Birds, Poetry in the Sky | An interview with photographer Christian Spencer

We speak to Christian Spencer, an Australian wildlife photographer who's travelled the world capturing birds, and now lives in the Brazilian rainforest. 

Christian Spencer

Image editing is part and parcel of most photographers’ jobs nowadays, but you choose not to doctor your shots digitally. Why?

There’s a fine line between digital art and photography. It’s frightening what some photographers do to manipulate their images and still call it photography. If you can’t photograph something and account for the medium’s limitations, it could still be an excellent idea for a painting. Because I have my art to fall back on, I don’t feel so much pressure to manipulate my photos. Actual photography, in my opinion, captures a fleeting moment that’s gone forever. If the moment is captured well, you shouldn’t have to touch it.

How much patience does one need when photographing birds?

Taking photographs such as the ones in this book takes thousands and thousands of hours in nature, observing and waiting. It has to be real love and passion for being amongst nature for such long periods. But after so much dedication, you can capture things that no one has ever photographed.

christian spencer

In 2001, you upped sticks from Australia to the Brazilian Rainforest. It must have been quite the experience. How did that come about?

I met my Brazilian wife in Adelaide, Australia, in 1998. After we got married, we left Australia to visit her family in Brazil. We found a house in the Rainforest and have lived here for 22 years.

The Rainforest in Brazil reminded me of those in Australia, but there are still significant differences. Here in South America, pumas lurk amongst the trees. We were immediately seduced by their presence. I’ve monitored and photographed all the National Park pumas for 14 years. There’s a permanent exhibition of these photos at the visitor centre.

What bird species have been the toughest to catch on camera?

Hummingbirds are always challenging because of the speed at which they fly. But all flying birds are challenging, whether in the Australian desert or the Rainforest. There is always a lot of luck and usually the right place and time. But I’m lucky: I’m guided by a kind of photographic spirit that generally points me in the right direction.

christian spencer

What do you want people to feel when they look at your images?

I want people who see the book to be enchanted by the pure beauty of nature. Most subjects in these pages are the secrets of wildlife seen in a different light or from an alternative angle. Some moments captured will never be seen again by human eyes, which makes them extremely powerful.

Where did your fascination with birds come from?

Growing up in Australia, I was fascinated by nature from a very early age. I started to collect birds of prey feathers at the age of 12. It was this interest in the beauty of the feathers which made me learn which birds they came from. A whole world of beauty and fascinating natural history opened up to me.

How did that translate into photography?

I started professionally painting about 25 years ago. Then in 2008, I made my first film, the first of three art films on nature. The movie went on to win 19 awards in international film festivals. It was only in 2014 that I bought my first photo camera and started on the Winged Prism photographic series. It was a natural move into photography that I found easy, having already seen the world through a frame for a long time. So, all the photos in the book have been taken in the past eight years.

Christian Spencer

christian spencer

How would you describe your style?

I try to paint with the camera, using its lens as a brush.

You also use canvas, film and music to portray nature as artwork. What is your favourite medium to use?

I enjoy all of them at different moments, but I’m glad I’m a painter. It takes up to three weeks of deep manual labour and energy to finish a painting. That time and energy usually shine through somehow in the paint and sweat.

christian spencer

How did you select the favourite images for your new book?

I was fortunate to have a great editor, Birthe Vogelmann, who guided me through the process. I trusted her enormously. I also owe an outstanding debt to my book designer, Eva Stadler, who perfectly compiled the contents.

Birds – Poetry in the Sky by Christian Spencer is published by teNeues.

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