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The Art of Birds, Revealed Through an Altered Reality

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Great Egret In the Desert, 2012 This close up, photographed at J.N. Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island in Florida, is juxtaposed against the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes in Death Valley.

At first glance, these birds wowed me. A few seconds later I started to wonder, Are they real?

Well … yes. And no.

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Grey Crowned Cranes Each crowned crane was photographed on an acacia tree near Richards Camp in Masai Mara, Kenya. Mount Kenya was photographed from a Cessna.

Before attempting to explain what’s going on in these images, the artist, Cheryl Medow, might appreciate you taking a similar approach to experiencing her photography as she does to making it. “I don’t think my pictures through,” she says, “I feel them.”

She described this incident to me: Visitors at one of her gallery shows were asking questions about how she creates her work, and she was answering. But then a guest approached her and said, “No, no, no, don’t say a thing. I just want to enjoy these pictures.” It was then that she realized that she was looking for an emotional reaction, for people to enjoy looking at the work without having all the answers.

So please: Look. Enjoy. Feel.

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Roseate Spoonbills Each bird was photographed at St. Augustine’s Farm in Florida. This is where they nest in the spring. The waves were shot in Hanalei Bay, Kauai.
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Cattle Egret Portrait ”During mating season the cattle egret colors are like a rainbow,” says Medow. This portrait was photographed in Florida, with the pattern of sand dunes from Death Valley in the background.
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White Ibis With Fish This white ibis with his seaweed and fish catch were photographed at J.N. Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island, Florida. The background clouds and surf were shot in Hanalei Bay, Kauai.

But if you’re like me, you still want to know the story behind these images. So here goes.

These are real birds, photographed in the wild. They are also pictured in real landscapes. And both parts of the images are photographed by Medow. But they weren’t captured at the same time and often not in the same place.

Why does she go to the trouble of capturing these stunning birds in the wild and then transposing them somewhere else?

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Great Blue Heron With Chicks Balancing on a branch, the great blue heron was photographed at the Venice Rookery in Venice, Florida, along with the chicks in a nest. The background was photographed in Bigfork, Montana.
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Greater Flamingo I This flamingo was photographed on Isabela Island in the Galápagos in a brackish saltwater lagoon. The clouds were also photographed in the Galápagos on a different day.

It all started because she was photographing birds with a 600mm lens. And when you shoot birds with a lens that long, the rest of the background becomes blurry—the birds wind up being the only thing in the frame that’s in focus. All context is lost. She wanted to put the birds back into an environment, so she began creating composite images.

At first she was just placing the birds into photos of the landscapes where she’d originally shot them. But then she realized she could take it to another level—she could put the birds anywhere and at any scale.

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Saddle-Billed Storks This mother and baby were photographed in the Masai Mara Game Reserve. The landscape was shot by plane in the same area, traveling from Sirikoi Lewa Wildlife Conservancy in Laikipia to Richards Camp in Masai Mara.

“I’m an artist first, and photography is a tool that I use to be creative,” she says. “When I picked up the camera and the computer it opened up new possibilities for me. I can make the birds much larger than life. It draws attention to these guys that if you just saw them in the wild with the naked eye you wouldn’t see.”

She draws inspiration from the Hudson River School painters. “They took their sketchpads and went out, as I take my camera and go out, and they got sketches of all these different things. And when they went back to their studios and made their paintings, they combined the different elements that they had seen out in the field. So when the normal person went to the Hudson River and looked for the pictures they couldn’t find some of them. And that’s because they weren’t out there in the real world. Even the painters had manipulated what they had seen and brought it together and combined different elements to make their paintings,” she says. “They’re redoing nature in their mind’s eye, and I guess I’m doing that too.”

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Reddish Egret This bird was photographed at Little Estero Lagoon, Fort Myers Beach, Florida. The landscape was also shot in Fort Myers at a different time.

Her subjects come from all over the world. Kenya, Tanzania, Botswana, South Africa, Los Angeles, New Mexico, the Galápagos, Costa Rica, and Brazil are some of the places she’s traveled to photograph birds. She’ll often photograph at a certain place during a certain season to see, for instance, an egret in its mating plumage. “I’ll pick April and May to go to Florida because that’s when they’re in their mating colors,” she says.

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Great Egrets, A Starry Night The egrets were photographed in St. Augustine, Florida, and Devereux Lagoon and Slough, Santa Barbara, California. The night sky was photographed in Hanalei Bay, Kauai.

Some might think that because these images involve Photoshop in their final state that the painstaking work of photographing a bird in the wild is somehow less work. But Medow assures me that capturing these creatures in the wild isn’t for the hurried. “When I go out and shoot birds there’s a real Zen, a meditative state. Patience is something that I think is a wonderful asset to have, and I don’t usually use it in my normal life, so when I go out in the field I can almost zone out. I could sit there for hours waiting for birds to come and go,” she says. “They’re wild. They’re really wild. They can fly away. There’s something about that that’s just intriguing to me.”

See more of Cheryl Medow’s work on her website.

Follow Becky Harlan on Twitter and Instagram.


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