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Beauty in a Bird's Wing

The stark beauty of a dead bird's wing gives photographer Jim Richardson a new perspective on the North Atlantic.

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Contributing editor Jim Richardson is a photojournalist recognized for his explorations of small-town life. His photos appear frequently in National Geographic magazine.

I looked strange, exceedingly strange. But I’ve done that before, and appearances haven’t stopped me yet.

We were on the shore of Thistilfjordur (whose proper name in Icelandic is Þistilfjörður, but we'll just call it Thistle Fjord). It was a sunny day on the Red Peninsula. Some of us had taken the long hike along the cliffs, and some had enjoyed the kayaking in the bay. Some had just sat in the sun by the waterfall.

For my part, I was trying to photograph the feathers on the wing of a fulmar, or it could have been a gull. (It definitely wasn't a puffin. Even I can identify a puffin with certainty.) No, that wasn’t the strange part. It was that the bird was dead (still not really strange) and had, well, sort of come apart. Others in our group had photographed this poor bird’s wing as I was now doing but they had seen fit not to pick it up and examine it at close quarters.

Not me. A quick examination revealed a minimum of creepy-crawlies. So I began holding it close to my lens, twisting it first this way and then that, exploring how it reflected the clear Icelandic light, how the white of the wing harmonized with the blue sea and sky, how the intricate, delicate pattern of the vanes played out in my viewfinder, and marveling at the structure of barbs and hamuli deep down at the macro level.

That’s what made me look really strange. As guests came down the beach heading back to the National Geographic Explorer ship, they paused to stare and puzzle. Occasionally someone would inquire just what the heck I was doing.

When I look for beauty, I tend to drift off and become oblivious to social expectations, and this wing was beautiful. The gleaming white patterns were graceful. The sky was the blue of the far north. Playing with my tilt-and-shift lens, I set it so that just a slash of the wing would be sharp, letting the rest drift off into softness. I hoped the image suggested the pristine splendor of the North Atlantic.

Something about this image made me feel good. I had vowed to explore new ways of seeing on this voyage, and I felt I had done something that was, for me, novel. My images tend to be descriptive, but this was suggestive, leaving much to the imagination while still speaking of place.

I put the bird's wing down on the beach where I found it and offered a little thanks. The bird had helped me. I felt good as I walked away.

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