A Bird Photographer’s Diary

  • A Bird Photographer’s Diary: the Stories Behind the Picture by David Tipling (New Holland, London, 2017).
  • 240 pages, 200 colour and black-and-white photos.
  • ISBN 9781925546125. Hbk, £16.99. Available from the Bookshop from £14.99.

There are many books by bird photographers that attempt to explain how the images were obtained. They are in effect self-help manuals for mere photographic mortals. 

This book by David Tipling is different. He is not so much interested in technique as the reason that his selected photographs appealed to him. It emphasises not the how but the why of the photographer’s art. The pictures thus tell the story of his own 30-year-long aesthetic journey, supplying a sort of biography of the author as an artist. They also explore what he continues to strive to capture in his favourite subjects. 

A quality that comes across repeatedly is Tipling’s willingness to push boundaries. Here are images that are blurry or out of focus, or where the subject is reduced to silhouette, or merely a tiny part of the full picture. Here are Red Knot shown as an amorphous rash of specks over a monochromatic mudflat; or Northern Pintails shot from directly above so that all those lovely patterns and blocks of colour on this fabulous duck become an unfamiliar geometric diagram or map. 

Throughout one recognises that here is a photographer trying to show us something different, to make us look again at birds we presume to know. Some of the images are of geographically remote subjects – Wandering Albatrosses in their end-of-world realm of sea and mountain on South Georgia – or they possess the spectacular chromatic range and plumage of birds of paradise and hummingbirds. Yet Tipling doesn’t need exoticism to make us appreciate the otherness in birds.

There are memorable images of Great Tits on bird feeders or Starlings flying as out-of-focus arrows straight at the viewer’s eye. One of my favourites is a picture of a Eurasian Stone-curlew drinking. Yes, it is a dramatic subject and a bird we seldom see this close. But what is so powerful about the photograph is the emphasis of the bird’s mad, mesmerising, staring eye – as well as an inverted watery reflection of that same weird yellow orb – which is so much a part of the arresting spirit of this beast. 

Before everything, perhaps this photographic collection tells a story about avian beauty. If there is a common denominator underlying all 200 images it is not so much their creator’s aesthetic, as the wonder and mystery inherent in birds themselves. We all know it. It is what drives us into the field. The power of David Tipling’s best work is that it reminds us of this inner motivation which stirs our souls. 

Written by: Mark Cocker