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Where Birds Live.

True to its title, the 90 or so color pictures in this book are of birds' nests, birdhouses, and their immediate surroundings: jungles, forests, plains, fields, farms, suburban backyards, and urban rooftops. After turning only a few pages, the reader feels certain that what sustained Eve Sonneman's curiosity and delight throughout this ambitious project, which took her to Asia, Europe, and the Americas, was the impressive, almost fabulous variety of forms these avian structures take, from hanging flycatcher's nests in Venezuela (they look like horses' tails) to ornate bird cages in flea markets to apartment-house pigeon coops built in the same geometric, nearly Cubist style as the jammed-up urban skyline around them.

The impulses that also led Sonneman to photograph bird watchers, displays of edible birds' nests in Asian stores, and paintings of birds in nature sanctuaries are fanciful, poetic, and idiosyncratic--for these subjects, unrelated to where or how birds live, lie outside the strictly taxonomic definition of the project.

As a photographer Sonneman is an able and often an affecting maker of lyrical sketches. I recall with particular pleasure a group of color pictures of flowers she showed in the mid '80s. Though graphically bold, they demonstrated the sensitivity to color and delicate touch of a skilled watercolorist. Indeed, in her earliest street work the figures often have the look of rapid, deft brushwork. In Where Birds Live, the strongest pictures in this style are of birds themselves. Caught in flight, and therefore slightly blurred, they inscribe lovely gestural passages across out-of-focus pastel backgrounds of forest and marsh. Sonneman is best with flocks of birds, seeing in their natural groupings--at rest and in flight--friezes and figure groups: seeing, that is, the same instinct toward aesthetic form she finds in the architecture of their natural and man-made homes.

And so the pictures of birds here (a good third of the book) are both charged with information and arrestingly beautiful. Unfortunately, the pictures of the nests and houses, while also charged with information, most often lack this beauty of execution. They also lack the affect of her more poetic work, perhaps due to the mistaken choice of an expository style.

While Sonneman is best with living things--people, flowers, and birds, the dryness that detracts from many of her expository pictures of nests and birdhouses is not an inevitable consequence of this stylistic choice. Guy Davenport's selections from studies in taxonomy by the great 19th-century naturalist Louis Agassiz attest this, and the steel-plate engravings illustrating Agassiz's text show that studies of biological forms can also be aesthetically moving.

Ben Lifson is a writer living in Hudson, New York.
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Author:Lifson, Ben
Publication:Artforum International
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1993
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