Rob McDonald’s ongoing series of photographs, Southern Places, includes a portfolio of images of birdhouses that he views as meditations on place and home. This photo essay features eighteen photographs made between 2002 and 2006. A narrative explains McDonald’s approach to photography and this portfolio in particular and a regional map identifies the locations of the birdhouses shown in the photographs.
When we examine a nest, we place ourselves at the origin of confidence in the world.
—Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space1
|Rob McDonald, Lexington, Virginia.|
I am not a birdwatcher, and except for a crow's cawing, I'm hardly able to distinguish one native bird's voice from another in the raucous chorus my family hears from our deck in southwest Virginia. We love the colors of that chorus and the flitting entertainment, though, so I keep three feeders year-round. My younger daughter, Emma, startled us last spring when she reached upward as a sparrow shot from an oak tree, her hands cupped as if to catch rain, and said her first word: burrr.
Despite my ignorance of birds, I have made many photographs of birdhouses that accumulate in a series called Southern Places. I take most of the photographs with a Holga, a "toy" camera that some serious photographers, in this age of digital refinement, appreciate for the imprecision and unpredictability of its simple plastic lens. Light leaks and lens flares contribute to "soft" negatives that make prints with an ancient, meditative cast consistent with the subject of the series: the suggestiveness of place. Holga images can make familiar scenes abstract, and common subjects fresh.
The photographs in this series record moments when light and subject converge in a particular place, calling for attention, and imbuing scenes with significance. Having lived my life in the US South, growing up in rural South Carolina as a descendent of generations of subsistence farmers on both sides of my family, I am most drawn to subjects connected to the agrarian past. This is dangerous territory, where a large and seductive catalogue of clichés and stereotypes tempts at every turn. That is why I have chosen equipment and photographic processes that deny the certainty of surfaces.
I made my first birdhouse pictures one oppressively hot afternoon in July 2002 when we were home visiting my family in South Carolina. Walking near a grapevine that my father had planted along a wire fence, I noticed that the vine's lush leaves had ensconced a bluebird house he'd nailed to the top of a post. The day was overcast, but enough light fell on the house that it caught my eye—such a quiet, cool, and safe-seeming spot. Towering lightly but distinctly in the distance, and in stark contrast to the lushness of the grapevine, were skeletons of old sweetgums that had died that year. Once, these trees had stood on the banks of two farm ponds, connected by a canal, but they had not survived the disturbance of their roots when one of my uncles drastically reshaped the landscape to make the two ponds one. The contrast between birdhouse and backdrop seemed significant, and framing it in the Holga's viewfinder, I saw sanctuary against foreboding change. Inspired, I walked across the yard and photographed a periscope-looking house emerging from an apparent wilderness, then back toward the unfamiliar new pond. As many times as I had seen the purple martin house and gourd tree there together, they seemed on this day desperately vacant.
Meditations on home. How else to explain the accumulation of nearly thirty photographs of birdhouses in the catalogue of a forty-two-year-old photographer who is the only member of his family to have moved outside a thirty-mile radius?
These birdhouses, with one or two exceptions, were made by local people who placed them, often quite intriguingly, in their yards. Constructed of unfinished and unadorned materials, they are avian equivalents of the vernacular architecture found along backroads. Birds live, or have lived, in some of the houses, but not all. Some have sat vacant since they were installed, their builders leaving them as decoration, or suggestion. I have learned that birdhouse builders often don’t know much more about birds than I do; they may not recognize the difference between the songs of a cardinal and a nuthatch. But as one said when I asked why he creates birdhouses and places them in his yard, "I guess I just like the idea of birds."
Pines in the distance begin to brighten,
deep blue to something like green.
Everything winged must be dreaming.
—Susan Ludvigson, "Grace"2
Locations of McDonald's Photographs
(Each birdhouse stands for one image in the essay.)
North American Bird Sounds
Smithsonian Institution Guide to North American Bird Songs and Sounds
Bachelard, Gaston. The Poetics of Space. New York: Orion Press, 1964.
Ludvigson, Susan. "Grace." Everything Winged Must Be Dreaming. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1993.
Kroodsma, Donald. The Singing Life of Birds: The Art and Science of Listening to Birdsong. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2005.