Cabinet, Issue 18, Summer 2005
by Charles Green
Lynne Roberts-Goodwin’s Bad Birds are portraits of long-dead birds from the collection of the Department of Ornithology at the Australian Museum in Sydney. They were photographed in the artist’s studio with the assistance of Dr Walter Bowles, the Department’s Head Veterinarian, and his assistants.
The initial twenty portraits were made from the Australian Avian collection, including native Australian bird species such as the Budgerigar and the Ring-Necked Parrot. The birds were placed as if they were in a museum diorama but without the painted backdrop. They all face away from the camera, but are nevertheless easily identifiable as species by plumage, markings, and relative differences in upper-body proportions. The absence of the face confounds our anthropomorphic projections, frustrating our tendency to want to read certain kinds of temperament or character into the faces of animals. Of course, even though the frontal view isn’t really necessary for species classification, it helps immeasurably in the identification of individuals, as official identity documents such as passports have long demonstrated. Indeed, a different strand of Roberts-Goodwin’s own work acknowledges the utility of the conventional portrait view.
In another of her animal projects, she worked with scientists on location at isolated royal falcon preserves in the Persian Gulf, in Oman, and the United Arab Emirates, recording royal hunting birds who were deliberately posed facing the camera in order to satisfy her royal clients. Roberts-Goodwin is now helping ornithologists in the region to develop animal passports that will at some point assist in the regulation of the international rare species trade and the eradication of the illicit hunting-bird market.
The reason why Roberts-Goodwin’s bird photographs can simultaneously function in both artistic and ornithological spheres is that her images are highly exact, which is to say that the metonymy of plumage enables a surprising degree of information. For the Bad Birds she knew that rear-facing and less conventionally informative views would show the color shifts and marks in plumage that differentiate males from females and juveniles from adults, and even breeding from non’breeding birds. But at the same time she understood that turning the birds away, despite the ornithologically functional result, would inevitably suggest that she — or the birds — refused to disclose something essential of their character.
Her series’ title, Bad Birds amplifies this uncertainty. For much as we might like to project human emotions onto birds (and imagine that these once-talkative animals are like bad children, told to stand in a corner, face to the wall, or else suppose instead that the birds are shy, refusing to meet the camera’s gaze), it is more the case that her Bad Birds are, first, the museum’s imperfect, bad specimens and, second, that the categorization implied by Bad Birds invites precisely the kinds of psychological projection described above, even if to confound it by a studied, documentary neutrality.
— Charles Green