By Rob McDonald
Horse & Buggy Press, Limited Edition
Photographer Rob McDonald has been stalking the birdhouses of South Carolina and Virginia. His new book, Birdhouses, produced by Durham's Horse & Buggy Press, celebrates bookmaking as an art form. At $125, this gallery of birdhouse images has the price tag of an art piece, though it's one that is more likely to adorn your coffee table than hang on your wall.
Cleverly reminiscent of the door in a birdhouse, an understated cover made of brown textured paper with a simple black circle welcomes us into the book. McDonald provides a short but illuminating explanation of his craft, describing both the artistic effects of the Holga toy camera he used to photograph the avian structures and the "dangerous territory" of clichés and stereotypes one navigates when documenting the agrarian South. McDonald admits he's not a birdwatcher, and even the owners of some of the birdhouses he photographs aren't either. Moreover, the birds themselves are often unseen, and several of their dwellings have long been vacant of any avian occupants. The collection compels us to see these birdhouses as small relics of human interaction with the land and nature—what McDonald describes as "the avian equivalents of vernacular architecture found along backroads."
The images have the old-time feel of sepia-toned photographs. You can see a warp or a blur on the outer edges of some, one effect of the Holga, which provides a sense of motion as if the viewer has a bird's perspective swooping toward a tiny house nestled in a larger landscape. McDonald thinks his use of the Holga infuses these commonplace images with fresh uncertainty. One of the more clever photographs, titled "Nonconformist," portrays a birdhouse attached to a tree directly below a "private property" sign and above an old-fashioned barbwire fence. The birdhouse sits on the edge of a property line, a simultaneous invitation for birds and an order for human beings to stay away. Another photo, titled "Last Resort," demonstrates human ingenuity with a laundry line of hanging gourds, each with the requisite circular entryway, inviting birds to convene on the porch of the personhouse in the background.
Its limited-edition press run, peculiar subject matter and signed, gelatin silver print in a vellum envelope at the back of every copy makes Birdhouses a rarity—the ivory-billed woodpecker of books. Why does a book like this exist? When McDonald asked one of these birdhouse makers why he creates birdhouses, he received a simple answer: "I guess I just like the idea of birds." Maybe McDonald just liked the idea of birdhouses.
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