Birds: Poetry in the Sky
By Brian E. Clark
Artist, photographer and filmmaker Christian Spencer grew up in Australia. But it wasn’t until he moved to South America 22 years ago – after marrying a Brazilian – that he fell in love with hummingbirds, which he says “live in another time and space.”
The result is “Birds – Poetry In The Sky,” a coffee table book filled with photos of dozens of stunning, iridescent hummingbirds taken in Itatiaia National park in Brazil. The mountainous preserve, which is two hours from Rio de Janeiro, is home to 11 species of Trochilidae, the scientific name for hummingbirds. (Some other species were photographed in Australia.)
“A lot of birds – when they are sitting on a branch – can look pretty plain,” he said. “But when they start flying, that’s when the poetry starts to happen.”
The cover photo is called Rainbow Ballet and is of a Black Jacobin hummingbird hovering in front of the sun on a misty morning in an Atlantic rainforest. Its wings look like rainbows, an effect that can only be seen in certain conditions and when the action is stopped by a camera’s shutter.
The results are spectacular.
This is how Spencer describes the cover photo and other hummingbird shots:
“Due to a mix of atmospheric conditions and the texture of the hummingbirds’ delicate feathers, the sun passing through the plumed filter created a prism effect, filling the wings of the tiny bird with a wash of rainbows.”
Spencer said he discovered this phenomenon in 2011 when he was making the movie “The Dance of Time,” which won numerous international awards.
“The film opens with the scene of the hummingbirds in front of the sun in slow motion, revealing the ‘secret of the rainbows,’” he said. “Their wings beat about 60 times per second. When slowed to about 5 percent of that speed, the prisms and rainbows appear. This is a natural effect and contains no digital manipulation and cannot be seen with our eyes.”
“While trying to make a photo for the DVD cover I took most of the photos and achieved the same effect,” he said. Those shots were released as a series called ‘Winged Prisms’ and led to the “Poetry” book, which was published the teNeus Publishing Group in 2022.
“Hummingbirds are challenging to photograph, but I was lucky to shoot them in a way that no one had ever seen before,” he said.
Ironically, Spencer only purchased his first still camera eight years ago.
“I’m an artist first and have survived mostly as a painter for the past 25 years,” explained Spencer. Fifteen years ago, he made his first film and then “The Dance of Time.” The opening sequence of that film is of hummingbirds from his veranda flying against the sun with rainbows appearing through their wings.
“Three years later, I decided to try to capture the same thing with a photographic camera,” said Spencer, who used a Cannon T6i Rebel, which he describes as “semi-professional.”
“For me, it’s more about having the vision and trying to capture something rather than having the most advanced equipment,” he said. “I’ve never been to art school or studied photography. When I take photos or paint, I’m always going in directions you probably aren’t supposed to. But that’s what makes my work special, I guess. My idea of what is beautiful comes from painting.”
Spencer continues to create large paintings.
“But photography became a big challenge to try and capture a glimpse of the infinite and that frozen second,” he said. “It is difficult to take that iconic photo that no one will ever be able to take again or has ever taken before. That is the challenge for me. I’m not interested in shooting photos that people have already taken.
“I now look at photography as an interesting art form, but it can be limiting at times as well. Sometimes you can only take one really, really good photo once a year or maybe once in a lifetime.
“So painting is still good for me because you can always keep challenging yourself and there are no boundaries or rules with painting. In photography, you are limited by the light or if the animals are even going to appear. Not even I can reproduce some of my photos.”
Spencer said the day he photographed the Rainbow Ballet shot, there was a fine haze in the atmosphere that affected the color of the light. The sun was rising behind the hummingbird, glancing off its neck while the wings filtered the light.
“It was one of those magical moments where everything aligned,” he said. “Everything was in focus. I’ve tried about 100,000 times to take a better photo than that and I never got another one as good.”
Spencer said he does not use filters to enhance his photographs.
I’m strong on that,” he said. “I’ve never used any kind of Photoshop, LightRoom or other editing software. I don’t have them on my computer and I don’t even know how to use them. I’m not interested in digital manipulation of my photos. I want my photos to be natural. So my photos are exactly how they come out of the camera.”
The second chapter, titled “Feathered Jewels” captures light bouncing off iridescent hummingbirds during rainstorms.
“I wanted to photograph them a different way,” he said. “So I would wait until the very first storm in the afternoon and the very first raindrops that land on the hummingbirds. The result is a lot of crystal balls on their wings. They are actually raindrops sitting on top of the feathers, which gives it an interesting perspective.”
“It comes as no surprise that the sacred cloak of the last Aztec king – Montezuma – was made from thousands of hummingbird feathers that apparently shone like rainbows and precious stones in the sunlight,” he wrote in the book. “The coat thus resembled the most important Aztec god, Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent.”
Spencer said he considers his tome more of an “art book than a photography book. The camera is my brush. It doesn’t really matter if you like birds or animals. ‘Poetry In The Sky” is a journey into beauty – through the world of birds.”
The 45-year-old Spencer returned to Australia in 2014 to photograph fowl. Some of them made it into his book, including a shot (pages 186 and 187) of Galah parrots flying away from a tree in the middle of the desert. It’s in the “Birds in Flight” section.
“That photo changed my life because it won so many awards,” he said.
He said he is especially fond of a photo (pages 142 and 143) of a trio of maroon-bellied parakeets he calls “Three Amigos.” He said they remind him of a 1987 shot of musicians Bob Marley, Mick Jagger and Peter Tosh, “who all look stoned and are smiling like they just smoked the biggest joint ever.
“I really wanted to call that photo ‘Bob, Mick and Peter,” he quipped.
And one of this writer’s favorite shots in the book is the photo (pages 202 and 203) of a Tawny Frogmouth Spencer photographed in Australia’s Outback. It has bark-colored plumage and a large head that make it look more like a piece of the tree limb on which it is perched than a bird.
“It resembles an owl and is almost completely camouflaged on the tree trunk,” he said. “It eats insects, is nocturnal and really looks prehistoric.”
Spencer said he isn’t sure what’s next for him.
“I’d love to do a book on my paintings,” mused Spencer, who lives in a village inside Itatiaia National Park.
“But my other passion is taking photos of pumas and jaguars,” he said. “I use a specific type of trap photography camera. I set it up in the forest and it takes beautifully resolutioned photos of those rare animals as they pass by.
“Instead of birds, perhaps the next one will be on cats and other rare mammals in the natural world.”
Brian E. Clark is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer and photographer who contributes to the Chicago Tribune and LA Times on a regular basis. A native of Iowa, Clark is a University of Colorado, Boulder, graduate who focuses on adventure travel. He’s a veteran whitewater kayaker and skier who has lived in Norway, Sweden, Brazil and Bolivia. He worked for newspapers in Washington State and California for 25 years, including the San Diego Union-Tribune, before returning to the Midwest. He manages to head back West several times a year when he’s not off in other corners of the globe. Or poking around Wisconsin.