There’s not really a bird that divides opinion as much as a pigeon does. Some people really, really hate them, muttering “rats with wings” as they swoop past in public places. Others see them as a brief flittering memory of wildlife in built up cities like London, Paris or in photographer Andrew Garn’s case, New York.
As they’re omnipresent in our daily lives, Andrew appears to take notice of every pigeon that passes, taking note of the feather colours of each and thinking about them in wider sense of the urban ecosystem. His fascination with pigeons has grown stronger and stronger, culminating in a new edition by PowerHouse books, The New York Pigeon: Behind the Feathers.
Portraying pigeons like high profile models, Andrew’s photographs display each bird’s individualism rather than the mass flock we usually see them within. Below, in his own words, Andrew tells us how this growing interest in pigeons developed, his approach to photographing each bird without it escaping, and the affect his photography has had on a growing group of pigeon fans.
When did you become interested in pigeons?
It basically started on an idea. I had never really thought much about pigeons before honestly, except for getting pooped on, which is strange considering I grew up in Manhattan. I imagine that their ubiquity made them invisible.
After the first day of photographing them I knew I was on to something, I felt a real affinity for them as their splendour and intelligence became revealed. Photographing them in mid-flight really hooked me, because slowing down and freezing their movements exhibited their graceful flight patterns.
Why New York pigeons in particular?
Pigeons around the world seem to all vary slightly. In New York we have a pretty broad spectrum of colouring because bred pigeons (from coops) have lost their way, end up hanging out with a flock, and they will start inter-breeding. The pigeons I have seen in Siberia are generally grey and black and very large, perhaps they have to be bigger to survive the brutal winters. While in India this winter, I got to see my first real wild pigeons, they live up in the high, dry mountains of Rajasthan. It was remarkable how homogenous they were – all Blue Bars! The pigeons I have seen in Paris, London and Lisbon are fairly similar to New York pigeons, you have a wider genetic range. Pigeons are unique in that you get a lot of variation in the species from pure white to pure back and every colour in between, a testament to human’s hand in tweaking them.
What was your approach and set-up to photographing the pigeons? Was there certain situations you wanted to place them within?
My first shoot was in a pigeon coop, then I moved to the street using a makeshift studio in box. It was very difficult to control lighting, and to catch pigeons, so I decided to bring my equipment to where the pigeons were. I would bring a studio with me, camera, black backdrop, lights and reflectors, this gave me much more control.
In 2012, the Wild Bird Fund opened its doors, and I contacted the director Rita McMahon about photographing some of the convalescing pigeons. Coincidentally, she had seen an art exhibit I did on pigeons that included photographs, video, and live pigeons, so she knew of my work and welcomed me to visit. A majority of pigeons in the book were patients at the WBF and it is there that I really bonded with a pigeon community, becoming a NYS licensed wild-life rehabilitator. I still catch wounded birds throughout the city and bring them there for care.
What side to pigeons do you hope your book portrays?
I hope that by looking at these photographs, viewers will simply realise how beautiful pigeons really are. I believe that their personalities and intelligence is easy to see. The book also details the 5,000 year history of pigeons living alongside of humans.
For many New Yorkers (and city dwellers throughout the world) the only wildlife we get to see are squirrels or pigeons. I suspect that these common animals can become the “gateway drug” to nature for many city residents. This theory is backed by the university study called The Pigeon Paradox, which posits that pigeons are the only real nature people in cities are exposed to, and how important that is to the appreciation and enjoyment of the natural world in general.
I am always amazed at the broad diversity of people feeding pigeons in my local park – from high school students to older pensioners. Through exhibitions of my photographs and other presentations, I have happily converted many people to the world of pigeon appreciation. Many people have told me, unsolicited, that “I never liked pigeons, but now that I have seen your photos, I have a newfound appreciation for them.”
About the Author
Lucy (she/her) joined It’s Nice That as a staff writer in July 2016 after graduating from Chelsea College of Art. In January 2019 she was made deputy editor and in November 2021, became a senior editor predominantly working on It’s Nice That's partnerships. Feel free to get in contact with Lucy about creative projects for the site or potential partnerships.