Todd R. Forsgren

Todd R. Forsgren, Green Kingfisher (Chloroceryle americana)


Todd R. Forsgren, Lincoln’s Sparrow (Melospiza lincolnii)


Todd R. Forsgren, Northern Saw-whet Owl (Aegolius acadicus)


Todd R. Forsgren, Ochre-faced Tody-flycatcher (Poecilotriccus plumbeiceps)


Todd R. Forsgren, Prothonotary Warbler (Protonotaria citrea)


Todd R. Forsgren, Rufous-tailed Hummingbird (Amazilia tzacatl)


These photographs depict birds that have been caught in mist nets as part of scientific surveys and ornithological research. During this moment, the birds inhabit a fascinating conceptual space between our framework of ‘the bird in the bush and the bird in the hand.’ The captured creatures are embarrassed, fearful, angry, and vulnerable. I photograph these birds just before the ornithologist removes them from the nets to be weighed and measured—before the bird becomes ‘known’ by these concise numbers—this is a fragile moment. The bird is then released, to disappear back into the woods, and into data these scientists have gathered.

My decision to photograph birds in this way developed from my longstanding interest in bird watching colliding with my studies of biology and art history. The first pieces of artwork I loved were two books full of bird paintings: John James Audubon’s Birds of America and Roger Tory Peterson’s Field Guide to the Birds of Eastern and Central North America. Alongside personal observation, these books were my primary aids in getting to know the birds.

To create his paintings, John James Audubon (1785-1851) shot birds and contorted their bodies into dramatic poses by wiring and pinning them onto boards. The quirky and oftentimes unnatural postures were not immediately popular with the scientific community. Audubon was on a romantic quest, with the goal of painting (and shooting) all the birds in America. Indeed, it was the scope of his quest as well as his skills with the paintbrush that have made Audubon such a famed ornithological painter. Today many bird-watchers share a similar goal to Audubon: to record every species in the country on their personal ‘life lists.’ My photographs are a reflection on this need to personally see, observe, and capture diversity.

My photographs are also a reflection on our desire to name, classify, and quantify diversity. It was Roger Tory Peterson (1908-1996) pioneered the idea of a field guide. His guides highlight observable marks, pointed out by carefully placed arrows, which allow for the identification of birds at a distance. Peterson painted thousands of systematic illustrations of birds in static poses, which he based on photographs, bird skins, and field observations. Field guides have allowed hobbyists, artists, and scientists to identify birds with binoculars instead of a shotgun.

Ornithologists now use mist nets to gather data that cannot be obtained with the help of binoculars, microphones, or telephoto lenses. These nearly invisible nets are set up like fences and function as huge spider webs, catching unsuspecting birds. The researcher carefully extracts the bird from the net. Each bird is then measured, aged, sexed, and banded with an individually numbered anklet. Then the bird is released, back into the wild. I hope that my images are a reflection of the struggle to gain this intimate data and the different ways that this information can be used to create abstract understanding of these species. As the data gathered by scientists grows, it can offer profound insights. When depicted by these complicated numbers, the individual birds become abstracted and we can consider ideas about populations and species. This intimate knowledge is a powerful tool that is used to make decisions about conservation and answer other ecological questions.

Todd R. Forsgren uses photography to examine themes of ecology, environmentalism, and perceptions of landscape while striving to strike a balance between art history and natural history. To do so, Forsgren uses a range of photographic approaches, from documentary strategies to experimental techniques. His work has been shown at numerous venues, including Carroll and Sons, Heiner Contemporary, and Jen Bekman Gallery.  They’ve also been featured in National GeographicSlateWiredThe GuardianNatureNew ScientistTIME’s Lightbox, and 20×200, to name a few.

Aside from making pictures, Todd spends a lot of time teaching photography. He has taught courses at Maryland Institute College of Art, Semester at Sea, St. Mary’s College of Maryland, and George Washington University. Todd studied biology and visual arts at Bowdoin College and he studied photography at School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and J.E. Purkyně University. He was an artist-in-residence at the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology, the Artist’s Enclave at I-Park, and Maryland Hall for Creative Arts and was a Fulbright Fellow in Mongolia.