While searching for a toucan in New Jersey for a commercial photo shoot, Claire Rosen stumbled upon Bird Paradise, billed as the world’s largest exotic bird superstore. It turned out they did have a smallish toucan, but it was reported to be a bit cranky and uncooperative, so they recommended Rosen come to the store for a visit to see if the bird would be suitable for the shoot.
What she discovered at the superstore would end up inspiring her series “Birds of a Feather,” a whimsical series of portraits of exotic birds photographed with graphic wallpaper as backgrounds.
“They had so many birds and they were amazing,” Rosen said. “I really wanted to photograph them and not on black and white; I thought wallpaper would be better.”
To convince the store to allow her to photograph the birds, Rosen went home and did a type of screen test and created sample images with a couple of her pet parakeets. Bird Paradise agreed to let her work at the store and Rosen set up a makeshift studio and brought along around 200 sheets of wallpaper from Waterhouse Wallhangings who allowed her to rummage through their scrap pile for samples. She also brought along her friend Tom Pisano to help her handle the birds.
Animals have played a role in a lot of Rosen’s work from a still life series of taxidermied animals to a fantastical series of animals eating around large banquet tables, inspired by The Last Supper.
Rosen’s love for animals began during her childhood. “I’ve always been this way,” she said. “My mom would take me to the zoo, circus and museum of natural history when I was younger and I would beg to stay and would cry when we would have to go home.”
Her upbringing was filled with “bizarre fairy tales and illustrated children’s books” she feels are the creative roots for much of her work. Although Rosen was always interested in art, she never felt comfortable expressing herself visually until she took a photography class in college. “I was like finally,” she said. “I finally have a way of getting all of this stuff out of my head.”
Rosen writes on her website that “Birds of a Feather” includes birds from the common parakeet to the Hyacinth Macaw and that the birds “mirror the careful, self-conscious poses of the human realm in a comical and unexpected way.”
“Posed, the birds begin to anthropomorphize as we attribute human emotion and intent to their expression.”
That sounds easy enough, but anyone who has photographed animals knows that even the most organized shoot doesn’t exactly turn out the way you planned.
“You prepare and set everything up and then you have to surrender and hope for the best since you don’t really know what’s going to happen,” Rosen said. “And what usually happens is a surprise and better than what you thought it would be.”
Rosen said response to “Birds of a Feather” has been extremely positive and one of her most widely seen series, probably due to a mix of beauty and humor and unexpected but complimentary use of wallpaper as the backgrounds.
“I couldn’t stop chuckling when I was editing my images from the shoot,” she recalled. “The birds had such striking different personalities and expressions … I suppose I simply feel happy looking at them.”
“Birds of a Feather” will be exhibited at the Hagedorn Foundation Gallery in Atlanta from Sept. 18 through Nov. 8.