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Photo Essay
Standing Out
A portrait photographer captures the playful nature of a pageant of avian subjects.


The paintings were claimed by Katrina’s floodwaters, but Catherine Ledner still remembers gazing up at them almost daily when she was a small child. They were miniature copies of works by the 20th-century Mississippi artist Walter Anderson and the 19th-century bird painter John James Audubon that Ledner’s father, Andrew, displayed in a unique collage in the entryway to the mid-century modern house he designed and built for his family in New Orleans.

Looking back, Ledner says Anderson’s depictions of the animals, birds, and insects he encountered in the late 1940s while rowing a small skiff along the shores of the Mississippi Gulf Coast where she grew up, and the way in which Audubon deftly captured his avian subjects in motion—herons stalking fish, red-tailed hawks tumbling through the air with their talons nearly interlocked, pelicans with their mouths agape— had an influence on her most recent work. “They were so alive,” she says. “It was a peek into a completely different world.”

In creating the bird portraits featured on these pages, the 44-year-old Los Angeles–based photographer similarly aimed to capture the natural, often whimsical behavior of birds. “I’m doing the same thing that I would do with a person,” she says. “I’m trying to get the essence of who they are.” A seven-foot-tall ostrich is as stoic and proud as if it were eyeing you from a grassy savanna; a mute swan shifts its hip in a sassy stance that almost hints at its fierce competition with the tundra swans it is displacing in wetlands; and a jackass penguin appears ready to hop right off the page.

With a modernistic perspective that must be embedded in her DNA (her father’s building designs, currently enjoying a new-found following, were once referred to as the “weird white elephants of modernism”), Ledner carefully chooses boldly printed wallpaper backdrops that mimic a bird’s coloring or complement its identity. “In a natural environment, you wouldn’t see them the same way,” she says. “Here they’re standing out on their own. The juxtaposition stops you.”

Of course, when Audubon painted Birds of America, he observed the characters he chose to depict in their natural surroundings, with backdrops of grasses, branches, sky, and water. By taking them out of their native element in this 21st-century portrayal to distill her birds’ personalities, Ledner reminds us of where they belong.—Rene Ebersole

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Striking a Pose
More animal portraits from the November-December photo essay.

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