In 1820 John James Audubon decided to paint every bird in North America. His aim was to realize lifesize portraits of each bird and, in order to do that, he had to adopt a large sheet of paper, called ‘double elephant folio’, measuring 39 by 26 inches (99 by 66 cm). Some big birds like flamingos or herons, though, couldn’t fit even on such a format, but Audubon always found an elegant way to make them fit into the page. By using wiring and threads to hold the dead bird in life-like position, he kept documenting the flying fauna of North America with incredible accuracy and talent. Animated by a nomadic, practical spirit, he painted with watercolors and crayons in place of oil, and he completed his work in thirteen years.
Evolution is based on imitation and in fact fashion photography is now following – two hundred years later – Audubon’s muddy steps. Models, like modern birds, are twisted, bent and curved to fit within the page in order to present us, as big as possible, the advertised item in all its splendor. In both cases, the difference between nature and its representation is based on the very limits of composition: no matter how big you imagine your picture, art always imposes its edge. A reminder to human beings: life can imitate life. But not God.
To see a full resolution, digitalized version of Audubon’s work, please visit the University of Pittsburgh’s Library.