This story appears in the August 2016 issue of National Geographic magazine.
Jogging in Boston 11 years ago, artist Todd Forsgren spied the remains of a black-crowned night heron entangled in a chain-link fence. Struck by the contrast of the bird’s silhouette against the gridlike wires, he suddenly envisioned a unique way to photograph birds.
“Both of my parents are birders,” Forsgren says. “My earliest memory of art is looking through the works of John James Audubon and Roger Tory Peterson.” Inspired by the night heron, Forsgren set out to create a series of photographs that integrated Audubon’s famously flamboyant illustrations with Peterson’s pragmatic field-guide images.
Working closely with ornithological researchers, Forsgren traveled across the Americas from 2006 to 2014, making portraits of birds temporarily caught in mist nets—finely woven nylon nets hung between two posts. During this time he documented 57 species in the continental United States and Puerto Rico, Mexico, Costa Rica, and Brazil. The first bird he photographed was a white-crowned sparrow in California.
Scientists who work with mist nets check them regularly, typically every 20 to 30 minutes. Bruce Peterjohn, chief of the Bird Banding Laboratory at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, says it’s an effective technique to temporarily capture birds for study. He says that less than one percent of birds caught in mist nets are injured or killed when scientific experts are involved (unlike when hunters use the nets, often illegally).
When a bird is caught, Forsgren quickly sets up his portable studio. He uses a white cloth for the background and a photographic light with reflectors to evenly illuminate his subjects. After he’s finished, trained mist-net operators carefully extract the bird from the net, measure and weigh it, identify its species, and sometimes band its leg. Then the bird flies away.
By gaining insight into different species this way, Peterjohn says, scientists can identify key information and trends—songbird migration routes, for instance, or species demographics and the reasons for a population’s decline—that help bird conservation.
Forsgren says such research is vital to understanding what’s happening to avian populations. But he also hopes his work will get people to identify with the birds as individuals. “I want to create photographs that very concretely consider individual birds,” he says. “I definitely want people to empathize with these creatures.”
While that empathy may make it difficult for some people to look at these photographs, Forsgren says, his art is ultimately inspired by science. “I want to show these beautiful, scientific encounters to celebrate the important research that is happening.”
Todd Forsgren grew up along the shores of Lake Erie, just west of Cleveland, Ohio, along a major migratory bird flyway. John James Audubon’s monograph Birds of America and Roger Tory Peterson’s Field Guide to the Birds of Eastern and Central North America were the first pieces of artwork he loved. He spent days studying and trying to emulate Peterson and Audubon as a bird-watching teenager. In addition to his bird photographs, Todd has spent much of his time photographing urban and community-based agriculture projects in the U.S. and Cuba.