cases is something that offers a whole host of new observations each time. I can’t point out to any individual images or moments that caught my attention. Instead it’s the way it made me feel and reminded me of those moments where, despite carrying a camera which was intended to help me focus my observation, I just forgot myself and watched nature unfold.
I’m a bit upset at myself that it took me this long to get this book. It would’ve been useful a decade ago in terms of guiding my birding photography and it definitely would’ve been useful in guiding my editing. It is however a nice thing to realize that I can still learn from my photography instructor decades after taking his class.
Even though I’m no longer really birding, this approach to a project and how it can capture the feeling through multiple images rather than anything specific is one that’ll stick with me. And as I’m putting family photos into albums I’ll also be keeping similar principles in mind.