For Leila Jeffreys, emotional connection isn’t reserved for humans. It’s a currency that flows between creatures who share the natural world. The artist, 47, has spent the last decade taking portraits of birds, affording her avian subjects a dignity and complexity that’s as rare as it is visually distinctive. She once met a bird called Seisa, a palm cockatoo with a red cheek patch, crowned with a jaunty thatch of black feathers. The encounter changed her for good.
“When I was setting up my equipment, she was quite shy, so I had to see if she was happy for me to work with her,” Jeffreys says. “I gave her nuts and she came closer to me. By the end of the day she was nuzzling my neck. I cried because it was such a profound moment. [She was] just an animal wanting to see what this other weird animal was doing.”
Jeffreys often teams up with conservationists, ornithologists, and sanctuaries to determine her subjects before bringing them to a studio. When they’re together, the Australian photographer focuses on their personalities, hoping to capture their idiosyncratic tendencies. The result is intimate and engaging photographs at a human-scale, a choice that strays from traditional portraiture by centering a different species.
Many of the elegant portraits here are included in Jeffreys’ recently released book, Des oiseaux, and you can explore a larger collection of photographs available for purchase on her site. Otherwise, keep up with her feathered frames on Instagram and watch this arresting footage of the birds in action.
Jeffrey’s most recent series is entitled High Society and marks a return to her original feathery subjects. The series explores the flock as a community, and the relationships between the budgerigars are on magnificent display.
For High Society, Jeffreys sought to draw parallels between the communities formed by both birds and humans. “The idea came from observing flocks of birds in trees,” she explains. “From a distance the birds are hard to distinguish, they look like leaves, but when you look up close you can see that there’s actually an entire society of birds living up there, living their own lives.” Jeffreys has built her artistic practice on highlighting the individuality of each bird within the crowd. By creating larger-than-life prints of her feathered friends, the photographer asks her audience to confront the subjects as individuals that are as unique as humans themselves.
Bluey and Liquorice
Speaking about her work’s conservation message, Jeffreys says, “Humans sometimes need reminding that we are not the only species on this planet; that it’s our responsibility to ensure that there are places for the other species we share the planet with to live and thrive.”
Photographer Leila Jeffreys takes intimate and emotional portraits of birds, including cockatoos, budgerigars, and hawks.
River and Cloudy
In her 2019 book How to Do Nothing, the American artist Jenny Odell writes about how regular visits from crows, a species that can recognise faces, remind her that she’s a human animal. Life in the big city, often contained within cafes and apartments and busy public transport, makes it easy to forget other creatures could see us as part of their landscape. But when you spend time with Jeffreys, this feels like fact. Today, Jeffreys, who’s wearing a rust-coloured sweater and neat black sneakers, leads me along one of her favourite walks, a hidden pocket of bushland near Wolli Creek, where fairy wrens and tawny frogmouths alight on towering Sydney Red Gums. The air around us is sweet with wattle and Jeffreys’ dog, Ronnie Barker, scampers ahead, paws skating gleefully down sandstone outcrops.
Her most recent series, High Society, contemplates the flock as a community while highlighting the birds as individuals within their relationships.
Jeffreys shows me the spot, high up in the mangroves, that until recently was home to a colony of bats that have migrated elsewhere for the summer. She’s preparing herself for her most ambitious exhibition yet, High Society, which opens at Sydney’s Olsen Gallery in October and New York’s Olsen Gruin in November. The show, years in the making, is a study of flocks and, fittingly enough, Jeffreys’ warm and effusive conversation is full of interesting digressions about the way birds create communities.
She recently spent time in the Arctic Circle, at the invitation of British explorer Dr Huw Lewis-Jones. There, she became obsessed with the skua, a predatory seabird that flies between the equators.
Jeffreys has spent a decade researching and photographing birds, many of which have been rescued and rehabilitated.
Blue Blossoms 2
“Nature that pristine permeates your bones,” she says, raking her hand through chin-length black hair. “On Fair Isle, I was in awe of skuas – they land in front of you and pretend to have a broken wing to lure you away from their nest. Sometimes it’s not about how extraordinary birds are, but the experience you have with them.”
Jeffreys’ friend and colleague, painter James McGrath, says the artist’s empathy for birds is bound up in her artistic rigour.
“Leila will go to some small island and live with the birds and connect with the scientists and volunteers and there’s so much emotional intelligence there,” he says. “People want a connection with nature; it is essential to their soul. Her works are that window. She is a very underrated Australian artist – she is an international artist, yet she’s not even seen sometimes as an artist. Her gaze is not just the gaze of someone describing things. I think the birds know it because [in her images] they are almost smiling at her.”
Jeffreys was born in Papua New Guinea and grew up in Perth. Her father, who was from the Isle of Man in England, met her mother in India. His aversion to cities, she says, meant that life played out in wild places: a houseboat in Kashmir, an Indian village called Nasrapur and later, Collie, Western Australia, where Jeffreys tuned in to the wrens and Carnaby’s black cockatoos native to the area. “In Nasrapur there were buffaloes and monkeys, and my grandad bought a bush block near a dam in Collie that became our family weekender,” she says. “My dad would take us to all these places and make us climb mountains and all we wanted to do was watch television. But he always valued what my brother and I thought.”
Jeffreys took a photography course at Curtin University, then moved to London where she worked at Tower Records and started freelancing as a music photographer. Back in Australia, she relocated to Sydney to study photography at Ultimo Tafe, started photographing bands (“I remember hating it!”) and took a job as a photo editor at ACP, now Bauer Media. “Up until that point I’d never taken a photo that I was proud of,” she says.
I wanted to photograph a budgie the way I would photograph people and when I started it wasn’t for the world, it was just for me.
Aged 38 and pregnant with her son, Vincent, Jeffreys found her mind kept returning to budgerigars, those long-tailed Australian parrots that were a mainstay of suburban households in the ’80s and ’90s.
By portraying birds as worthy, beautiful, and emotional individuals, Jeffreys’ work asks viewers to consider the moral imperatives of environmental conservation.
She got in touch with Warren Wilson, the president of the Budgerigar Rare and Specialist Exhibitors of Australia, and built a miniature studio where she could photograph a budgie as if it were human. Her first-ever exhibition, Portrait of a Budgerigar, showed at the Iain Dawson Gallery in Paddington. The 2010 series of images showed budgies with ice-blue and yellow-green feathers, every fibre rendered in exquisite detail. Best of all, the budgies’ expressions – cheery, playful, serious – tapped into something human and avian. The show hit a nerve.
“I wanted to photograph a budgie the way I would photograph people and when I started it wasn’t for the world, it was just for me,” says Jeffreys, who blows her portraits up to human size. “My dad and I built prototypes of a bird’s studio and it had a little perch, seeds as catering and Perspex, so I could light from the outside. If you could make the bird comfortable, you could [capture] their pose and expressions. I didn’t study art, so I didn’t understand the art world, but when the show opened it resonated with so many people. People started telling me stories about what they would see in the birds. It was like being a kid again.”
The art world can have an uneasy relationship with beauty, with images that appeal too broadly to a wide audience. The deceptive simplicity of Jeffreys’ images belies the labour it takes to create them. The artist spends years building relationships with conservation centres, making field trips to far-flung places, honing the artistry and empathy that’s necessary to capture animals that are by nature wild and ephemeral.
But although the process requires a lot of research and trial and error, it’s part of a larger artistic mission – one that galvanises the viewer to pay closer attention and to see the extraordinary in the ordinary flying creatures that flit between trees and perch on our windows as we go about our days. For Bileola – Wild Cockatoos, her 2012 show at Tim Olsen Gallery, Jeffreys photographed every species of cockatoo in Australia – Seisa, the palm cockatoo, yes, but also Bob, a long-billed corella with beak agape mid-laughter, and Matilda, a dusty-pink Major Mitchell’s cockatoo with head plumage that looks almost regal.
“People just don’t see cockatoos properly – they are very social and funny, and have so many expressions but, because in Australia we live with them, we don’t think like that,” says Jeffreys. Her 2017 exhibition Ornithurae, a series that challenged perceptions about pigeons, showed at the artist’s London gallery Purdy Hicks and was hosted at New York’s Olsen Gruin Gallery by the actor Brooke Shields, who collects Jeffreys’ work. “I worked with Kaarakin, a rescue centre in Western Australia, and there are so many stories – there’s been so much clearing and cockatoos are losing their homes,” Jeffreys says.
In Helen Macdonald’s book H is for Hawk, a goshawk called Mabel stands in for all that is wild and untameable, beyond the edge of human experience. Jeffreys’ 2014 series Prey features a procession of falcons and owls and hawks with round eyes and hooked beaks. Their sense of mystery is only heightened when you view their faces up close.
“Leila’s work is part of a lineage of artists that reveal the natural world, allowing us to glimpse the complexity and beauty that surrounds us,” says Danny Lacy, senior curator at Mornington Peninsula Regional Gallery, who curated Jeffreys’ work for the 2017 exhibition Birds: Flight Paths in Australian Art. “Every opportunity we have to reflect on the creatures we share this planet with is connected to the health of their natural habitats and the broader ecologies we depend on.”
According to 2018 figures from the national Threatened Bird Index, the population of endangered birds in Australia has halved over the last three decades. Does Jeffreys feel her work is more urgent, given that we’re living through the Age of Extinction? “It’s what drives me,” she replies. Back at the sunny Marrickville home she shares with her son and husband, Jeffreys shows me an iPhone image of her second-ever video work, Nature is not a place to visit. It is home, a centrepiece of the new exhibition. It was a huge logistical undertaking, she says, involving 300 budgies and the world’s most advanced slow-motion camera. I watch the work at Sydney Contemporary, a triptych in which budgies fly between boughs and branches with a grace that feels near-liquid and a bird shakes its head from side to side, feathers moving like wind through grass, as if dialling back the pace of a creature in motion is a way to stop time.
Lately, Jeffreys has become fixated with photographing an albatross, a species vulnerable to the melting of ice caps, as part of a series on seabirds that’s become newly important since she returned from the Arctic.
“I have to wait until there’s an [albatross] in care so it might be eight years before I show it,” she says. “I think it is important not to catastrophise because you become ineffective. [It’s about] what you fight for, how you do everything that you can.”
Leila Jeffreys’ High Society is on exhibition at the Olsen Gallery, Woollahra from Wednesday, October 16 until Saturday, November 9. Bird Nerd: The Art Of Leila Jeffreys is now available on ABC iView. A screening and Q&A event will be held on Saturday, October 19 from 6pm at the gallery.