James Bond's "Birds of the West Indies"
(My well worn copy of the guide book)
In the early 1970's, my father - Arthur Singer (1917-1990), who was a well known bird painter worked with a couple of other artists on a revised edition of the book (above) called "Birds of the West Indies". This book was the original creation of an artist and ornithologist named James Bond and thus begins a remarkable story. This publication happened to attract Ian Fleming who was in the Caribbean writing a spy thriller and he needed a name for his leading man. Ian Fleming was a birdwatcher, and he became enamored by the name on his guide book: James Bond - which he felt was low key in comparison to the thrilling events that would surround the life of his character - 007. So a star was born when Ian Fleming wrote the first James Bond story while the real James Bond labored on in the shadows, continuing to paint portraits of birds, and record their lives for those of us who like to identify what they see on the wing. Over the years many James Bond spy movies have since been made, and the Bond character became world famous.
The artist James Bond on the left, Ian Fleming on the right from
from the exhibition "Birds of the West Indies" by Taryn Simon
So, it was surprising to find myself at The George Eastman Museum the other day, looking over an extensive show titled: "Birds of the West Indies" and it is all about documentary photography and how to organize it. There is a large vitrine in the center of the main exhibition that includes photos of bird study skins, and letters from the ornithologist James Bond, as well as a photo of the artist meeting the writer Ian Fleming. Also in the vitrine are a couple of early editions of the guide book that this exhibition is named after, so there is a lot of cross-referencing going on here ( such a strange loop ).
Taryn Simon, documentary photos of birds
at George Eastman Museum
Oh, did I say that the exhibition of photos is actually the work of Taryn Simon?
Taryn is the photographer, and she is married to a film director - Jake Paltrow. Why is this important? Because the walls in the first gallery room are filled with action shots that look like stills from a spy movie ( with backgrounds like the parks of Istanbul ). Any birds in these photos are almost incidental - just part of the scenery - and the only qualifier is a caption for each shot that notes where the photo was made and precisely what time ( thank you digital metrics! ). In large part this first room looks like a story board and reference materials for what will be the main feature.
"Crab Key, Caribbean Sea"
The photos by Taryn Simon in this first room are all in black and white and they lend the show a bit of newspaper-ish neutrality. It isn't until you walk into the next room where you see that a fleet of similar sized works fill the space - albeit in a single line around the perimeter - and these photos are in color and are more specific. So we have gone from the general to the particular - and this is where the guide book mentality comes around again.
Taryn Simon's photographic portraits- the women who portray
characters in the James Bond movies
Women, weapons, and cars seem to be the central theme in this second gallery. Evidently, Taryn Simon wanted to get all of the ladies ( think BIRDS ) who have played important roles in the James Bond films to come forward and pose for a photo, and most complied. I imagine that it was a bit of a chore finding the cars and other props to add to this deck of cards. Each photo shows one person or one item isolated from anything else - like the birds in a guide book. In this regard, Taryn Simon takes the guide book lesson a bit too far. I know this from first hand experience.
The Golden Guide to "Birds of North America"
In the late 1970's I worked with my father, Arthur on the revised guide book to "Birds of North America", and we painted little environments for the birds ( see the cover above ) showing them in vignettes against a white background so their characteristics were identifiable. Ms. Simon is so strict, that only the women she photographs get to be seen against white backgrounds, while the tools of the spy trade are seen poking out of the darkness. The photos themselves are sharp and factual, and the artist takes the time to organize them like playing cards. Some images are repeated like the refrain in an old song ( Goldfinger?). What I miss in all this are the interrelationships that I found in some of the other projects from Ms. Simon like her Whitney Museum show of "An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar". What is missing in this present show of taxonomy is a little drama, but maybe the premise of a scientific line-up of stars wouldn't have seemed so stark, so undeniable.
From Taryn Simon's "Birds of the West Indies"
George Eastman Museum,
Rochester, New York