Behind the Scenes: Martha, the last passenger pigeon, for Smithonian Magazine

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Article from this month’s Smithsonian magazine

100 years ago, Martha – the last passenger pigeon on earth – passed away leaving the extinction of a species in her wake. 

A few months ago, I was lucky enough to photograph Martha at the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History Bird Division archives for Smithsonian Magazine.  My assignment was to create a photograph that would memorialize her as she deserved, as the last member of a species that used to be the most populous in North America, to accompany an article commemorating the 100th anniversary of her death.  Jeff Campagna, Smithsonian’s photo editor, contacted me for the project after seeing my fine arts series featuring live bird portraits on wallpaper called, Birds of a Feather.  Between that project as a reference and my love of taxidermy and natural history, this was a dream assignment for me.

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Martha on Thibaut Little Rock Pattern, Historic Homes Vol 7 Collection in Document

The wallpaper background in the image below is a historical reproduction, sourced from Thibaut’s Damask Resource Vol 3 Collection, from around 1914, roughly the same time period that Martha would have taken her final flight.  As you can imagine, photographing a perfectly posed Martha resulted in far fewer ruffled feathers than the shoots with live birds that I typically do!

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Martha posed against Thibaut Mumford Pattern, Damask Resource Vol 3 Collection in Red – I love how this brings out her red feet and eyes

I also wanted to take on the challenge of presenting Martha in a way that would pay homage to her historical importance, and reference imagery from the time period.  I have always loved John James Audubon’s classic illustrations of birds from the Victorian Era. After a few brainstorming sessions and research, I set out to recreate one photographically with Martha.  I started with the image below for inspiration, and then got to work to make it come to life.

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The inspiration illustration for my photograph

Claire Rosen

My resulting photographic image of Martha

After several trips to home depot, various arts & crafts and floral stores I had everything I needed to build this set.  I carved the mountains out of green floral board and added spray paint and texture.  Moss, branches, rocks, clouds from natural cotton and model trees created the final touches and it turns out luckily that Christina Gebhard, is also an expert cloud creator.

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Preparing my mountain before the shoot….

After the stage was set and Martha was in place, I needed to light it to mimic the flat nature of the illustration, while maintaining the detail in the bird.  I accomplished that using two medium soft boxes and a grid on the Dynalite RoadMax Series Kit.  This project was shot with a Canon 5D Mark II.

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It was so great to work with Jeff Campagna from Smithsonian Magazine and of course, Brian Schmidt and Christina Gebhard, the brilliant team of museum specialists at the Smithsonian Institute National Museum of Natural History in the Division of Birds.  Assisting and behind the scenes images courtesy of Drew Gurian.  Thanks guys!!

Click Here to read the fascinating article about Martha in Smithsonian Magazine.

I will be taking over Smithsonian Magazine’s Instagram feed on Saturday the 6th for a week and showing unseen images from my fine art series, Birds of a Feather – to check it out please visit and follow http://instagram.com/smithsonianmagazine

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One response to “Behind the Scenes: Martha, the last passenger pigeon, for Smithonian Magazine

  1. Pingback: Claire Rosen’s Whimisical Portraits Of Birds Photographed Against Vintage Wallpaper | Pen & Feather

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